ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
-A A +A

Race and Caste

Caste is even more incompatible with the development of working-class consciousness than race.

Intellectual activists often find it necessary to pen historical accounts of the nature of the processes they have been struggling against—racism, casteism, patriarchy, capitalism and imperialism. Predictably, political partisans of the official positions in the higher academy invariably argue that the works of these intellectuals are not “objective,” and even try to “purge” them from the university in order to safeguard the “venerable institution” from “politicisation.” We need to however keep in mind that these intellectual activists write from the vantage point of commitment to liberation. Unlike establishment academics, they tend to give a great deal of importance to the successes and failures of the liberation movements of the past, and to human agency in making history.

One such intellectual activist, Angela Davis, sought to link the collective predicament of black people in the United States (US) and Dalits in India at the Eighth Anuradha Ghandy Memorial Lecture in Mumbai on 16 December on the topic “Black Lives, Dalit Lives: Histories and Solidarities.” While acknow­ledging that “race and caste are not fundamentally the same; they are two different modes of subjugation,” she emphasised the importance of “learning from the long histories of Dalit peoples in India.” Davis’ lecture was a great opportunity to learn about the struggles for black liberation in the US, past and present, and to realise that such liberation is essential to the liberation of all people, and impossible without it.

Davis was at one time a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Black Panther Party, and has also been a member of the Communist Party USA. There was a time when the Federal Bureau of Investigation considered her a fugitive and named her “the most wanted criminal in America” for a crime she did not commit and for which she was later found innocent by the courts. In 1969, Ronald Reagan, then Governor of California, tried to get her barred from teaching in any university in that state. Given this history, it was heartening to learn from Davis that the black liberation movement in the US is now no longer beholden to “messianic black (male) leaders promising liberation in exchange for deference” and that the current Black-Lives-Matter movement was unlike any other in the past, with black feminist women-activists in the forefront.

What also came across in Davis’ lecture was the interplay of continuity with change in the racist lynching of blacks in the past and the 2014 incident of a police officer shooting 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri or the 2015 murder by Baltimore police of 25-year-old Freddie Grey despite a black political establishment being in-charge of the city. In a fundamental sense, whether in the past or the present, what has been happening in the US is a sort of state-sanctioned killing of black people. Such killing, whether through lynching by white supremacists in the past or murder at the hands of the police in the present, can be seen as the ultimate reaffirmation of the racist sentiment of white superiority.

We need to remind ourselves that both exploitation and racial discrimination are rooted in the very structure of American capitalism. One might then think of African–American and white workers as potential natural allies in a common struggle against the white ruling class. But racist ideology (claiming white superiority–coloured inferiority) still effectively divides the exploited and the oppressed. This ideology has its roots in capitalism’s initial international expansion in the 16th and 17th centuries and in its need for readily exploitable labour from among the natives, whether they are yellow or brown, red or black, with the latter forcibly recruited as slaves from Africa to take advantage of the natural resources of America. The Civil War did lead to the abolishment of slavery, but racial prejudice and segregation prevented the building of working-class solidarity of black, brown, red and white workers. In the decades since the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, a black political establishment has also evolved. Now, the black liberation struggle is crushed by the white ruling class with a combination of co-option and repression that relies much more than before on the former.

In India, the Dalit struggle for liberation centres around the annihilation of caste, which, unlike race, originated in prehistoric times. Despite the development of underdeveloped capitalism from the colonial period onwards, the caste system still manages to stabilise and rigidify the social structure of Indian society. While the race problem does present a profound threat to the status quo in the US, caste, by and large, with its structure of “graded inequality,” has served as a conservative and divisive stabilising institution, despite the deep humiliation and indignity, cruelty and brutality that its main victims, the Dalits, are made to suffer.

The caste system has deeply divided and degraded the downtrodden peoples of India. Indeed, sweepers, scavengers, and gutter and latrine cleaners, the most underprivileged of the lot, are treated as untouchables by other untouchables. So, while caste Hindus treat the untouchables as pariahs, a subset of the latter treats the even more degraded untouchables in the same way. Despite creating an avenue for individual upward mobility and improving the average income, educational and occupational levels of the “backward castes” and the Dalits, protective discrimination in the form of “reservations”—in the political system, in higher education and in government employment—has set the disadvantaged peoples of India even further apart than they already were, even widening the disparities between them, and thereby further fragmenting the already divided masses. No one would wish the plight of India upon any other country.


(-) Hide

EPW looks forward to your comments. Please note that comments are moderated as per our comments policy. They may take some time to appear. A comment, if suitable, may be selected for publication in the Letters pages of EPW.

Back to Top