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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 36, New Delhi, August 22, 2020

Racism: An Entrenched System | Suranjita Ray

Friday 21 August 2020

by Suranjita Ray

The death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old African American, in Minneapolis on 25 May 2020 spurred the #BlackLivesMatter (BLM) movement back into action. The video clip of a white police man crushing the neck of a black man under his knees and choking him till he breathed his last, shocked the world. Social media was flooded with voices against police brutality, violence and barbarism inflicted on black communities by the state and its vigilantes. In solidarity with the movement, which contests the systemic prejudice, discrimination, and racism that targets the black community, millions took to the streets demanding justice for George Floyd and those killed by police.

Structurally rooted and intergenerationally transmitted atrocities against particular communities have brought black people across social and economic sections together to express their collective experiences of harassment and assault. They demand a future that values human rights, dignity and equality for the black community. Several such struggles by ordinary black people against police brutality and killings of unarmed African Americans such as those in Ferguson in 2013 and the march from Freedom Plaza down to Pennsylvania Avenue to Washington D.C. with the slogan ‘I Can’t Breathe’ in 2014 are reminiscent of the fact that anti-black racism not only survives but also its perpetrators have not been held guilty.

While it is hard to delineate the narratives of racial oppression as a category of everyday life and a form of stigmatised existence, such incidents elucidate that racism is not an archaic phenomenon. Racism persists despite a series of civil rights laws and policy reforms that aim at eliminating centuries old and deeply entrenched systems of racial inequality and injustice. We find resurgence of ethnic cleansing, genocide, and racial bias which grievously questions the commitment to democratic values.

Everyday Racism

Race plays an important role in demarcating boundaries between communities creating binaries that divide the social and cultural space in society. It is not race but racism that endorses the idea of a racial hierarchy and opposes racial parity. Racists have their prejudices against the black community and rationalise discrimination, humiliation, subjugation and control. While segregationists argue to exclude black people as inherently inferior, assimilationists express their willingness to include black people in white society on the condition that they change their culture and behaviour (see also Sanneh, 2019).

The forms of racism are multiple, historically specific, situationally variable, complex and often contradictory. While verbal racism is experiencing verbal remarks that are obnoxious and offensive, behavioural racism is based on racist sentiments, discrimination, assault and denial of identity and dignity. Everyday racism is a collective prejudice which sustains hierarchy defined by skin colour and bodily features (see also Bhargava, 2020: 6). Colour consciousness is built into the cultural and social reality which stigmatises black people as inferior and sustains exclusionary practices and layered oppression.

Racism is complex, multi-layered and is not a constant and monolithic attitude. While the historical context is specific to the forms of racism, it is important to understand that even when obvious forms of racial oppression become less visible, subtle forms of everyday experiences of discriminations, marginalisation, subjugation, control, oppression and exclusion of the minorities, which are insidious, continue. It is cumulative and embedded in the geographical, physiological, cultural, social, economic and political structures, institutions, and processes which directly or indirectly legitimise the dominance of particular belief systems, values, attitudes, ideologies and practices. It is embodied through attitudes, beliefs, behaviours, laws, norms, practices that reinforce the power asymmetries. At times it is hard to talk about racism as the racial prejudices and beliefs are at an unconscious level, but it has a detrimental effect as black people experience stare, abuse, violence, distress and exoticism, which leaves them with trauma. These experiences are a lived reality for people of colour across the world. It is not easy to narrate – ’what it means to be black in society’. The transgenerational ordeal has enormous impact but they largely remain silent or invisible issues. It is only when visible forms of blatant and violent street racism and heinous crimes occur, that people come together against racism.

Often solidarity movements that fight against anti-black racism have been transformative. We see intra-white conflict as many white participants who are sensitive towards racism (see also Sanneh, 2019) join these movements. We also see that most black people do not always contest their subordination. Therefore, the hidden dynamics in personal, interpersonal and social relations alongside the unconscious negative feelings and beliefs about black people needs to be understood. It is important to underline the new forms of vulnerabilities and control which black communities and minorities have been subjected to. Repackaging itself as ‘colour blind’, a multi-polar racial pattern has largely supplanted the old racial system with a new racial stratification that varies substantially by gender, class, religion and region, which although comprehensive allows racial inequalities to endure (Winant, 2006). Contemporary forms of racism have shifted their focus away from biological notions of racism to cultural notions. However, it is important to take into cognisance the biology-culture continuum and intersections between race, culture, religious beliefs rather than a fixed biological/cultural divide to understand increasing intolerance, hatred and segregation of certain minority religious groups and communities. While solidarity movements worldwide condemn ‘white supremacy’, the unchanging forms of social stratification/categorisation, and unaltered hierarchical social relations legitimise inequalities and discrimination.

Though race as a category disadvantages black communities, making them vulnerable to multiple processes of deprivation, oppression, exploitation, exclusion and marginalisation, conscious validation of egalitarian principles by the state makes racial discrimination, humiliation and other slights less visible. Institutionalised racist domination and white supremacy is not always oblivious. However, at the micro level racist discriminations are embedded in institutional practices. An intersectional analysis of state and society is important as both draw on each other to develop strategies of dominance and control. They are mutually reinforcing systems and multiplication of group identities has seen the conflicts over immigration, ethnic minorities, indigenous people, refugees and citizenship that have taken new intensity in plural and multicultural societies. Race, ethnicity and culture have formed the basis of nation building of many contemporary nation states. The neo-conservative and neo-rightist ideologies understand racism as an ideology that is continually changing, challenged, and interrupted. Though racism is open to interpretations, it is important to constructively engage with everyday experiences of racism to eliminate it. The practice of democracy will remain incomplete without the annihilation of practices of racism which are gaining ground.

In recent years we have seen increasing hostility towards minorities leading to the mounting waves of public lynching, intolerance, hate speech, prejudice, and everyday violence. This has contributed to alienating major sections of society as the ‘Other’. Over the years, frequent violent attacks on African and African American students and minorities across the world illustrate that no sufficient and visible deterring measures have been implemented by the State. Despite strong condemnation from the highest political levels across ideologies, the state has failed to acknowledge the persistence of deep rooted prejudice and racial discrimination that stigmatises particular groups and communities. Experiences of denial of freedom, liberty, self-respect and dignity have made the constitutional rights of citizens guaranteed by the state merely symbolic.

Summing Up

With a history of its own, the BLM movement expanded the repertoire of rights claims and moved beyond the extra judicial killings of black people by the police to value the lives of black queer and trans folks, disabled folks, black undocumented folks and folks with records (Graza, 2016). By calling oneself ‘Black’, one not only affirms the content of those categories, but also asserts the confrontational identity and struggle that challenges the history of discrimination, subjugation, humiliation and stigmatisation. However, ‘To Be Free’ was/is deeper than symbolic for black minorities, as major issues still remain unresolved. Patterns of experiential structures and processes of inequalities, discrimination, oppression, exploitation, stigmatisation and dehumanisation that are systemic and cumulative persist. Therefore, it is critical to address the root causes of racism rather than the symptoms of it.

The waves caused by the death of Floyd were felt across continents resulting in an interrogation of inherent racism which once again brought to the fore the need to contest the legacy of the culture of violence against the black community. There is a need to dismantle the structures of inequality, hierarchy and oppression without which vast majority of black people will continue to remain victims of the processes of deprivation, exploitation, suppression, marginalisation and disempowerment. It is important to lead the protests and the recent assertions against anti-black racism. There is a need to change racist attitudes alongside changing racist policies to defeat racism.

Author:
Suranjita Ray teaches Political Science at Daulat Ram College, University of Delhi. She can be contacted at: suranjitaray_66 [at] yahoo.co.in

References

Bhargava, Rajeev (2020) ‘The anatomy of anti-black racism’ in The Hindu, 10 June, page 6.

Graza, Alicia (2016) ‘A Herstory of the #BLM Movement’ in Janell Hobson (Ed) Are All the Women Still White? Rethinking Race, Expanding Feminisms, State University of New York Press.

Sanneh, Kalefa (2019), ‘The Fight to Redefine Racism’ in American Cronicles, 19 August Issue, www.newyorker.com, visited on 2 August, 2020.

Winant, Howard (2006) ‘Race in 21st Century’ in Mark Kesselman and Joel Krieger (Ed) Readings in Comparative Politics Political Challenges and Changing Agendas, Boston, Houghton Mifflin.

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