Combining historical knowledge and awareness of the present situation in America and India, one can deduce that racial and caste-based discrimination are by and large deeply entrenched in their culture and systems. The big question then is how to hold the U.S. and India accountable so that racism and caste truly become things of the past.
Since the Black Lives Matter movement began in response to an unrelenting series of police homicides of unarmed black people, both men and women, and the Trump race-baiting campaign that led to his totally unanticipated victory, the question of race has been brought back front and center in U.S. society, culture, politics and the media. This is part of the ebb and flow of American history from the slavery to the present where the issues of racial inequality and oppression surface, submerge, and re-surface again. One can argue that the moment Barack Obama was on the verge of his presidency and then immediately after his victory, a counter-movement began with the formation of an independent Tea Party. The backlash against electing America’s first African-American president was palpable: it would set in motion a convergence of forces, involving Trump himself early on his birth-movement, that would see a renewed alliance of racism, xenophobia, and anti-immigration forces coupled with a blatantly public “white nationalist” movement that delivered Trump to the White House. Many Americans were shocked and continue to be in shock for every day of his presidency that passes. Americans are galvanised to think about racism and constantly and how to combat the forces that continue to perpetuate its effects. In recent years, Hollywood too has brought attention to the history of race, racism and the legacy of slavery to the post-civil rights era with films such as Black Panther, 12 Years of Slave, Selma and Fences.
Most sociologists will argue that most Americans do not believe in the essential differences of the races that make one race biologically superior to another like many did in the nineteenth century. That type of racism justified the evil known as slavery. Many would say that race is a sociological construct that when it comes into being can have real effects on the outcomes of life-chances for success for different racial groups, particularly African-Americans, Native Americans, and Latinos/Hispanics. If race is not real, then it can be dismissed and the age of color-blindness and post-racialism is heralded as a triumphant new beginning for American society. But many racial minorities would argue the inverse: post-racial colorblindness is just a cover for the continuation of white privilege that fails to come to grips with real social, political, legal, economic, and cultural inequality at all levels of society. This can span from innocent micro-aggressions to racial slurs to more overt forms of violence in everyday life to institutional racism that keeps certain ethnic and racial groups, particularly African-Americans, in a certain place in organisations and society as a whole. If we admit to racial difference, then conservative arguments against affirmative action for example, say the opinions of Justice Thomas, can advocate that individuals are stigmatised on the basis of their race and forced to speak on behalf of their race. This in turn is an infraction of the freedom of conscience and speech not to be compelled to believe in things one doesn’t, hence disguising conservativism within a more sinister libertarianism in which individual liberty must be guaranteed at all costs to other social groups. Inversely, if we do not admit to the real effects of racialisation and racism in society, then we are blind to the growing monstrosity of racial oppression from overt acts of discrimination all the way to the horror of police homicide of helpless black people. In fact America is committing the grossest of human rights violations, namely the deprivation of the right to life, all in the name of “law, order, peace and security.”
In another context far from the American context is another phenomenon known as caste, which originated millennia ago in Hinduism, the world religion whose roots lie in South Asia. Caste may or may not be related to race, racialisation and racism say when “fair skin” is commoditised and valued as higher than darker-skinned Indians in the subcontinent. India may admit to caste, but it will try to convince the world that it does not have a problem with race and racism. One can test that assumption with not only the treatment of non-Indians, such as Asiatic people in the Northeast and people of African descent within India; one can also examine what remains buried within caste and its own internal form of racism. The privilege of light skin can permeate everything from who gets elected to who is represented in media and film to compatible matchings in the arranged marriage system. But caste is also a phenomenon that transcends race in many respects given its classical definition within Hinduism: there are four castes, known as varnas, namely Brahmins or the original priests and scribes to Kshatriyas, the warriors and kings, to Vaishyas the merchants and business class, to the Shudras or the working, labour classes, particularly in agriculture. One is born into a caste and the only way out is death, when the soul transmigrates to a new body; what caste you are born into in this endless cycle depends on the karma of previous lives or how many “sins” one has committed. Caste, one can argue, is an internal “racism” of the soul given the rigid hierarchical structure of oppression put in place in society.
But this is not the worst of it. A fifth group that lies outside of the fourfold caste are known as the Dalits, the “broken or oppressed” peoples, formerly known as the “untouchables.” The entire system of insider-outsider in Indian society (and other South Asian nations and the diaspora where caste persists) is based on the “pure-impure” distinction. The higher the caste the more pure one’s soul is – allegedly – regardless of the unethical and even illegal behaviour of higher caste people, say rape of lower castes. The impure are constituted as those who must remain outside the system and must handle those most demonic, desecrated, and vile of phenomena in the eyes of most Hindus, namely human excrement and dead bodies. The Dalits are forced into these occupations and there is no escape from them. They are segregated in social space and cannot enter the temples; they cannot drink from the same wells; when they pass by a higher caste’s neighbourhood, they must remove their shoes when walking down the street; they are systematically discriminated against in many higher educational systems even though “reservations” or affirmative action provisions are given to them so they can attend the university.
Gender inequality in India is an issue on to itself given the lack of persecution rates for rape, the son-preference culture, and shades of misogyny that infiltrate every aspect of life for women. However, when taking into account caste and the plight of Dalits, the problem is compounded.
Often times Dalit women are raped by higher castes as evidence of the Dalit girls who are given over to temples for Brahmin priests to use as sex-slaves known Devadasis, thereby hypocritically blurring the primordial pure-impure distinction in the holiest of places, namely the temples. Meanwhile the most basic moral compunction, which should be outrage against any form of child sex abuse, dissipates into society that continues in indifference. Inter-caste marriage for Dalits is absolutely prohibited, resulting in peril if one attempts even the most basic of human instincts, namely falling in love with another. A whole village can be torched by the higher caste if someone attempts inter-caste marriage. Although in principle the Indian constitution born out of independence from colonial Britain not only bans “untouchability” (or the relegation of Dalit peoples to fixed occupations at the lowest order of society), it bans discrimination on the basis of the caste. But what it doesn’t do is ban the caste system itself.
By comparison the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments of the U.S. constitution abolishes slavery and in principle gives African-Americans equal protection under the law and due process and privacy while eliminating voter discrimination on the basis of race or a previous condition of “servitude.” We say in principle because what the Constitution does not ban is the phenomenon of racism itself, which as we all know persists down to the depths of American society and its psyche.
It is interesting to bring the discussion of race in America into dialogue with the problem for caste in India in particular, and to a certain extent South Asia and the South Asian diaspora in general. Historically, the great African-American scholar, public intellectual, and activist W.E.B. Dubois exchanged letters with the great Dalit leader of the twentieth century, B.R. Ambedkar, who rose to such heights becoming the chairperson of the drafting commission of the Indian constitution after independence. Ambedkar is the paradox of India’s most celebrated intellectual and most oppressed being a Dalit fighting for Dalit liberation all the way to the last day of his life. Prior to MLK, Dubois was arguably the single most influential voice among African-Americans showing brilliantly why race and racism constituted the core problem of American society. In parallel, Ambedkar debated valiantly with the other founding figures of the country, Gandhi and Nehru, on why independence from Britain was not the only goal of Indian liberation; Indians must be liberated internally from the evil social order justified metaphysically by Hinduism, namely the caste system.² If alive, he would say he failed because the caste system persists to this day.
We can ask what can the fight against the caste system in India/South Asia and globally learn from the fight against racism in America and vice-versa? How do we assess the legacy of both Dubois and Ambedkar in the 21st century? Critical race theory in America would argue that although slavery has been abolished as has segregation of the Jim Crow era, a new modality of racism has emerged in which the criminal justice system has merely perfected all previous techniques of both constituting black people as a “social problem” and disciplining their bodies while impoverishing them with the rise of mass incarceration.³ Racism is the dialectic of a legacy that constitutionally upheld an evil system of public control of black bodies in the form of inhuman slavery to one hundred years later in which docility is maintained while poverty is criminalised in the invisible world of the prison. Between the visible and invisible, there are varying dimensions of how blacks suffer from oppression and inequality from overt acts of discrimination in voting, housing, and education to slight acts of marginalisation and disparagement in the workplace that prevents upward mobility to flat-out horror when the state is militarised and the law sanctifies public execution in the form of defenseless black people. Caste is an inverted racism in which the stigma of difference is imprinted in the soul in a body whose birth one is not responsible for; the punishment is being born itself. The life outcomes for Dalits, even today, is like the African-American continuum that takes aspects of slavery, segregation, and miscegenation in which the greater mob of higher castes persecute and terrorise Dalits with impunity as did the KKK during the Jim Crow era in America; but the state too fails not only to protect Dalits’ basic political and civil rights but criminalises their poverty, further exacerbating their oppression with higher prosecution rates of the innocent just like black men and women in America. Race in America is the perpetuation of an informal type of caste system that is not legally constructed but is executed through other means, namely in politics, economics, culture, media and education. Caste is not legally abolished in the Indian context and has a complex relationship to the commodification of whiteness given the higher privilege accorded to fair skin people of Indian and South Asian descent.
What both require is a recognition within their respective societies: that the tempting notion that racism is no longer a problem in America is based on a false consciousness and ideology while the belief in the Indian system that its new economic capitalist rise will eventually dissolve the problem of caste in to that of economic class. Both assumptions are erroneous to the core. What we need to build on is a universal consensus, perhaps through an international human rights framework beyond the UN, to hold America and India accountable for what many could define are the grossest of human rights violations if they knew that the problem existed. Both contexts can benefit from an alliance in drawing attention to how specifically the phenomena of racism and caste constitute human rights violation. The next big question then is how to hold the U.S. and India accountable so that racism and caste truly become things of the past.
About the Author
Rajesh Sampath, PhD, is Associate Professor of the Philosophy of Justice, Rights, and Social Change. He is Associate Director of the Masters Degree Program in Sustainable International Development at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University. His teaching and research interests include development ethics, theories of justice and human rights, and comparative studies of social exclusion and change.
1. Bonilla-Silva, Ed. (2013). “Racism without Racists” (4th ed.). Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers Inc.
2. Anand, S. (Ed.) (2014). “B.R. Ambedkar: Annihilation of Caste” (The Annotated Critical Edition). London: Verso Press.
3. Alexander, M. (2010). “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.” New York: The New Press.