In The Spectator of 21 March a column by Toby Young caught my eye. Discussing the pros and cons of selective schools, Toby found it hard to reach an emphatic conclusion; and for what it’s worth I find it hard too — but, then again, what do I know? It was his international comparisons that engaged me. It was not the point he was trying to make, but Toby quoted a statistic which speaks volumes about the continuing oppression of the indigenous peoples of South America.
In educational attainment tests, Peru has the world’s worst ‘variance’ explicable by the children’s backgrounds, or so the OECD have found. ‘Variance’ means departure from the average. Translated into layman’s language, the finding therefore means that if you examine the educational attainment of Peruvian schoolchildren, you’ll find their success or failure more reliably linked to their background than anywhere else in the world.
Behind those faceless numbers a human face does hover, and a ghostly one. It’s the immediately recognisable physiognomy, the rich brown skin, the prominent cheekbones, the impenetrable dark eyes and the magnificent long nose with the giveaway bump near the top, of the South American Indian.
I’m uncomfortable with that word ‘Indian’ and I suppose we could say ‘indigenous’ or ‘native’ South Americans but that would enrage more people. Never say ‘Indios’ in South American Spanish, though: it’s considered insulting. ‘Do you take me for an Indian?’ means ‘Do you take me for a fool?’ Across the continent, if you want to be polite, you say ‘campesinos’ which means ‘peasants’ and is considered less insulting. Apart from Paraguay it is in the Andean countries — Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador — that the concentration of indigenous peoples is highest: in Peru just below 40 per cent (but more again are mestizos), in Bolivia some 60 per cent.
Bolivia’s president is the country’s first to be of Indian descent. Make no mistake, South America’s indigenous peoples are a totally viable race: don’t imagine a bunch of sad misfit alcoholics sitting around in reservations. Ingenious, sturdy, brave and cultured, they farm, trade, labour, run small businesses and get on with life like everyone else.
But they face incredible, half-hidden racial discrimination. I do not exaggerate when I say that for all the efforts of apartheid in southern Africa, the whites in Africa never kept the blacks down with the quietly successful efficiency with which South Americans of largely European descent have repressed the Indian population. These former are — or were originally — overwhelmingly southern European. To clobber the peoples they encountered when they arrived, they did not need statute or ideology. They used force of arms, and the Church. Their successors today, some 37 per cent of the continent’s whole population, are precisely where their ancestors were: on top.
But they do not make the mistake the Afrikaners made, of trying to systematise and codify repression — or even to justify it. They will shake their heads sadly and remark that, unfortunately, the campesinos (salt of the earth, of course) are not up to things like government, or management, or flying aeroplanes or running big business. Indeed, education itself is wasted on most of them.
No law stops you rising as a South American Indian: only the softly suffocating disregard that those with power will feel toward you. So much less public money has been spent on your education (if you went to secondary school at all); and few would take you seriously even if you did try hard at school.
Why has the rest of the world, which has typically backpacked around the Andes during its gap year, never really woken up to the continent’s secret: the silent, informal apartheid of South America? I think it may be partly because we think of the continent’s nations as having liberated themselves from their greedy and brutal colonial oppressors in Europe. We remember that the liberation struggle was against whites, but forget that it was by whites. It helps this blurring of memory that Simón Bolívar himself was of mixed race, but it remains true that Bolívar was essentially the Ian Smith of South America, not the Nelson Mandela.
Or perhaps we return from our wanderings with the vague impression that unspeakable things were indeed done to the Indians by the conquistadores, but that was a very long time ago. Well, they continued. The Argentines have almost completely wiped out all the Indian tribes who occupied their country. Here’s General Julio Argentino Roca, president of Argentina twice near the end of the 19th century, who died a hero in 1914: ‘Our self-respect as a virile people obliges us to put down as soon as possible, by reason or by force, this handful of savages who destroy our wealth and prevent us from definitely occupying, in the name of law, progress and our own security, the richest and most fertile lands of the republic.’
He was engaged in exterminating all the Indian tribes of Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego. There are numerous statues of him in Argentina, whose ‘indigenous’ population now stands at 1.6 per cent. The popular attitude to which he was appealing has undoubtedly moderated since then, and today would never be expressed in public like that; but you would be wrong to suppose the sense both of territorial entitlement, and of the innate inferiority of the indigenous peoples, do not survive among South America’s white boss-race today — however subtly entertained.
If you doubt it, collect some snapshots of the cabinets of the continent’s governments, the boards of its major corporations, or the fellows of its many universities — or indeed simply of people shopping in the department stores of its great cities — and search the pictures for Indian faces.
Nearly six in every ten ought to be Indian. Fewer than one in 50 will be. Seeking a linking explanation for ‘variance’ in attainment across the continent, Toby will not need to search for long.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.
You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10