Racism is neither an American phenomenon nor is it new. It has perhaps existed since the beginning of civilization and has played itself out in many different forms over the centuries. The Indian caste system and the discrimination resulting from that division of society is one of the very early examples of institutionalized racism that I became aware of. The clergy (priests) and the royalty (kings) were the highest on the social stratum followed by the merchants and languishing at the very bottom of the pyramid were the ‘Shudras’ or the untouchables who were the nameless and faceless denizens of the shadows and who carried out the most menial of tasks.
I do not know if it is mere coincidence that the lighter-skinned ones have been the claimants to the berth of the ‘superior race’ in the majority of cases. It is but a coincidence too frequent and too widespread to ignore as I cannot cite even one example to the contrary! So it looks like the color of the skin does have a role to play after all. We are all aware of the Caucasian Vs Others paradigm but there are also instances where even the shades of skin color amongst the dark-skinned races have been the drivers of racism. Examples include India as a nation, the lighter skinned Tutsis and the darker skinned Hutus in Rwanda, the lighter skinned Sudanese Arabs and the darker skinned Sudanese Africans etc. That said, there have been instances of reverse racism in many parts of the world where the majority after reclaiming the reigns of power has then turned on the minority that once ruled or exploited them. In these instances the color of the skin argument is reversed.
Colonialism has had a huge role to play in the institutionalization of racism across the world. The major European powers like the British, the Dutch, the Spanish, the Portuguese, the Italians, the French, and the Germans to name a few fanned out to all the corners of the world and established their colonies. It was initially done with the intention of establishing trade with these places and the people therein but the natural bounty of these places (mineral wealth, timber, precious metals, diamonds etc.) spawned greed and the traders transformed into colonizers. The colonizers who were all light skinned and primarily of European (Caucasian) descent considered the natives (who were darker skinned) of their colonies an inferior race who were godless boorish uncivilized brutes on whom the light of civilization hadn’t yet dawned. They justified their occupation of foreign lands and the subjugation of its people by arguing that the ‘savages’ needed Christianity and the advanced Caucasian social constructs to lift them out of the wretchedness of their existence. They anointed themselves the guardians of these lost races.
What followed in these colonies is a part of world history that should be mandatorily taught in every school the world over when children start learning history. No lesson about racism and its impact is complete or efficacious without actually studying the contemptible practices and the deleterious and lingering effects of racial discrimination that were legitimized by colonization.
The European Club in British India which displayed the sign ‘Dogs and Indians not Allowed’ , the ‘Whites Only’ signs displayed in establishments around apartheid era South Africa and in segregation era America are just a few examples of the insufferable treatment that was meted out to the natives by their colonial masters. The native peoples of these colonies were relegated to being second class citizens in their own lands. They lived a life plagued by fear and famine. Misery was a constant companion. Dignity was an alien concept to those that were born during the colonial eras in these lands. Tears roll down my cheeks and a sense of extreme rage braided with despondency takes hold of me every time I’m reminded of the barely decipherable haunting voices of what were apparently songs being hummed by scantily clad Indian soldiers serving the Royal British Army in the battlefields of Europe in a desperate but I’m sure futile attempt to keep the bone chilling cold away in the dead of the harsh European winter.
The forcible ejection of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi from the first class compartment in a Pretoria bound train in Pietermaritzburg or the refusal of Rosa Parks to yield her seat in a bus to a white passenger in Montgomery or the unconscionable 27 year incarceration of Nelson Mandela are perhaps the trigger events that would later be the impetus for movements that were ultimately responsible for people like me having the opportunity of being born a free person in a free country.
And this knowledge of the ignominy, suffering and sacrifice of our ancestors is the reason I treasure my freedom and despise any form of racism with equal fervor. I’m confused, peeved and enraged when I see racism in its various other forms (some subtle and some acrid) still alive and well in my own country (India). The British colonialists might be long gone but the vile manifestation of their legacy lives on.
I currently reside in the United States which is a nation with its very own long and checkered history of racism and also its myriad struggles to resolve and reconcile with its past in post segregation America. I’ve acutely aware of the Black-White dynamic in my 12 years living here and the incidences (some before I came here and many after) like the Rodney king beating and the deaths of Oscar Grant, Freddie Gray, Michael Brown and the consequential riots they sparked are all testaments to this subterranean wave of tension that still exists. I also became aware through some personal and some shared experiences of the fact that it wasn’t just prejudice against African Americans but also against Hispanics and Asians and any other races who were perceived to be non-europeans (read Caucasian). That said, I started taking note of the fact that the racist attitudes particularly against the Indian diaspora was as much a product of the deep seated and grossly misplaced prejudices that were passed down from generation to generation as it was to the pervasive ignorance of a large section of Americans about other races and cultures which has spawned the race fueled xenophobia we see today.
The recent xenophobic attacks where Indian immigrants have been targeted (2 dead 1 injured so far) by allegedly white Caucasian perpetrators points again to this very toxic combination of prejudice and ignorance. That being said, one must question the timing and the reasons behind the sudden spurt of the alleged hate crimes. Why have the perpetrators suddenly felt emboldened now to come out of their rat holes and carry out these despicable crimes when they have held the same prejudices and have been equally ignorant forever?
It is now that I would like to reuse the phrase ‘institutionalized racism’ in this context as I did at the beginning of this piece. I hope you get my drift. There is no place for such rhetoric and such ideology in todays world. That said, we simply cannot wish away these evils. The only way out of this is ‘institutionalized racism rehab’. America has to go to rehab. There are tactical and strategic parts to it. Here are my thoughts……
- The state (Federal government and all state and local governments) must proactively and aggressively move to stamp out all factions, entities and bodies that espouse any sort of racism or supremacist ideology.
- The Federal Government must make it abundantly clear by way of official proclamation issued to the Department of Justice, Homeland Security, FBI and other concerned law enforcement agencies that any acts of violence, intimidation or discrimination based on race will not be tolerated and they have the sanction to deal with such matters with a firm hand.
- All elected representatives must conduct town halls and unambiguously inform their constituents that any form of racism is not appreciated and will not be tolerated. They must discredit this recalcitrant myth that progresses a narrative that immigrants are taking away the jobs of Americans citizens and one that is causing great angst and sparking social unrest in America.
- The POTUS must address the nation and condemn the acts that have already transpired, assure all the residents of their safety and security and issue a stern warning to anyone who is contemplating any such depraved action. He too must debunk and discredit this stubborn myth that immigrants are displacing Americans citizens from their jobs.
- Community outreach and sensitization drives must be initiated to excise some of the distorted notions that people harbor about other communities.
The ignorance about other cultures starts at school and bigotry often times starts at home. If you don’t learn about other cultures at school then it is almost guaranteed that you will not learn it at home. All the young and impressionable minds need to be exposed to the huge wide world that exists outside the shores of the United States. This can only be done by incorporating into the curriculum courses about other nations, its peoples and their customs and practices. The sensitization has to begin at elementary level and reinforced throughout the educational journey of every child. It should be made mandatory for students to have passed these courses to be able to obtain the GED (like we have tests for naturalized American citizens). This is of course a generational shift in attitudes that will not yield results immediately. Patience and perseverance have to exercised to reap the social dividend of these policies.
Most importantly, all our leaders must realize that playing politics over matters of race and religion is a tinderbox they can ill-afford to toy with. If ignited it will burn down the very fabric of a multicultural, multiracial, multiethnic and multitalented America to ashes. Buyer beware!