When nearly 300 nurses from Manipur, who had been working at various Kolkata hospitals, resigned from their jobs to return home a few weeks ago, citing racism and discriminatory treatment in the times of COVID-19, it hit me hard for many reasons. I will put my finger on but two of them.
The first comes from my personal experience. Many years ago, when I had been admitted for a few days to one of these hospitals for surgery, I had the opportunity to converse with a few nurses from the northeast, most of whom were Manipuri.
When I asked them if they were satisfied with their jobs, some of them told me that they loved serving people, but they wished that they were paid better and that their schedules were not as hectic as they were.
Another issue some of the more unfortunate ones had to deal with, but didn’t complain about – and something I personally witnessed – were a few pernickety and deliberately unpleasant patients who would throw a blood-curdling fit if they felt that, by some weird anti-inmate conspiracy, they were being subjected to unjustly undercooked dal.
However, these were complaints that other nurses who were not from the northeast had too. None of them had given any indication that they had to deal with discrimination or accommodation problems because of their ethnicity. It is possible that none of them had faced any racial discrimination until that point. But even if they had, at one level, I understand why they didn’t want to tell me.
Despite all the hardships that they had to deal with, they managed to stay cheerful in order to help the patients feel better. If they had faced discrimination, they probably didn’t want to trouble me, a patient (albeit a healthy one; more importantly perhaps, also a stranger), florid details of the more troublesome aspects of their lives in Kolkata. That might have been unprofessional on their part as well.
There could be an even bigger reason. No matter how sympathetic I might have sounded in lending an ear, I was visibly a member of the community that might, justifiably, be seen by students, nurses, workers from the northeast who migrate to the Indian metropole in search of better opportunities in education, employment and healthcare, as responsible for racist discrimination and xenophobic violence against them.
This is not the first time that there has been an exodus of northeastern people from a major Indian city that was driven partly or entirely by fear of racial violence. Nor is racial discrimination or violence against people from the northeast of recent import. The northeast, the multitude of its peoples, histories, languages, cultures and traditions have been erased from our mainstream to such an extent that our metropolitan communities know next to nothing about them. Those slightly more informed come mostly to see the northeast as a ‘security’ problem and are given to think that the history of the northeast begins in the ’60s.
People from the northeast are seen as ‘aliens’ regardless, and hence the xenophobia. One might like to remember Nido Taniam‘s name in this context, lest we forget that it goes beyond ‘mere’ harassment – like being called ‘Coronavirus’ on the streets or by your racist landlord.
The second reason I was impacted by the news of the exodus is related, which I will return to a little later. First, allow me to invoke James Baldwin here:
“What white people have to do is try and find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a “nigger” in the first place, because I’m not a nigger, I’m a man. But if you think I’m a nigger, it means you need him. The question that you’ve got to ask yourself, the white population of this country has got to ask itself… If I’m not the nigger here and you invented him, you the white people invented him, then you’ve got to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that, whether or not it is able to ask that question.”
A few days ago, Christian Cooper, a Black American man who is an avid birder, was roaming – and watching – around in a bird-watching area named Ramble in Central Park in upscale New York City. It was there that he encountered the strange sight of a middle-aged White woman – later identified as Amy Cooper (unrelated) – walking around with her Cocker Spaniel unleashed, even though it was against the rules of Ramble to keep dogs unleashed. Here is the clip, posted by Christian’s sister Melody on her Twitter:
Oh, when Karens take a walk with their dogs off leash in the famous Bramble in NY’s Central Park, where it is clearly posted on signs that dogs MUST be leashed at all times, and someone like my brother (an avid birder) politely asks her to put her dog on the leash. pic.twitter.com/3YnzuATsDm
— Melody Cooper (@melodyMcooper) May 25, 2020
At first, Christian, concerned about the birds, requested Amy to do the needful. When she refused or ignored his request, he told her that he was going to film her rule violation. As if for the camera, Amy became animated and advanced balefully towards Christian, demanding that he stop filming.
Then, realizing that he wasn’t going to just let her get away like that, she stepped back, whipped out her phone from her pocket, took off her mask, and then told him that she was going to call the police on him: “I am going to tell them that an ‘African-American man’ is threatening me and my dog.” She repeated the threat, her emphasis on “African-American man“, at least thrice.
“Please call the cops,” dared Christian, who knew she was the one violating rules, even as she dialled 911. Presumably in her haste to see a Black man suffer (clearly not someone she felt threatened by), and also fearful that she might be punished for rule violation should Christian share his video with the online crowd or with the police, she clumsily leashed her dog and dragged it around, nearly strangling the poor animal, even as she danced around the grove, adjusting the pitch and timbre of her voice, before performing a damsel-in-distress play-act over the phone to a nicety, all the while being filmed.
This is not just about an obnoxious, entitled upper-middle-class woman tattling on a man because she couldn’t take getting chided mildly to discipline (though it is that too). No. This has much more depth and nuance to it than that. When she said, “I am going to tell the police that an African-American man is threatening me,” she was signalling to Christian that she was going to make liberal use of the predominant stereotype of a black man in white racist America; that he is a ‘threat‘ —more specifically, a threat to a white woman – and that she was going to use the police scare on him, to desist him from doing what a responsible citizen ought to do, report a fellow citizen’s law/bylaw violations (provided those laws are fair, of course) to relevant authorities, or at least make them public.
And a black man had enough reason to be intimidated by Amy’s prank call to the police. As anthropologist Aisha M. Beliso‐De Jesús has demonstrated in her study on recruitment and training processes in American police institutions that “white governance is intimately tied to the embodiment of the state through the institution of the police.”
In other words, the American police system is a white supremacist institution. Which isn’t surprising, given how white supremacy has been foundational to everything related to the American state. The United States of America is often sold as the “oldest democracy” in the world, but it was built on legalized, violent, and dehumanizing extraction of labour from enslaved black Africans and their descendants, and on land and resources stolen from Native Americans, who were subjected to genocidal violence.
The very basic ritual of voting, which is seen by some minimalists as some sort of high watermark for a democracy, would be denied to black Americans by violently racist white Americans. It would not be provided legal security until 1965, when the Voting Rights Act was passed. That took generations of struggle and sacrifice from black people to be realized.
But, the white supremacist project of disenfranchising black people has been unabated, with the state attempting various subterfuges like segregation laws, racial gerrymandering, erosion of affirmative action, redlining, and more. As long as white supremacy has a near-exclusive hold over power, it will only use it to tweak and refashion laws and rules that put racial minorities, particularly black Americans, at a disadvantage.
Any action driven by an aspiration to attain full political, social, economic and cultural parity with whites by blacks is seen by the former as a threat to their unearned white privilege, or rather, ‘earned’ by their ancestors through systematic and institutionalized exploitation, plunder and barbarism.
Many scholars have studied in detail the standard apologia for extreme and inhumane violence, exploitation and plunder that used to be inflicted by white European colonials upon non-white peoples across the globe – that they were doing it to “civilize” the non-white native “savages“, who had no ability to think for nor to govern themselves. It was suggested that this civilizing mission necessitated the use of force (I know the irony reeks) from time to time to keep them civilized.
One of the most recent such attempts has been made by historian Kim Wagner, in his centenary book Jallianwala Bagh: An Empire Of Fear And The Making Of The Amritsar Massacre, where he casts light on how this very rationale was used by General Reginald Dyer in ordering his troops to shoot indiscriminately at a gathering of unarmed protesters at the Jallianwala Bagh. Here, he quotes Dyer justifying his terror attack on the Bagh crowd at the Hunter Commission hearing (p. 169).
“I fired and continued to fire until the crowd dispersed and I consider this theleast amount of firing which would produce the necessary moral(emphasis mine), and widespread effect it was my duty to produce, if I was to justify my action. If more troops had been at hand the casualties would be greater in proportion. It was no longer a question of merely dispersing the crowd; but one of producing sufficient moral effect, from a military point of view, not only on those who were present but more specially throughout the Punjab. There could be no question of undue severity.(emphasis mine)“
Wagner has shown in his book that the revolt of 1857 had shaped attitudes of the British establishment towards subsequent gatherings of Indians.
While the fact of the revolt itself, and the brutalities perpetrated by Indian soldiers on unarmed British civilians in India during the same allowed them the opportunity to reemphasize their belief regarding the “savageness” of the “natives” and to continue their plunder and violence on the excuse of “civilizing” them, it also informed attitudes of people like Dyer, who ended up erring on the side of the massacre.
Wagner further argues that gratuitous and systematic colonial violence was based on a system of alterity, a “law of colonial difference“, where conflict and warfare with fellow white Europeans would be governed by a very different set of rules than those which governed their engagements with “savages” – the latter were to be spoken to in the very language that, according to the colonials, they understood.
Thus, an elaborate epistemology of racialized difference evolved, which influenced the works of many 19th and early 20th century white intellectuals like the anthropologist Lucien Lévy-Bruhl or the writer Rudyard ‘White Man’s Burden’ Kipling. This kind of insistence on radical alterity helped create an intellectual niche for white men, that lent an air of respectability and “objectivity” to their well-trained racism. Consistent efforts were made to ‘prove’ that non-white people were less than human, and therefore deserving of the lowly station that the violence and extraction by white colonials had consigned them to. It helped that white men were exclusive gatekeepers of the intellectual space.
The same kind of reasoning would be applied to slavery in America as well, only the dehumanization would be far more routine. The extreme violence and exploitation of the slavery system directly or indirectly shaped most institutions in the country.
As Baldwin pointed out, the Superior White Man needed to “invent the nigger” for two reasons: one to tap into the ruthless and heartless capitalist economy, that necessitated the creation of systematized slave labour in hopes of maximizing profits from the plantation capitalist economy; and the other to create a visible underclass that would allow the white man, rendered insecure by the ruthless competition to corner wealth and resources, to feel superior to an entire group.
This resulted in a culture of cognitive dissonance, where repeated assertions by slave-owners that the slaves were subhuman and were essentially worthless, were belied by the former’s obsession with “guarding their property“. This led to a system of patrolling, where paid overseers with guns would keep watch over the slaves at work. They would be there to train their guns on any slave who might have tried to escape. They would also be around to lash any slave who might fail to keep up with the required pace, owing to the inhuman working conditions that they would be subjected to.
In Beautiful Country Burn Again, which attempts a historical analysis of the reasons behind Trump’s win, author Ben Fountain gives a brief description of how the slave patrollers, or “paddyrollers” as they were sometimes called, operated.
“Certain people, granted power, can be counted on to abuse those under their authority just because they can; one imagines moreover that gratuitous beatings relieved the tedium and fatigue of nightlong patrols and served to reinforce the notion of who was boss.
The paddyrollers’ authority extended to patrolling plantation grounds and entering slave quarters, where the presence of books, writing paper, weapons, liquor, luxury items, or more than the usual store of provisions was cause for beating. “Gatherings”—weddings, funerals, church services—were grounds for beating, writes Hadden. Mingling with whites, especially poor whites, or any “loose, disorderly or suspected person”: beating. Back talk: beating. Dressing tidily: beating.
Singing certain hymns: beating. Even best behavior could earn a lick: “Elige Davison, another former Virginia slave, remembered that as bondsmen lay asleep in their own quarters, patrollers would enter and lightly hit them with a whip to see if they were truly tired and asleep at the end of the workday,” Hadden writes. For an enslaved woman, a beating might well be the least of her worries.”
The culture of training guns on black people by white American racists was thus founded on America’s plantations. After slavery was legally abolished in 1865 with the 13th Amendment of the American Constitution, this rich tradition of racial violence continued in order to keep the former slaves under perennial subjugation.
As was globally the case throughout the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, legalized and institutionalized white supremacist terrorism kept non-white people subdued even outside the States. America continued waging imperialist wars against non-white peoples abroad, while framing racist laws – like the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act or the Immigration Act of 1917- to keep non-white people from entering the United States or participating in its flourishing economy. (And their legacies have had their own fair share of victims.
A curious case, one of the more recent ones that come to mind, is that of Sureshbhai Patel, a diminutive Gujarati grandfather who had in the winter of 2014-15, travelled to the US to be with his son, daughter-in-law and infant grandson. He decided to go out for a walk one fine morning in the neighbourhood where his son lived. Someone noticed the strange non-white man in the neighbourhood and mistook him for a black man. They immediately called 911, alleging that this ‘black man’s’ movements were ‘suspicious’.
Patel ended up with a spinal injury and partial paralysis in his limbs after having been pinned down and struck violently by a white police officer who responded to the call. No consideration was given to his repeated appeals that he was Indian and knew no English. Had he been white, he would most probably have been listened to. Heck, even gun-toting white male anti-lockdown ‘protesters’ at a State Capitol are listened to.
The Patel case demonstrates the anti-POC (people of colour) bias in general, and anti-black malevolence in particular, of white racist America.) No Reconstruction era financial packages were provided by America’s banks to the emancipated blacks, who had to stay attached to white people through still exploitative labour schemes, like sharecropping.
However, violence against black people at home continued with the motivated viciousness that was a legacy of the era of chattel slavery. As Ben Fountain further writes:
“The system continued largely intact after Emancipation and the defeat of the Confederacy. Legally sanctioned slave patrols were replaced by night-riding vigilantes like the Ku Klux Klan, whose white robes, flaming torches, and queer pseudo-ghost talk were intended for maximum terrorizing effect. Lynching and shooting took place alongside the more traditional punishments of beating and whipping; blacks’ economic value as slaves had evaporated, and with it, the constraints on lethal force that had offered some measure of protection under the old system.”
Black people continued to be lynched by white supremacist terrorists till the 1980s, well after the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and well after the assassination of Malcolm X and Dr Martin Luther King Jr. They were also subjected to police violence.
Strict segregation meant that black people lived in separate neighbourhoods, coded as ‘inner cities’ or ‘ghettos’ by dog-whistling white racists. These neighbourhoods were deliberately kept out of economic and educational opportunities through measures like redlining (as mentioned earlier) which meant that black people’s options in life were severely restricted.
Only ‘exceptionally talented’, or exceptionally lucky ones managed to raise their standards of living. If a black person had, through a combination of hard work and skill, attained some measure of economic and social success, they would be in the crosshairs of white racist terrorists.
An illustrative case of one such tragedy was highlighted by writer-journalist Trymaine Lee in his article for the New York Times’ ‘The 1619 Project; last year. Elmore Bolling, a loving husband and father of seven, was shot a total of seven times to death in late 1947, for the heinous crime of owning a few small businesses and providing employment to about 40 black people – something that allowed the latter to live lives of dignity rather than as sharecroppers in the employ of malevolent white people who would dehumanize them.
This kind of organized racial terrorism against black people forced many of them to severely limit their economic aspirations. With segregation still existing de facto, even though de jure abrogated, black people knew that all “real” economic opportunities existed in enclaves where white people lived, especially with discriminatory policies like redlining.
Black people have typically avoided entering areas where white people live, for fears of being harassed, arrested, or even killed by the police or armed racist vigilantes (a manifestation of America’s serious gun malaise) – the latter consuming Ahmaud Arbery earlier this year in February. As sociologist Elijah Anderson demonstrates in a paper, black people regard overwhelmingly white areas as “white spaces“.
“Blacks perceive such settings as “the white space,” which they often consider to be informally “off limits” for people like them,” he writes. “Meanwhile, despite the growth of an enormous black middle class, many whites assume that the natural black space is that destitute and fearsome locality so commonly featured in the public media, including popular books, music and videos, and the TV news—the iconic ghetto.” And, further, “White people typically avoid black space, but black people are required to navigate the white space as a condition of their existence.”
This mismatch gives white people a kind of advantage and privilege that they are collectively, consciously and subconsciously unwilling to let go. (Also, in certain cases, white people are not entirely unwilling to enter ‘black spaces’, like in the case of white police officer Amber Guyger’s cold-blooded murder of Botham Jean in his own apartment two years ago, and who, many argued, was let off with a much lighter sentence than deserved because she shed ‘white tears‘ at the hearing.)
Extreme poverty and economic disenfranchisement led some of the young black people to illegal activities, like selling drugs. And, as happens with competition in illegal activities, that has sometimes led to violence. This has been used as an excuse for excessive policing and surveillance in black neighbourhoods, and white racist politicians have used the ‘law-and-order’ dog-whistle to continue the legacy of slave patrolling.
Targeting of black children, especially black boys, starts young. Black minors and adolescents are not seen as children, any incidental violent tendencies of theirs are seen as exceptionally destructive, their propensity to criminality exaggerated, thus resulting in disproportionate arrests and incarceration of black youth, a veritable system known as the “school-to-prison pipeline.”
In extreme cases, police simply shoot dead young black boys, like in the case of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in 2014. He was shot dead for brandishing a toy gun in a country where white boys and men carry out with sickening regularity school shootings and church and synagogue shootings, armed to the teeth as if going to war, and to prevent which law enforcement hardly ever seems to be at hand.
They are also hardly ever shot dead, and it always seems quite possible to nab such terrorists alive, showing a clear bias regarding which gun-wielders are seen as more threatening.
It’s not just a black man whose mere existence is deemed a crime punishable by death, even black women like Breonna Taylor are killed for the same crime – in the latter’s case again white police officers seemed not to have any issue with entering a ‘black space’ since she was murdered in her own apartment.
All these murders of black people by white racist vigilantes, terrorists, or the police has a running thread – impunity.
This is another legacy from the age of slavery. Virtually any crime imaginable could be committed upon enslaved black bodies by white slaveowners, and they would hardly ever be punished for it, if at all.
Since black people were not even considered human beings, these were not even classified as crimes, just as any violence you commit against your television cannot be deemed a crime. Black slaves were ‘property’, therefore they had no rights, and an entity that had no rights could not be committed any crime against. This gave white people virtually a free license to murder black people without fear of consequences.
The same is true even today. Despite clear evidence available of their criminality, white racist police murderers get away with… murder – like in the case of Philando Castile in 2016. If you do think there is some ambiguity in determining Castile’s culpability – just that little shred of doubt – then George Floyd’s agonizing murder should leave you with none.
Although the four police officers have involved in Floyd’s case have been charged, who knows if the jury might find them, especially Derek Chauvin, ‘not guilty’, like juries with near-metronomic regularity every time a black man is killed? There are so many injustices that black people have been cruelly subjected to under a white supremacist doctrine in the US, but they cannot all be summarized here.
It is relevant to know, however, that the malevolence of Amy Cooper’s pretend delicate-white-femininity, which acts as a potent complement to murderous white male rage in keeping white supremacist patriarchy intact, recalled the tragedy of Emmett Till and the horrific lynch-violence that was visited upon the 14-year-old boy about 65 years ago, because a white woman made deliberate false accusations of sexual harassment against him. The police were supposed to have been Amy Cooper’s white knight lynch mob.
Even as #BlackLivesMatter trends the world over following the barbaric daylight – and on-camera – the murder of George Floyd, a black Minneapolis man by a Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, I couldn’t help but notice how Asian Americans aided and abetted the crime.
The 911 call that brought the police to the site of murder was made by an employee at an Arab-American store, and the officer who prevented others from preventing Floyd’s murder was Hmong-American.
It was a painful reminder of the fact that while white supremacy was the fountainhead from which systemic racism and violence flowed, there were others facilitating that flow – those who buy into deliberately contrived bad-faith myths like “model minority“, which places Asian Americans, especially East Asians and South Asians on a higher rung than black people and non-white Hispanics in a white racist hierarchy.
Centuries of European colonial violence and divide-and-rule policies pitting one group of non-white peoples against another, engendering conflicts through deliberate deprivation and infecting certain groups with the virus of the supremacist mindset, has finally come to all this. The sly way this is done is by making ‘Whiteness’ the silent norm, whereby white skin, white occupations, white conspicuous consumption, white beauty standards, white accents, white history, white culture is portrayed by the media as the norm, while “others” are exoticized.
Everything is seen and evaluated in the context of these norms, thus conveniently keeping white people out of the evaluation process. Thus white people are seen as “objective” and “unbiased” by default, because they stick to such artificial standards sold to us as natural. This is the pernicious aspect of white supremacy, that makes most non-white people aspire to Whiteness. Challenging this construct takes privileged white people out of their comfort zone, thus triggering emotional and physical reactions that are symptomatic of white fragility.
Anyway, coming back to the point, as the popular Indian-American comedian, Hasan Minhaj, pointed out in a recent Patriot Act video, Asians managed to tap economic opportunities in a fundamentally white supremacist country like America in the first place because black people held the so-called American democracy to full account, through their traditions of resistance and protest. Because they made sure that the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act made it easier for non-whites to enjoy legal status as full humans, and as citizens in the country. And, that paved the way for the Immigration Act of 1965, and the rest is history.
Hundreds of thousands of black bodies and minds were sacrificed, enormous resilience showed across generations, to afford everyone that historic moment. So when Asian Americans engage in anti-black racism, they, in a retroactive sense, bite the hand that fed them. But it is not necessarily in America that they pick up anti-black racism. Because there is plenty of it back home to learn from, even though the numbers of black people there are much fewer than in the US.
As my mind wanders back home, following the lead of that thought, I am reminded of the horrors inflicted upon Yannick Nihangaza, a young Burundian student of Computer Science and Business Administration in India, who was brutally thrashed by a bunch of allegedly drunk Indian men in Punjab in 2012.
The haunting sight of his father, Nestor Ntibateganya, an economist, facing the camera with an uneasy calm marking every crease on his face, and gently touching the hand of his son, himself in a state of coma, came back to me. It is so many things at once. Haunting, depressing, infuriating, heartbreaking. That picture, to me, is symbolic of the kind of waste that vicious racism, particularly anti-black racism, in India lays to ‘othered’ lives in India.
After spending two years in an unsuccessful attempt to bring him back to consciousness, Yannick was flown back to Burundi, where he died another two years later, in 2016, never recovering from coma. A murder trial was initiated after his death, but whether or nor justice has been done in the case is kind of irrelevant. For starters, there can be no justice for a father who lost his beloved son to senseless violence – nothing can bring his son back.
What the case revealed, at least to me personally, was the kind of welcome African students get in India, after having been lured in with offers of a quality education. Even though they are milked for profits, there is never any cultural sensitivity shown towards them. Predominantly Indian fare served at on-campus messes doesn’t suit them, so they have to leave their hostels and stay off-campus and cook their own food. Staying inside the campus provides a measure of protection to them. Going outside exposes them to racist discrimination and violence on the streets. They are also at the risk of being cheated.
I have myself witnessed an unscrupulous vegetable-seller attempting to fleece a couple of African men when they wanted to buy cucumbers from him. Indian racists also give justifications for their anti-black violence that are very similar to those given by white racists elsewhere – that they are criminals, drug-peddlers, unruly, promiscuous. As a result of the threat presented by this kind of unnecessary violence, many students go back home without even getting the degrees they came for – first survival, then education.
Little political effort has been made to educate or sensitize Indians about Africans and their diverse cultures. And certainly, no visible effort has ever been made to undermine India’s very own white supremacy, or rather, ‘fairness‘ supremacy. The popularity that the ruling ideology in India enjoys shows how deeply white supremacy is ingrained in the Indian, and especially the Hindu supremacist, psyche.
Indians, in general, have been conditioned to see fair-skinned people as their natural rulers, a lurker in the subconscious that went into overdrive in the conscious during colonial rule. Although there is no one-to-one relationship between skin colour and caste, mating arrangements in India’s still quite strictly enforced hierarchical caste order have ensured that overall, colour has some correlation with caste – darker one’s colour, lower one’s caste.
In the era of post-independence consumerism, India’s ‘fairness’ culture was born. The venom of anti-black racism emerges in the churn of this very culture. For all the philosophical and spiritual traditions that many Indians pride themselves on, they are some of the most obsessive-compulsive practitioners of judging a book by its cover.
One of the most salient aspects of India’s disgraceful lookist culture is, in Freudian terms, an oral stage fixation on how one’s skin is complected. “Kaala” is used as a slur, so is, at least in some social circles, “African“. When you try to politely explain to that bespectacled uncle—the one with a stately comportment and a refined accent—that not all Africans are the same, because Africa is a continent with more than 50 countries and also the most genetically diverse, he leans in, literally, and preceding a laugh that seems to hit all the right notes, says, “Well, they all look the same still, don’t they?”
So does everyone from the northeast. In fact, there is no way to tell if they are Chinese or not. Why bother applying your mind when you have the privilege of doing fine without the effort? So, when Indian starlets and superstars started dishing out all the #JusticeForGeorgeFloyd and #BlackLivesMatter platitudes, coming from industries dominated by fair-skinned Hinglish-speaking north Indian people – who, amazingly, still appear to need fairness creams – as they do, it all rang hollow.
As many have since pointed out, this kind of performative social media activism in support for oppressed people abroad is typically not successfully transferred to contexts closer to home, when systematic abuses and atrocities against Dalits, Adivasis, Muslims, Kashmiris, transgender people and northeast Indians take place. But as Khushwant Singh wrote in Train To Pakistan, “India is constipated with a lot of humbug.”
Of course, we should demand justice for George Floyd. And for Ahmaud Arbery. And for Breonna Taylor. And for so many others like them who have been victims of the evil nexus between white racism and police brutality in the US.
Of course, we ought to be vocal in our support for Black Lives Matter. There is no question about that. Injustice anywhere is injustice against fellow humans, and coming from a tradition of building international anti-colonial and anti-racism alliances, Indians ought to know the importance of transnational and cross-racial solidarity.
But, that cannot happen unless we take more interest in the histories, literature, anthologies, cultures, psychologies, anthropologies, philosophies and economies of the people we seek to support. This is something that W.E.B. du Bois attempted to do by organizing the Pan-African Congress in 1919, which brought together people of African heritage from all over the world to a forum to share their political, historical and cultural realities with each other.
Later Pan-African Congresses saw the expansion of congregations to include people from all racial and cultural backgrounds. British-Indian politician and anti-imperialist, anti-racist, Communist activist Shapurji Saklatvala was also present at the second Pan-African Congress. In later formations like the League Against Imperialism, which saw the participation of important Indian politicians such as India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, ties were strengthened between Indians and black people from all over the world. It was this kind of equality and solidarity on which independent India’s earliest bonds with black people all over the world were formed.
So it can be seen that it is important that we learn to appreciate differences through a lens of commonality – only when we understand that we have more in common than we might imagine, can we situate the differences in their proper contexts. Centuries and generations of white supremacist violence have conditioned many of us to think of racial/ethnic hierarchies as normal, of whiteness as the norm, and of might as right.
We are busier selling inferior quality generic drugs and overpriced cucumbers to Africans than we are learning about their histories and sociopolitical struggles in the postcolonial era, or forming meaningful, lasting, people-to-people, non-exploitative economic partnerships. We are now apparently competing with China (which, by the way, also has its fair share of anti-black racism) for some kind of hegemony in Africa, alongside a host of other neo-imperialist countries, thus apparently engaging in a kind of “benevolent imperialism.”
There used to be a time when India would show solidarity with people oppressed by racism and colonialism all over the world. Now it is all about markets. We pretty much treat Africa as, in the inimitable Binyavanga Wainaina’s words, “if it were one country.”
People of Indian origin living in African countries are not infrequently accused of anti-black racism. All this is extremely unfortunate because Indians face racial violence in other contexts. In cases like those of Mr Sureshbhai Patel, it is painfully obvious that it doesn’t matter to committed ignorant racists whether or not a person is black or Indian or Arab or Sri Lankan.
To racists who are aware of the differences, it’s just about pitting one group against other through the promotion of pseudoscientific racial hierarchies, exploiting all the groups while themselves safely continuing to stay on top that way. This is all about an abuse of power, a coordinated effort to maintain privileges acquired through continued violence and plunder. And this abuse is sought to be done with impunity.
As mentioned earlier, most white racist murderers of non-white people, especially of black people, and especially in the US, have been deemed innocent of any crime, mostly by all-white juries. There wouldn’t even be a trial in many cases. White supremacist terrorist organizations like Ku Klux Klan were, far from being prosecuted, lionized in gross racist American movies like Birth Of A Nation. After such domestic racial terrorism was deemed a PR disadvantage during the Cold War era, organized and blatant racial violence were outlawed, but discrimination continued through the violently racist socioeconomic structures left behind by slaveowners.
So, when we speak out against racist violence, we have to speak out against this culture of impunity, we have to ask for dismantling or discontinuation of racist systems – like discriminatory black neighbourhood patrolling policies, de facto segregation of schools, the “War on Drugs” which disproportionately affects poor black people, defunding the police, white supremacy as a governing principle of the armed elements of the state etc. Speaking of white supremacy, it is time to start calling the varied, deep injustices that the system has inflicted upon non-white peoples in the world.
It is time to decolonize our systems. So everything we have been taught to prioritize in terms of environmental protection, for example, must be put into proper perspective. When we talk about the problem of massive deforestation in developing tropical countries, we must not forget that this was set in motion by European colonials, as part of their resource extraction programme.
First and foremost, we must stop or at least drastically minimize continuing the same in the name of “development”. We must restore forests and habitats to the extent possible, and also the lives and livelihoods of the indigenous forest-dwellers who have been victimized by eco-imperialism and its descendants.
The developed nations of today that owe their current prosperity in large part to centuries of extraction going hand-in-hand with racist violence, must pay reparations that are due. People in the West, essentially white people, contribute the highest amounts of greenhouse gases per capita, and therefore Western countries are the most responsible for global warming – a fact that is one of the indirect effects of generations of wealth maximization through the exploitation of free non-white labour and extraction of resources in their lands, in combination with employment of greedy profit-intensive technologies that disregard the health of the environment. They have to take responsibility to reduce their per capita greenhouse gas emissions.
Of course, non-white people have to commit to the same goal as well, but among them, class (and in India’s case, caste) stratification is a key determinant of food intake levels, and while ensuring that food security is provided to the poor and hungry among us, we have to start examining the consumption habits of the more privileged among us. We also have to reckon with Victorian-era oppressive laws that still pathologize our social contracts. Removing the spirit of iniquitous oppression from the legislation is what legal decolonization is all about.
Unfortunately, under a supremacist regime, we have regressed to great levels, which means that in a sense, we are still colonized. A well-coordinated system of physical, social and economic violence by enforcer white supremacists (state and non-state) and by complicit white people against black people in America has contrived to make black people (as well as Latinx people) disproportionately vulnerable to the current COVID-19 pandemic.
The white racist White House administration has taken no steps to alleviate the situation that is worthy of mention. There must be accountability for this tragedy, especially considering the fact that hundreds of thousands of non-white innocent people have been – and continue to be – killed by America’s direct or indirect neo-imperialist invasions into their territories in the name of “War on Terror”, ever since accountability has been sought for 9/11.
The white supremacist structures of global finance, that allow for financial flows to be controlled by the whims of unelected white people from America or Europe in the World Bank and the IMF, must be dismantled and rebuilt with much greater agency given to the previously colonized peoples, focused on reparations, redistribution of wealth and technology transfer from the West.
There must be a fixed minimum global wage, and minimum marginal taxes on corporate profit and individual wealth accumulation of billionaires, which won’t allow them to make easy profits through exploiting cheap non-white labour. The gatekeeping of global academia by predominantly white institutions and white people must be dissolved – because this allows intellectually dishonest people like, for instance, historian Niall Ferguson, who peddles white supremacist and neo-imperialist ideology using his academic credentials, to present Eurocentrism as the ‘truth’, as Lévy-Bruhl did in the past – and better systems put in place to allow academic publications based on true merit, that doesn’t discriminate against non-white, non-Western scholarship. The idea that white opinion is by default “objective” must be questioned at all levels.
It is true that the process of decolonization has already begun. It had begun long ago in developing societies. But now it is getting closer to home. Black Lives Matter protests all over the world, especially in the developed world, show how the institutionalization of white supremacist violence is beginning to be resisted. There will be understandable nervousness among those who have benefited from keeping such violent and exploitative systems in place. Hence, the upping of police brutality against unarmed civilians and peaceful protesters, and the descent of military might on the streets of America.
The armed corps of the state, or rather their potential for violence, is always seen as akin to personal property by those who benefit disproportionately from said society’s inequalities. But, those who suffer the worst violence of a cruel and unjust system will never stop holding such systems accountable. We must all join the call for justice, and not be satisfied with just piecemeal changes, but demand revolutionary changes. And we cannot be selective about it. There is no prospect of real change, if we raise our voices against violations of people in other societies, and remain indifferent about or even support systemic violence against oppressed groups in our own societies.
— BBC Radio Bristol (@bbcrb) June 7, 2020
Every single system that freely grants impunity to perpetrators of criminal violence and exploitation must be brought down like the statue of 17th century English slave-trader Edward Colston in Bristol. There must be stringent accountability in all such systems, just like we must hold our own society accountable for the racist violence that killed Yannick or the discrimination that led the Manipuri nurses to leave a supposedly cosmopolitan city en masse.
The false rumour that the Chinese developed SARS-CoV-2 as a bioweapon, well debunked, has continued to rule the hearts of Sinophobe racists all over the world. And in India, the brunt of any frustration engendered among ‘real (self-proclaimed – read: racist, chauvinist) Indians’ by real or perceived military impotence at the LAC has always been borne by people of the northeast; stands to reason that the brunt of the frustration engendered by the incompetence of the current ‘truly nationalist’ government in handling the pandemic ought to be borne by the “Coronavirus” northeastern people – to the extent they are people, of course.
All this violence has to be fought and fought vehemently. Consistency in fighting injustice is what allows for trust to be built, for solidarity and unity in purpose to be built. Systems and social processes that seek to divide are either a legacy of white supremacy or a similarly diseased consanguine, that ought to be similarly discarded – something that should be seen as an integral part of decolonization. The problem is not just white supremacy, but any and every kind of supremacy. After all, poison, no matter what colour it is, is poison.