Theme Of Discrimination In 'A Class Divided'

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The 1985 PBS Frontline documentary, ‘A Class Divided’ is an exemplary piece of film making that captures almost perfectly, the way in which discrimination is created, spread and enforced amongst members in a society. From the film, we can draw conclusions as to why discrimination occurs and how it is carried on over across generations as well as understand how easily human beings can be manipulated into bigotry, even against their friends and family.

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The original experiment took place 51 years ago during a time of great civil unrest in the United States, Martin Luther King had been shot in the same year and the racial divide was increasingly widening between White and Black Americans. Direct discrimination was occurring all across America against anyone who wasn’t Anglo-Saxon. What was most surprising of all about this time, as Jane Elliott mentioned in the documentary, that even in the media, African Americans were being talked down to and asked, “Who will represent your people now” as well as mentioning the former American President John F. Kennedy as being the leader of whites. Somehow implying that African Americans aren’t really citizens of the USA due to their skin colour. This closely parallels to what is happening now in the Europe Union and the recent immigration crisis. Racism is on an upward trend and far-right populist political parties are taking the centre stage in politics. Millions of migrants from majority Muslim countries are being looked down upon and treated as something to be feared and avoided. This racism isn’t against migrants in general however, only those from non-European countries. For example, Poland gets a bad reputation in the press for its strict anti-migration policy and its increasing white nationalist sentiment, but what is not evident is that Poland has around 2 million migrants in its borders right now, almost exclusively from Ukraine who have been made to feel welcome by the Polish government. This is evidence that the fear of migration is actually a cover up for the real fear of non-Europeans, in particular Muslims. From the documentary, it is observed that the only reason the children in the experiment ended up believing that children with brown eyes were “inferior” and a source of societal problems with blue eyed children being regarded as “superior” was because it was encouraged by their teacher, someone they view as an authority figure who commands respect and look up to for guidance. Furthermore, the shocking and inflammatory speech of Jane Elliott is most likely made the students believe her as she said it with great conviction to sell the idea to her students. With reference to Europe, the case of the Netherlands can be seen as analogous. Migration into the Netherlands has actually seen a decrease since 2008, but incidents of discrimination or racism have been on the rise. This can be attributed to the fear mongering rhetoric of populist politicians like Geert Wilders, who has been an outspoken critic of Muslim migration and repeatedly stoked the fire in his native country by describing Muslims as a threat to Dutch culture. In a similar way, politicians are also seen as authority figures and through Wilders’ rhetoric, he has abused his position of power to demonise an entire ethno-religious group by blaming his nations shortcomings on Muslims. Which cements into the mind of people that Muslims or foreigners in general bring nothing but trouble and thus, have to be treated a certain way.

The most concerning part of the documentary was when the children had to take a test and it was revealed that the brown eyed students performed poorer than ever before on their tests after their teacher started discriminating them. The sociological term to describe this phenomenon is the “Self-fulfilling prophecy.” Which can be explained simply as your beliefs, shape your expectations, which shape your behaviour, which shape results which then are used to reinforce your original beliefs. To provide an example: Those brown eyed children thought less of themselves, thought of themselves as inept and incapable which then reflected on their test scores which then further affirmed their original viewpoint of being lesser than blue eyed students. This phenomenon perhaps could also be applied to contemporary Europe and its minorities. It is no secret that after the migration crisis in Europe, crimes rates shot up around the countries they settled into and migrants/asylum seekers are overrepresented in the crime suspect and prison population relative to their population. But the reason for this is less clear, some far-right organisations would claim that violence has risen is due to the inherent violence found in Muslims. Is it as simple as a gene causing certain people to act more violently? Or is it rather the self-fulfilling prophecy in motion? They believe migrants are dangerous, thus treat them as criminals and giving them less opportunities to find employment which as a consequence, alienate them from their new society and force them into crime to survive which in turn, reinforced the initial prejudiced preconception of foreigners.

In my opinion, while the EU has made genuine efforts to end discrimination at the legal and professional level through its directives and laws. It hasn’t been far reaching in terms of changing attitudes and its definitely only getting worse. It was only a few weeks ago that Bulgarian football fans were doing Nazi salutes during a match as well as reports of minorities feeling increasingly marginalised doesn’t paint a pretty picture at all for the future of Europe. Discrimination is abhorrent and must be stopped from infecting the public consciousness, lest it become mainstream again as it did during the Second World War.

In conclusion, despite almost half a century passing since the original experiment depicted in the documentary, neither the USA or European countries have successfully managed to weed out discrimination from both the political and legal system or from society. Until the EU enforces any kind of anti-discrimination education in schools, the scope of non-discrimination laws will be too narrow, as at most, access to employment, welfare and goods and services is pretty much the only area the EU has any say in, and that is only for ethnicity. The scope of protection for other groups is far less. Which is very concerning, as even centrist politicians are drawing from certain far-right talking points in an effort to appease their growing support base. Giving the ideas of ultra-nationalism, protectionism and forced displacement legitimacy when these ideas need to be shunned and left in the past.

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