Colombo Telegraph

Thoughts On Race Relations In The US & Sri Lanka

By Mano Ratwatte

Mano Ratwatte

The defining fact for two generations of Sri Lankans (or Ceylonese if you prefer) has been the strife between the island’s two primary ethnic groups since independence from the British. Many erudite scholars, political scientists and historians have examined the causes of this conflict. Some say it all began in 1956 and others say it began well before that. This is 2015. A hellish war, which lasted well over twenty years has ended. But still the barriers between the two major communities still exist; attempts to break those barriers are stymied primarily, in the opinion of this writer, by the lack of a common link language. These are just personal thoughts of an émigré and not views of qualified experts. The writer is also thankful to a brilliant gentleman for helping him edit this opinion column.

Race relations in the USA – some history

Race relations in this writers adopted country, the United States of America, have a darker and much deeper history. Created by the unimaginable horror of “industrial” slavery, divisions and discrimination has survived the emancipation (official freeing of all slaves in the USA) of 1862. The hated “Jim Crow” laws, which ensured that Blacks (the preferred term these days is ‘African American’ but for the purposes of this article we will use the older term) continued to be relegated to a lower place in society, persisted over a hundred years since that date. Finally the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, brought about a significant change that eased the plight of the Black people in the Southern USA considerably.

After decades of post civil rights healing however, race relations in the US have taken a turn for the worse recently. A Federal Department of Justice report released on March 3rd, 2015 on riots in Ferguson Missouri, reveals that African Americans were profiled and targeted by law enforcement authorities for just being black. This is not a surprise. In many corners of the US, Blacks including wealthy ones, are still profiled and targeted for harassment. Unlike in Sri Lanka, both Black and White communities speak the same language, but they are distinct racial groups with a history of systemic discrimination by law. (In the case of Sri Lanka, harassment of innocent Tamils for just being Tamils, was made worse by not having a common language.)

The Southern Sates and Racism

In the southern states of the USA Blacks didn’t have the right to vote until the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. People had to fight for that right; various obstacles were placed to stop them from registering to vote. Under Jim Crow, Blacks were considered “separate but equal” but in practice they were never equal and were viewed culturally as inferior to Whites; such deep seated biases are dissipating but disturbingly are still very prevalent.

The crimes of July 1983 were a watershed for our country | pic by Chandraguptha Amarasingha – A Tamil boy stripped naked and later beaten to death by Sinhala youth in Boralla gustation – 1983 July

Before the civil war, legally a Black person (whether Free or a Slave) was considered only to be worth 3/5ths the value of a white person as per the Constitutional convention treaty of 1787. This was done not only for tax purposes, but for the explicit purpose of limiting democratic representation in the legislative assemblies1. That measure was only repealed by the 13th Amendment to the US constitution which abolished slavery and was ratified in 1865. The 14th Amendment, ratified in 1868 that included the privileges and immunities clause, applicable to all citizens, and the due process and equal protection clauses applicable to all persons. The Fifteenth Amendment, (proposed in 1869 and ratified in 1870) prohibits discrimination in voting rights of citizens on the basis of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude. Despite all these laws though, Blacks continued to be discriminated against quite openly. For the longest time even after the civil war ended Blacks could not even sit at the same table as Whites in many parts of the USA. This is similar to how some caste based societies function even today, where so called “lower castes” are still not allowed equal access or equal rights by practice or even enter through the front door of residences of upper class Hindu families. Brahmin war refugees were housed, schooled and fed separately from the rest of the Tamils after 2009 by the military.

Deep seated racist or casteist views can be found in almost every society. They are wrong and immoral but deeply entrenches biases don’t disappear overnight be they in Sri Lanka or the USA. Atrocities against Black people were commonplace in the Southern USA. Lynching (extra-judicial murders) was commonplace. Even mass murder was tolerated, examples are the terrorist bombing of a Church in Alabama (Birmingham, 1963 where 4 innocent children were killed by Christian racist Whites) or the attacks, disappearances and murders of civil rights activists in the 1950s and 1960s. Very rarely did a White get prosecuted for murder and assault of a Black person those days. The identities of the terrorists responsible for killing the girls in that church were known almost immediately, but no action was taken until the State of Alabama decided to prosecute them in 1977! There were several such cases which never saw light of day. In protests following the church bombing two other black men were killed; one by the police and one by White supremacists.

These attacks go back in history. America’s equivalent of the heinous state-instigated pogrom of Black July 1983, took place in 1921 in prosperous Tulsa, Oklahoma the state this writer considered home for a long period . Racially motivated violence killed an estimated 300 black people. There homes and shops burnt. The victims were mostly from the prosperous black business community in Greenwood, then known as the Black Wall Street. This heinous crime was the result of economic envy and wiped out the most prosperous black middle class community in the USA. State and local law enforcement officials were complicit in this attack. Not one person was brought to justice and no official apology to black people was offered only in 2013, when the Police chief of that city issued a long overdue request for forgiveness. According to eye witness accounts some members of the Tulsa police force openly participated in arson and murder. Yet no Governor of the State of Oklahoma has ever accepted responsibility for allowing that crime against humanity, or apologized to the victims. There are many similar race riots where whites attacked black people in Florida, Illinois and other states with impunity over time. Tulsa was one of the worst.

The incidents of documented targeted attacks on Blacks by Whites in the 19th century are even greater. Incidents of lynching occurred all the way into the 1940s. Lynching of Black men were treated as picnics to be viewed by thousands of gleeful whites. Picture postcards were even made with photos of such lynchings; mailed in glee or sold as souvenirs. A powerful book “Without Sanctuary” documents these horrific incidents that have haunted the US for a long time.

Parallels in Sri Lanka

The crimes of July 1983 were a watershed for our country. The UNP government of the day stood by and did nothing, as carnage was unleashed for a week. These were the all powerful days of virtual dictatorship by Parliamentary writ.

President JRJ did much to transform Sri Lanka by, opening the economy, bringing in foreign investments and re-setting the outdated stagnant socialist economy. But unfortunately, the legacies his government will be remembered for, is the responsibility for attacks on Tamils after 1977 and the reckless antagonizing of India in the field of foreign policy. It was his government which also gave us this constitution, which is proving to be such a hindrance to democracy. It was also his regime that silenced the democratic representation by Tamils by engineering the removal of the TULF from Parliament. However noxious or unpalatable a person’s political view is it was foolish for the UNP to expel the TULF from Parliament. In the absence of a viable opposition, many mistakes are made due to hubris and overconfidence.

The deliberate targeting of minorities (Tamils primarily) by the gangs from the majority communities, resulted in the beginning of a period of carnage and terrorism and grief. Terrified people fleeing to India and becoming refugees putting greater political pressure on the Indian Central government to intervene in Sri Lanka. Please note, except for the horrible riots in 1958 where there were victims of both communities, all targeted attacks on Tamils happened during the UNP led regime which came after 1977. Those riots were carried out by gangs associated with the UNP and its JSS thugs. These targeted attacks were a deliberate “pogrom” (an organized massacre of a particular ethnic group) that shook the psyche of innocent Tamils, even those of the English speaking upper class. Many of these people felt more protected and comfortable growing up and living in Colombo, than in their ancestral villages; places they had no connection to far away in the North or East of the island.

Those who witnessed the 1983 riots report that there was a distinct “class envy” angle to it, when even successful corporate entities were targeted simply for being owned by Tamils. The parallels to Tulsa Ok are obvious. This violent state sponsored (or at least condoned) act of terror was the seminal event that enabled a ragtag band of separatists (who were supported by India for its own geo-political reasons) to grow into a massive separatist terrorist group. The LTTE or Tigers could not have survived and grown (even accounting for India’s insidious hand) if it was not viewed as being the only group able to protect Tamils. It took the events of July 1983 to finally drive even moderate Tamils into the hands of violent seperatists, as obviously the Sate could not, or would not, protect them.

What brought about the change in the USA?

The United States of America is in many ways a conglomerate of individual States or Countries. The US constitution delegates acknowledges this and many rights are granted to individual States to decide, in their Federal form of government.

One such law is the one governing interracial marriage (miscegenation). Until the US Supreme Court ruled against it in the landmark Loving vs. Virginia case in 19672, interracial marriage was illegal in the Confederate Southern states, as well as several other backward states of the Union. This was insidious considering people in the South considered themselves devout Christians but yet could not accept inter-racial marriage and people were even jailed for breaking this discriminatory law. The resistance to political change was immense, but so was the call to change. Brave people on both sides of the racial divide united t bring about the changes that were needed. Hasn’t time arrived in Sri Lanka to build bridges too? Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, the most famous “face”of the Civil Rights Movement, found allies amongst Christian and Jewish white organizations; parallel to the non-violent protests by Dr. King, the Black Panthers and other militant black groups advocated change via violent upheaval. But the peaceful voices prevailed and were ultimately successful. The violent ones have been relegated to the dustbin of history. How different to our experience in Sri Lanka.

Many analysts believe that it was not only just the heroism of Dr. King (who was murdered by a White supremacist) who influenced people like Robert F Kennedy ( Attorney General of the US and brother of then President John F Kennedy) an ardent advocate of equal rights for blacks and later President Lyndon B Johnson (LBJ), to change insidious laws of the US that forced people into segregated lives and humiliated black people in the south. There was also an underlying fear of Black militancy and the possibility that foreign powers might encourage the use of violence to destabilize the US, that lent impetus to the reforms. While the Kennedy brothers were products of the Liberal east Coast establishment, President Johnson was a good ole boy from Texas and a racist product of his time, but also a pragmatic and visionary leader.

However, when he signed the landmark civil rights act in 19643, LBJ knew that the Democratic party he represented was going to lose a very large group of southern White voters to the Republican party forever; this group of voters were commonly referred to as “Dixiecrats”. They had traditionally voted for the Democratic party since the end of the Civil War when the secessionist south was beaten by the Union forces commanded by Republican President Lincoln. Over time, this legislation cost the Democrats hundreds of thousands of votes and also the Southern Electoral College has been Republican ever since .This shows that deep seated cultural distrust and segregationist tendencies still exist amongst older whites in most of previously Confederate Southern States. To this day, only areas where Black Congressmen still get elected in the South, are black majority districts. It is not uncommon to hear people talk about the “northern war of aggression” in reference to the Civil war.

Change comes very slowly

Just because the US elected Obama as President does not mean these age old biases have disappeared. If one looks at the voting patterns of both the 2008 election (despite it being a year of change) and the 2012 one, you could see that an overwhelming number of older Southern Whites voted against Obama and for Republican candidates. This trend is now almost permanent. It is almost a guarantee that in states such as Georgia, Arkansas, Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi (all Southern and Confederate) a significant majority of whites will not vote for democratic Presidential candidates unless he is a “son of the soil”. Jimmy Carter 1976 who was from Georgia, Clinton 1992 from Arkansas both managed to break this trend. Al Gore lost his own home state Tennessee in the 2000 election, to George W Bush, who was from Texas.

There are exceptions to this divide of course. Florida, located in the South remains a “swing” state because of its unique demographic patterns, where Whites, Hispanics and older retirees of Liberal persuasion are all mixed together. Virginia is a better example (at one time the heart of the Confederacy) where rapidly changing demographic trends have led to dramatic changes in voting patterns. Virginia’s vibrant urban areas are close to Washington DC, where highly educated first generation immigrants from Asia driven by finance and technology based business conglomerates live. This combined with the young urban professionals, Doctors, scientists, lawyers, all in the higher economic strata, delivered the state to President Obama in both recent elections.

Right next to it, is the mostly White poor coal mining state of West Virginia which is overwhelmingly democratic at local and state levels, voted against Obama in the Presidential election. Obama won both his elections mostly via the votes of progressive and northern states of the union. Elections were won on a coalition of minorities (95% of the Blacks vote Democratic) and a plurality of young voters including young whites and young women who do not have the same prejudices about race as older generations do. In the near future even a solidly “red” (Republican) state such as Texas is projected to swing more towards “purple” if not “blue” (Democratic) in voting trends, as demographic patterns change. Hispanic Americans are expected to become the largest voting bloc in Texas. This coupled with the younger urban professionals who tend to be more liberal, could well change the way Texas votes in future Presidential elections.

Whither Sri Lanka?

The intent here is to show that despite the USA being the wealthiest democracy in the world, that there are still many people who will vote simply based on color/race, just as anyplace else. Sadly it appears in Sri Lanka expedient politicians used the Tamil vs. Sinhala divide to gain power over time.

Was this a result of Colonial favoritism or just more inherent ethno-religious biases towards each other? How much of post-Independence policy has been driven by a desire for social justice and not by a cynical desire to polarize the voting population in order to stay in power? What is the end result? As a result of the language policies enforced at all schools since the 1960s, our citizens cannot talk to each other.

The “standardization” and “Sinhala only” policies, while seemingly laudable, wreaked havoc in the long term. It emancipated many Sinhala and Tamil speaking students, who otherwise would not have access to higher education. When English was the only language used for higher education, the English speaking upper classes amongst all communities had a huge advantage.

But the long-term effect has been two communities who cannot talk to each other. Simply put, without the use of vernacular languages. it is unlikely either Sinhalese or Tamils of less-affluent and rural areas would have been able to go to University. Several generations of students have received a world class education at no cost to themselves thanks to these changes. Yet, the contradiction is that with the emancipation of lesser privileged classes, the nation gradually lost the means of talking to each other in a common language. This writer was fortunate enough to have grown up in Colombo in the 1960s and 1970s. Little did we realize that this was the “calm before the storm”. Our parents had gone to schools such as Royal, St Thomas, Trinity and their lingua franca was English and their drink of choice was Scotch. Sinhala, Tamil or Burgher didn’t matter when parties were held, friends got inebriated together, cried and fought over silly issues such as which school had a better cricket team. They listened to English music mostly and read English newspapers. The savvy entrepreneurs whether they were Tamil or Sinhalese also faired quite well. But was that reality or was that the realm of the few privileged families whose first language was English?

Then came this writer’s post 1956 generation; this was the first generation of the either Sinhala or Tamil education streams in the same school. Previously the elite schools used English as the medium of instruction for all students. Suddenly there was a “Sinhala-stream and a Tamil-stream” and for the lucky few “an English-stream” class too. English was taught only as a Second language at Royal to the Sinhalese and Tamil students. By the 1980s the older generation of excellent English teachers were replaced by teachers who had very limited fluency in the language and taught it very badly; the distinction was quite evident in quality of English education in the senior grades. This writer didn’t feel too comfortable speaking English as a child, even though at home his parents spoke English as did his Grandparents. The older generation partied and mingled with each other with ease; language was not a barrier because everyone spoke English. Their cultural identities were still clearly influenced by the Colonials. There were a few who had married from other communities, such as this lovable Senior Police officer who used to get tipsy at our dinner table and become emotional. Venerated legal luminaries like Vanam Rajaratnam were good friends of this writer’s father. Lakshman Kadirgamar, a Tamil assassinated by the LTTE (the best ever Foreign Minister Sri Lanka had) was on a first name basis with this writer’s father, having been from the same school. This probably was probably the case for many children Tamil or Sinhalese, if they were from the privileged classes of dare we say the “lucky” generation? This writer started studying Tamil in 1979 under the tutelage of a wonderful retired Tamil government servant (as part of a requirement for his first job in Sri Lanka); was able to read the first grade book and regrets completely dropping it afterwards.

The End of an Era

After those expedient decisions of 1956, even at a privileged public school like Royal, where students came from many socio-income strata including from slums of Kollupitiya or Jawatte, the medium of communications were split; students either spoke Sinhala, English or Tamil depending on which “language stream” class we were assigned to. There was no link language. The only Tamil and Sinhala students who spoke to each other, were the Tamils who spoke Sinhala and Sinhalese who spoke either English or Sinhala or both. Judging by the angry reactions to this writer’s arguments about the two groups being of the same origins, it is indeed a sad fact that even a fight over marbles on the terraces at Royal Junior during recess became a “demala panthiyey” or as someone sadly pointed out “ado demala” as opposed to just being so and so who was being a jerk. Why? If it were a fight over marbles it shouldn’t matter what race the offender was.

Similarly in the US despite all efforts such cultural dividers exist. A student of this writer’s who was a single African-American parent shared a story how her daughter was told by her classmates in grade 3, that they were not allowed to play with or invite black kids to their homes because our parents don’t like “ni****s”. This was in 2010 and not even in an old Confederate state. Once, an old black man at a Bar in Milledgeville, Georgia described the racial divide this way “you know the difference between racists in the south and north? In the south, the white man doesn’t care how close a “ni*****s gets to him as long we don’t get too high up in life; and in the north the white man doesn’t care how high up we get in life as long as we don’t get too close to them”. Sadly there is a lot of home truth in that statement even today though much has changed for the better in most spheres of the economy.   Yet from time to time suspicion and rage leads to riots. Ferguson was the most recent. Before that in 1994 after the Rodney King beating in Los Angeles Chicago riots in the aftermath of Dr.King’s murder and many times in between.

Change is not impossible

Despite a far longer history of constitutional discrimination and targeted attacks on Blacks, and despite them not being even considered equal to a white person, over time the USA has evolved into a much greater state of tolerance than it was barely 50 years ago. Race relations have taken a toll for the worse with reports of excessive police action in various states recently, but things are far better for black people than they were 50 years ago with more awareness and more political activism. Such contradictions and differences should not be allowed to take root in Sri Lanka.

This writer thinks the following would be a start towards changing our society:

  1. The senior leader of the UNP should emulate President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunge and apologize for the heinous crimes of Black July 1983. Amazingly when asked if she hates Tamils for what the Tigers did to her, Chandrika’s response was “no need to hate an entire people for what some have done”
  2. The TNA should apologize, on behalf of the Tamil community, for the atrocities committed by the Tigers including massacres of women and children, and the “ethnic cleansing” of Muslims and Sinhalese from the North.
  3. An immediate establishment of Language laboratories and mandatory language studies from Grade 1 so that all communities will be required to learn Tamil, English and Sinhalese.
  4. An independent non-political task force comprised of legal and forensic experts of both communities to investigate the last days of the war and determine what actually happened.
  5. A commission to document and create a database of those who lost lands due to war.
  6. An independent non-political task force to account for the 1987-89 period when thousands of Sinhalese youth disappeared.
  7. Locating the bodies of the 600 policemen who were massacred by the Tamil Tiger terrorists.
  8. Take steps to bring back Sri Lankan refugees in India while carefully screening for Tiger terrorist infiltrators
  9. Take steps to allow the 95,000 Muslim and other victims of Ethnic cleansing in the North to return to their homes as well.
  10. A committee with powers to report on abuse of minorities and under privileged communities of all races by law enforcement authorities.
  11. More language proficient police from local areas to deal with everyday law and order issues.
  12. The establishment of a national Broadband Network, so that more communication can take place between citizens without the State being involved. Social media networks are powerful tools that were used successfully during the recent election. Allow free access to all types of social media, so Sri Lankans as a nation can communicate with one another.
  13. Concerted efforts by the government to heal the psychological scars of war on children, women and the disabled of both communities by increasing the number of vernacular speaking counselors with the aid of volunteer services such as the incredible VSOSL which no longer functions there.
  14. Cultural exchanges organized for school children of all communities to travel and live within a community of the other group for a few days under supervision by adults so they can see the conditions of poverty and lack of access to resources cuts across all communities outside the privileged classes.
  15. Incorporate civil and human rights into the school curricula and replace religious studies as an O-level subject.
  16. Introduce legislation similar to the 4th amendment to the US constitution which protects personal privacy, and every citizen’s right to be free from unreasonable government intrusion into their persons, homes, businesses and property-weather through police stops of citizens on the street, arrests, or searches of homes and businesses4.
  17. Introduce legislation to similar to the 5th amendment to the US constitution which provides the right to not to give self-incriminatory statements in when taken into police custody.

In conclusion, will Sri Lanka ever have a leader who will emerge to be like MLK? Most moderate Tamil leaders were murdered by the LTTE fascists, Sinhala leaders like the charismatic humanist Vijaya Kumaranatunge were assassinated by southern extremists. More to the point, who will be Sri Lanka’s LBJ who will do the right thing ? Will President Sirisena be the one to succeed where others failed?


1http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Three-Fifths_Compromise

2http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/conlaw/loving.html

3http://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/civil-rights-act/

4https://www.law.cornell.edu/constitution/fourth_amendment

Back to Home page