What's all this then?

My name is Victoria Stiles and I'm an Early Career Historian currently doing whatever odd research / consulting / outreach / tutoring jobs come my way. I blog here about some of the interesting texts I've found.
My research focusses on books about Britain and the British Empire which were in circulation in Nazi Germany but you'll also find a smattering of school textbooks, witchcraft beliefs, bog drainage, bemused travellers and weird illustrations that caught my eye.
Translations from German are my own. Comments are currently unmoderated and are mostly spam for leather jackets anyway.

Tuesday, 31 May 2011

On the cliquishness of minorities

Two quotes, out of what I assume is a huge number of similar examples. The first is Frederick the Great surveying his new Polish territory, quoted in Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius, The German Myth of the East: 1800 to the Present (Oxford, 2009), pp.37-8:

In 1772, he wrote to Voltaire of the Poles as the 'last people in Europe'. Likewise, he expressed dissatisfaction with the Jewish presence in the towns of the frontier provinces, concluding however that they were necessary 'on the Polish border because in these areas the Hebrews alone perform trade. As soon as you get away from the frontier, the Jews become a disadvantage, they form cliques'.

The second is from David Cameron's recent speech on immigration (which I blogged about at the time, here). The full text of this is on the BBC website:

In one case, an applicant applied as an 'Elite Chef' for a fried chicken shop. The main qualifying criterion was the rate of pay. So in this case, his sister, who owned the shop decided to pay him exactly the amount that allowed him to qualify. There was nothing the authorities could do and he was allowed in.
So it has fallen to this government to sort out the system - and we are completely changing the way it works so it is truly geared to the needs of our economy.

Rather than suggesting that Cameron is the reincarnation of Frederick the Great, the point I'm trying to make is this: Minorities have often been attacked on the basis that they band together to help each other, excluding the majority population, and therefore securing advantages for themselves. If this does happen it's because the majority, especially in boom times, don't need to forge such close networks to deal with problems. It makes more sense to move away from home to somewhere you can find a job you want to do, which you stand a good chance of getting because you're fluent in the right language and fit in with the dominant culture there. You may not need to be around to take care of parents, elderly relatives, younger siblings and cousins, because they have full access to state services. Immigrant communities have stronger bonds because they need them. Partly as a consequence of this, and in turn causing it, groups of such workers can be very useful to the national economy, as shown by both of the above quotes.

No resemblance: David the Great and "Just Call Me" Freddy

The problem comes when the economy contracts again, and everyone needs to fall back on their support network. Minorities may then seem to have an unfair advantage, because they are used to dealing with hardship and have informal systems in place for helping everyone in their community to scrape by. Similar to people failing means tests because they have spent twenty years in work carefully putting a little money aside each month, minority communities may end up punished for their previous organisation, thrift and hard work.*

The best historical example of this would be the fate of Jewish communities in Europe. Legally barred from other professions, they came to specialise in finance and in the trade in second-hand goods. During the economic crisis following the depression, most people existed in a world of torture and deprivation, defined by these two industries. On the one hand life-savings became worthless and interest on new loans was crippling. On the other, possessions had to be sold off cheap, and essentials such as clothes and shoes bought after a lot of haggling and pleading. Because of the ways they had had to deal with previous discrimination and hardship, Jewish communities seemed to be easily profiting from Germans' misfortune. Coupled with the pervasive myth that it was a worldwide Jewish conspiracy that had caused the crash in the first place, this was a very toxic mix.

Immigrants and other minorities make naturally easy targets. Politicians should be wary of criticising them, however subtly, for those same patterns of behaviour they have been forced to adopt. When stuck between a rock and a hard place, it's natural to want to give each other a leg-up.

*That isn't to say that majority white communities in Britain have not undergone extended periods of hardship. There are countless examples, particularly in former industrial or mining towns. My focus here is on communities who are easily distinguishable from a majority population who consider themselves to have been in that area longer.

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