Racism: Its bedrock
I wrote an article on the Capitol hill attack and its link with racism. This article dives deeper into racism, and most of what you read here is my understanding of the book that I am reading now: Caste: the origins of our discontent by Isabel Wilkerson.
Michael, African- American, walks into a dessert outlet in New York. The Outlet is crowded as it’s a favourite hanging spot for youngsters and people in the city. Michael didn’t find what he wanted, so he turned around to leave the Outlet. An employee of the Outlet notices this and finding it suspicious stops Michael from leaving the Outlet. He frisks Michael and not finding anything; the employee allows Michael to leave.
What’s big in this? The employee had a doubt, so he stopped and frisked the customer. But what made him doubt: Michael was leaving the Outlet empty-handed or an African American leaving the Outlet. Would he have been fisked if he were a white? American Civil Liberties Union, New York branch published a report in 2011 which stated that 53% of people stopped were black, 34% Hispanic and just 9% white. Are Whites the only good people on earth? Blacks and Browns are the worst people who can do no good.
And it’s not about frisking but the feeling of shame that frisking brings with it. The person is pulled out from the crowd and made to feel that they have done something wrong when they haven’t; the person is made to think less of themselves, lesser than other people. These incidents leave a scar on the person: emotional and psychological. And these acts are done precisely for the above reason to unsettle the targeted person.
What is the reason for blacks getting frisked more than any other race? Well, the reason for the distorted view that people from a particular race are more likely to break the law is not easy to grasp. While skin colour is the primary reason for the above view, other reasons exist for the distorted view. It’s like an outcome of a game depending on which team dons a better colour jersey. Possibly, the rules of the game allow the match referee to decide the game’s outcome based on their view about which team dons a better jersey-nicer colour. As absurd as it sounds, people are placed in a social order based on their skin colour and nothing else in the real world. People having dark skin colour are looked down upon because they have dark skin. Yes, this is the only reason. This quote captures the disliking that people with light skin have towards people with dark skin: “Personal aversion on the part of the white person for the Black; Personal aversion accounted for by nothing the individual Black is or is not, intellectually and morally; accounted for by the fact, simply that he is a Black, that he has black or coloured skin, that he is different, of another kind.”
But how did skin colour become the sole factor that divided people of the country? To understand this, one must know about slavery which existed before America’s birth. The European settlers in America needed labourers for working in their field. While poor Europeans worked as indentured labourers on those fields, bringing enslaved Africans from across the ocean was more profitable. The year 1619 records the landing of 20 African slaves. It marks an important event that spawned the practice of slavery in America.
Between 1525 and 1866, 12.5 million people were kidnapped from Africa and sent to America through the transatlantic slave trade, and these slaves were predominantly black. Whether racism came before slavery or vice-versa is debatable, but slavery did deepen the racist attitude- blacks and whites- in American society.
These slaves were at the mercy of their owners (White people). They were viewed as objects-not human beings. The whites beat them whenever they wanted to and needed no reason for beating, flogging them. The blacks worked for 17–18 hours every day, and little did it matter whether the slaves were men, women, pregnant women, or children. Whites saw the black as a separate species- not human beings. Not as someone who can feel pain or have emotions but as someone who can take the beating and continue working. Someone who deserved to be beaten as nature has created them for this. The slaves were treated inhumanly.
Although slavery was abolished a long time back, the view that blacks are a lesser race or are meant to serve the whites persists. The view exists in the form of the racial order. A racial order that ranks blacks at the bottom and whites at the top of the order. The existence of a racial order has benefitted those at the top: Whites. The order is premised on White superiority and black inferiority. Those at the top because of being at the top have easy access to the best schools, colleges, and jobs, enabling them to upkeep their dominance. As the spirit of a law that separated whites from blacks in the public space described: “This place you may occupy, that other you may not because I am I and you are you lest you or me it should be observed that I am I and you are you.
The heart of the problem was the White people’s belief that the black as a race and as an individual is his inferior: not human in the sense that he is human, not entitled to the exercise of human rights in the sense that he is entitled to the exercise of them.”
This belief guides the whites when interacting with blacks. The belief that blacks are inferior: How to keep him what he is in relation to the White man; how to prevent his ever achieving becoming that which would justify the belief on his part, or on the part of the people, that he and the white man stand on the common human ground.
The European immigrants who came to America adopted the racial order: seeing themselves as Whites and mistreating the blacks. Back at home, the Europeans had never seen anything of this kind. Back at home, the Turks, Swedes, Albanians, Russians may have fought with each other, but in America, they were united. The skin colour united them with the American whites. As one scholar remarked: “No one was white before he/she came to America.” They had to pick sides and were in a new country, so the Europeans needed the dominant race’s support for their survival. They chose to overlook the cruelties that Whites committed against blacks.
The belief that a particular race was superior to other races led to whites behaving in a way that one would not behave with another human being. Genome studies have debunked the race superiority and inferiority myth. Studies have established that all human beings are 99.9 per cent the same. Race is a social concept, not a scientific one,” said J Craig Ventor. We all evolved in the last 1,00 000 years from the small number of tribes that migrated out of Africa and colonized the world.
But the American social order is not the only of its kind that exists in the world. A similar social order exists in India and is much older than the American social order. In India, the order is premised on people born into certain varnas or class have a higher status than people born in other varnas. The varnas have an overlay of the profession, meaning people are grouped not on skin colour but what they do for a living. And it’s absurd that people who are grouped based on what they do have no say in choosing what they do or their profession. The order is an inherited one.
Though the apparent reason for looking down upon blacks is skin colour, other reason or pillars exist that allow a racial order to continue. Now the article will discuss the pillars upon which racial order survives or rather thrives.
Pillar 1 Divine will and Laws of Nature
The dominant race backed up the racial order by referring to sacred texts and laws of nature. This was absurd, but humans tend to fear God, so it was easy for them to sell the story. The story that God approved such an order and had different rules for people depending on their skin colour or caste. In India, the caste system is mentioned in its religious texts. The religious texts place people in different varnas, and each varna has a rank in the caste system. Going by the religious text, India has four varnas — Brahmans, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras- the order is from top to bottom. Brahmans are believed to be born from the mouth of Brahma (the creator), Kshatriyas from the arms, Vaishyas from thighs and Shudras from the feet. The untouchables are another class that is below the Shudras, also called the unmentioned class. These untouchables were thought to be impure and could not come near to Brahmans as even their shadow could spoil Brahmans’ purity.
In the West, Whites have backed up the racial order by referring to religious texts. According to their religious texts, all of the humankind came from the three sons of Patriarchal Noah. Noah was thought to be God’s messenger. Noah cursed one of his son’s ad his son’s posterity to be slaves. Some text readers have lumped black skin and slavery together. So, Whites assert that blacks or Africans descended from Noah’s cursed son. And some even say that Noah cursed son was black; therefore, the curse was against all those who were black.
Pillar 2 Heritability
The people who were born to a particular race were labelled as Whites and blacks. The labelling decided how society will treat them. In America, the mother’s race decided the labelling for their children, whereas, in England,Father’s race decided the child’s race. The rule was different in America because slaves were seen as properties/objects, and any child of a woman slave would automatically become a slave. And flowing from the above, mother’s race deciding the child’s race meant that White men could impregnate black if they wanted to regardless of black woman’s consent. At one point, the American slave industry was valued at $3.5 billion. This translated into: more slaves= the richer the owner. The slave owners, through the mother’s race rule, ensured that a black slave’s children remain their assets. As the author states, “turned black woman’s womb into a profit centre.”
Pillar 3 Endogamy and the Control of Marriage
Endogamy is marrying within a specific group- it may be a custom or laws that restrict marriage within a group. The custom or law may require a person to marry within one group. Endogamy also had the idea that marriage is between equals. So, if whites had married blacks, it would have indicated as marriage between equals. This was not agreeable to the whites as whites always thought of blacks as an inferior race.
Endogamy prevented the whites and blacks from interacting as equals. It stopped the whites from communicating/socializing with blacks where whites could have realized that the traits upon which the racial order relied were artificial. Had the blacks married whites or Vice-versa, the blacks would have become family members of whites, and the feeling of care and sympathy within a family would have brought the blacks and whites on the same footing.
Endogamy was necessary for creating boundaries between blacks and whites. The decision-makers among whites knew this and put in a lot of effort to restrict marriage within their group. They always wanted the whites to see blacks as a different/inferior species that could not do what the whites can. The blacks deserved to be flogged, beaten for without that, they are uncivil and savage monsters.
Pillar 4 Purity
The idea that a particular race is pure and that people from a different race were impure was, along with divine will, a strong pillar of the race system. The idea of purity was subtler in a way that it didn’t directly point out to God’s will but implied that one race was closer or more favoured by God than the other. The lower race was kept separate and few paces apart from the upper race as it was thought that the impure race could pollute the purer race. Practices like blacks were prevented from using the pool, public transport, having a reserved space for whites in public transport, enacting laws that defined who is pure, and who isn’t meant to remind the blacks that they can never be equal whites. For example, Virginia passed the racial integrity act, 1924, which not only barred interracial marriage but also defined a white person as one “who has no trace whatsoever of any blood other than Caucasian.”
The funny part is that their low status was used to justify their low status; their exclusion was used to justify their exclusion. If one observes how the race system worked, the so-called ‘inferior’ race was kept away from education. They couldn’t take part in the economic activities, the only space for them was doing menial/low-skilled jobs. So, they could never have got out of their plight: all doors were closed for them. Their degraded station justified their station.
Pillar 5 Occupational Hierarchy
African Americans were looked like a race that is meant to serve the upper class. The whites saw blacks only suited for low-intellect and little skill jobs. Sen. James Henry Howard of South Carolina told his fellow senators: “That is a class requiring but a low order of intellect and but little skill. Its requisites are vigor, docility, fidelity. Such a class you must have… It constitutes the very mudsill of society.
The blacks were restricted to jobs like sharecroppers and servants- domestics, lawn boys, chauffeurs, and janitors. The educated among black could go only as far as the system would allow, that is, teach, minister to, attend to the health needs of other subordinate caste people.
The legislature laid down that “no person of colour shall pursue or practice the art, trade or business of an artisan, mechanic or shop-keeper, or any other trade, employment or business (besides that if husbandry or that of a servant under contract for labour) on his own account and for his own benefit until he shall have obtained a license from the judge of the district court, which licenses shall be good for one year only.” The whites were exempted from paying such fees. Mind it; the fees were an exorbitant $100 a year, the equivalent of $1500 in 2018.
“Anything that causes the black to aspire above the plow handle, the cook pot, in a word the functions of servant,” Gov James K. Vardaman of Mississippi said, “will be the worst thing on earth for the black. God Almighty designed them for menial work. He is fit for nothing else.”
Most slaves were black, making it easier for whites to associate them with menial work that needs physical strength. Even when blacks and whites were employed together, it rarely happened; blacks would seldom supervise whites. Blacks would never be promoted, although they would do their jobs well or better than their white counterparts.
Pillar 6 Dehumanization and Stigma
Dehumanization is robbing a person of the human qualities that human beings naturally possess. It requires a lot of effort to dehumanize a person in another persons’ view. How can one deny the truth that a person is a human being? How can one deny the truth that blacks have the same emotion as whites; Blacks feel the pain just as any human being would do when beaten, flogged. It is a systematic process often used to pit a group against another. The group that needs to be excluded is dehumanized in the eyes of other people. For example, Nazis dehumanized Jews in the eyes of the Germans. We all know that 6 million Jews and 5 million others were murdered during the holocaust. But how did things reach this far where a large-scale murder could be carried out. Nazis dehumanized the Jews before any of those murders could happen. When Jews arrived at concentration camps, they had to remove their clothes and accoutrements that they owned. Their heads were shaved; they were not seen as individuals but a group of hopeless and nameless faces. They were not seen as humans, so any action against them appeared reasonable.
As the author states, “Both Nazi Germany and the United States reduced their out-groups, Jews and Americans, respectively, to an undifferentiated mass of nameless, faceless, scapegoats, the shock absorbers of the collective fears and setbacks of each nation.” Germany blamed Jews for the defeat in World War 1, and the U.S.A blamed African- Americans for many of its social ills.
Pillar 7 Terror as Enforcement, Cruelty as a name of the control
By beating, flogging the blacks, the whites created fear [terror] in the minds of blacks. The whites used fear to prevent the blacks from protesting the beating and creating fear; they had to behave cruelly with blacks. Fear reminded the blacks that whites were superior to them and they had complete control over them. Cruelty was a means through which blacks were terrorized. In America, “the whip was the most common instrument of punishment”, wrote Kenneth Stampp.
One of the slaves was lashed 400 times by his overseer. The slave was hanging to a tree’s limb by his hand, and his feet were chained together. And the reason for lashing was he had spoken something beyond the low status of blacks. The slave had suggested that “Massa, much corn grow on a crooked row as a straight one”, as the slaveowner had pointed out that rows of crops were uneven-this was enough for him to be lashed 400 times.
Pillar 8 Inherent superiority and inferiority
This pillar is the glue that sticks all the pillars together. Whether it’s the divine will, endogamy all points to the idea of inherent superiority and inferiority. whites behave the way they do because they believe that they belong to a superior group and they deserve the best in society. They resent if any black rises beyond the status that whites think is suited for blacks. The blacks were not supposed to dress better than whites, not drive better cars, not have fancier homes than whites. In India, Dalits were not supposed to wear the clothing and jewellery of upper-caste people. They wore rough and threadbare clothes as “the marks of their inferiority.” The blacks had to comply with the code of conduct that whites laid down. It covered the tone of an answer, in not answering, in the facial expression, in the gait. If the blacks broke the code or did anything that was not in line with their low status, the whites punished them for daring to be someone who they were not in the whites’ view.
The black occupies a position of inferiority and servility, of which he is constantly reminded when travelling, by restriction and by the attitudes of his white neighbours.”
“His whole life is one anxious effort to preserve his caste,” said the Dalit leader Bhimrao Ambedkar about the dominant caste. The upper caste knows it well that the traits upon which the racial order is based are false. Whether white, brown, or dark, all human beings can succeed in their respective fields if given a chance. But racial order favours those at the top, so the few that benefit don’t want to let go of the order. As long as the order helps the rich getting richer, the order will continue to live.
I had mentioned in my previous article that two terms for a black president brought out the anxieties of the whites. Donald Trump was not an accident; it was meant to happen because racism runs deep in American society, whether Americans accept it or not.