Can Ethnic Hatred be Eliminated by Eliminating Ethnicity?
The Rwanda Experiment

By MICHAEL C. DORF
Wednesday, Apr. 14, 2004

A decade ago, the central African country of Rwanda was the scene of some of the worst ethnic violence of the Twentieth Century. Incited by official propaganda depicting Tutsi Rwandans as "cockroaches," radical Hutu Rwandans massacred nearly a million Tutsi and moderate Hutu.

As Rwanda marks the tenth anniversary of its national catastrophe, its current government has embarked on an ambitious program to strike at the roots of ethnic hatred and violence. However, rather than campaigning for a multicultural society of mutual respect between Hutu and Tutsi, the government has gone a giant step further. It aims to eliminate distinctions between the groups entirely. As reported in the New York Times last week, the new official policy states: "There is no ethnicity here. We are all Rwandan."

To an American constitutional lawyer, that credo resonates with a famous remark by Justice John Marshall Harlan. Dissenting from the Supreme Court's infamous 1896 ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson, which upheld state-mandated "separate but equal" passenger railroad facilities for blacks and whites, Harlan wrote: "There is no caste here. Our constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens."

In recent decades, Harlan's Plessy dissent has served as the rallying cry for opponents of race-based affirmative action, who argue that taking account of racial differences in an effort to overcome past episodes of racial injustice is inevitably self-defeating. As Justice Scalia opined in a concurring statement in the 1995 decision in Adarand Constructors Inc. v. Pena, "In the eyes of government, we are just one race here. It is American."

The differences among the United States, Rwanda and other countries are, of course, substantial, so that lessons learned in one context will not obviously translate into the other. Nonetheless, thinking through the potential benefits and risks of the Rwandan effort to eliminate ethnicity may shed light on the problems confronted by other multi-ethnic societies, including our own.

The Extreme But Not Unprecedented Means of the Rwandan Program

The effort to eliminate ethnicity is not the whole of the Rwandan response to the genocide of 1994. In the past decade, traditional community or "GACACA" courts have been meting out justice in parallel with the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.

But whereas genocide trials aim to bring specific perpetrators to justice or to promote reconciliation on the individual level, the policy of ethnicity elimination is broader based and forward-looking.

Two key features of Rwanda's effort to stamp out ethnicity would be highly problematic in stable democracies: first, Rwanda is creating re-education camps where people are trained in the "correct" way to think of their fellow citizens; second, Rwanda will prosecute those guilty of a vague crime called "divisionism."

"Divisionism" has, as its core application, the fomenting of ethnic violence. But critics charge that it can also be used as a means by which the party in power stamps out even legitimate opposition.

These means, then, are more extreme than one would expect in a democracy. Yet they are different only in degree, rather than in kind, from measures that have been taken in other parts of the world.

Although "reeducation camps" suggest images of grim conditions and totalitarian thought police, the notion of reeducation itself is perfectly appropriate in the aftermath of a horrific regime. Allied forces in Germany following World War II sought to "deNazify" the country through education, and even today, in Iraq, should the nation be pacified, an education program of deBaathification can be expected.

Likewise, although the constitutional protection for freedom of speech in the United States protects even the teaching of the inferiority of some groups of persons, most constitutional democracies rule certain forms of political expression out of bounds.

Again, the German example is instructive. Article 21 of the German Constitution permits the banning of political parties that undermine "the free democratic basic order" in Germany. That would include, of course, the Nazi party, as well as other groups that hold similar beliefs

The differences between understandings of political freedom in the United States and Germany are, not surprisingly, shaped by historical context. The same is true for Rwanda.

Can the Rwandan Campaign to Eradicate Ethnicity Succeed?

There is at least one reason to think that the Rwandan effort to eradicate ethnicity stands a greater chance of success than would a parallel effort with respect to race in the U.S.: The categories of Hutu and Tutsi are highly artificial.

Stereotypically, Tutsi are taller than Hutu, with facial features more like Ethiopians and Europeans than like those of most sub-Saharan Africans. Yet these stereotypes are largely false because intermarriage among Tutsi and Hutu has been very prevalent over the years, and the two groups were never really ethnically distinct in the first place. During the 1994 genocide, Hutu extremists were able to identify Tutsi for slaughter because they knew them personally, not because they could recognize them reliably based on supposed ethnic differences.

The origin of the distinction between Tutsi and Hutu can be traced largely to the colonial period. Belgian colonialists treated as Tutsi those people in Rwanda (and neighboring Burundi, which has the same ethnic mix and history of bloodshed) that they thought had higher socioeconomic status. The Belgian thus created ethnic division among people with the same language, customs, and ancestry. If ethnic division can thus be created by government policy, perhaps it can be destroyed the same way.

Official efforts to make race disappear would face more substantial obstacles in the United States, where the cleavages among communities have often tracked differences in appearance, speech, and manner. To be sure, as a matter of science, there is no such thing as "race" that corresponds to the social distinctions one observes in the U.S. There is as much genetic variation among persons of African descent as there is between persons of African and European descent--meaning that this racial division is ultimately an artificial, not a natural construct.

But the salience of race in the U.S. has always been cultural and social rather than scientific, even if it was sometimes falsely wrapped in the mantle of science. And given visible (if biologically unimportant) distinctions between the cultural and social groups we call races, it would take a powerful program of education indeed to make people truly blind to racial markers.

Is Eradication of Ethnicity a Good Idea? Assimilation in France, and in the U.S.

Of course, many people would object to a project of eradicating ethnic differences wholly apart from the project's likelihood of success. They would ask: Don't people have a right to identify with others of their own group?

Different societies reach different conclusions with respect to this question. France has long been willing to admit ethnically distinct immigrants and others into the political and social community on the condition that they assimilate. The recent decision to prohibit French Muslim students from wearing the hijab (or head scarf) to public school is only the latest example of an attitude that is inclusive in its own way: Anybody, regardless of birth, can be French, so long as he or she is willing to take on French ways.

For much of the Twentieth Century, the French approach to assimilation stood in formal opposition to the American metaphor of the "melting pot." The American ideal was that different peoples would come to the U.S., bringing with them their distinctive traditions, all of which would be thrown into the melting pot of mass culture, and out of which would emerge something new and distinct, yet nonetheless American.

But to critics of assimilation, the distinction between the French and American models was merely a formal one: In either country, critics pointed out, members of minority populations were required to give up their own culture to a much greater degree than they were able to change the mass culture.

In practice, critics charged, the price of acceptance in America was assimilation, just as it was in France. Thus, at some point, some American multiculturalists came to advocate a "salad bowl"--in which each ingredient retains its separate, distinctive flavor--instead of a melting pot. The movement for bilingual education of children whose parents' first tongue was not English was part of the shift from melting pot to salad bowl.

Bilingualism and multiculturalism themselves became embroiled in the culture wars, and inspired a backlash by counter-critics who charged that the failure to assimilate held back ethnically distinct children. Accordingly, in the U.S. today, one again hears arguments for the melting pot, or even something closer to the French approach.

Naked Ethnicity in Rwanda

My aim here is not to take sides in the debate about multiculturalism, but simply to point out that the critique of assimilation depends upon the assumption that there is some value in preserving distinct ethnicities.

Ordinarily, that is a reasonable assumption because ethnicity is typically tied to religion, language and culture. Most of us agree that it is unfair, or at least very burdensome, to ask someone to forego much of his or her identity as a condition of admission to the political and social community on equal terms.

But what makes the Rwandan case so peculiar is the fact that the distinction between Tutsi and Hutu does not track these other valuable distinctions among people. Tutsi and Hutu worship in the same way, speak the same language and share a common culture. Their difference is difference for its own sake.

And that fact is what makes the Rwandan genocide so frightening, even compared with other horrific ethnic genocides. Students of genocide understand how a population can be whipped up to murder people whom, until literally days earlier, they regarded as neighbors and even relatives by marriage.

But usually some real distinction between the two populations--Turks and Armenians, Germans and Jews, Orthodox Christian Serbs and Muslim Bosnians--has at least served as a pretext for the former in slaughtering the latter. Not so, however, in Rwanda.

The Chilling Lesson of Rwanda

What Rwanda teaches is that, really, any pretext for division--even violent division, and slaughter--will do. The tribal instinct runs deep in humankind.

So yes, the Rwandan government has good reason to try to tamp down ethnic divisions. But it may simply be naïve to think that any country can permanently tame the tiger of tribalism.

We can--and perhaps we should--seek to eradicate ethnicity, and teach colorblindness. But we kid ourselves if we think that, under the right circumstances, people will not find some trivial difference to justify mass murder.


Michael C. Dorf is Professor of Law at Columbia University. His new book, Constitutional Law Stories, is published by Foundation Press, and tells the stories behind fifteen leading constitutional cases.

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