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History of social discrimination
Discrimination has been universal. Men are born free, but they are every where in chains said Karl Marx from economic point of view. But the chains binding the lower classes of society are even throttling, since one can raise about economic backwardness, but not social backwardness, when you are either a shudra in India or a Negro in U.S., a burden which cannot be cast away at one’s will.
Slavery has existed from the dawn of history. In ancient Greece, the population was divided into three main classes, which were politically and legally distinct. The fourth class was at the lowest being slaves reminiscent of four fold classification (Chatur varna) among the Hindus. George H. Sabine in “History of Political Theory” points out that in ancient Greece, slavery was taken for granted even as feudal ranks were taken for granted in the Middle Ages.
The lot of slaves was even defended by the leisure class. Robert E. Lee in U.S. in 1856 wrote:
“The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, physically, and socially. The painful discipline they are undergoing is necessary for their further instruction as a race, and will prepare them, I hope, for better things. How long their servitude may be necessary is known and ordered by a merciful Providence.”
Even a historian like Alexis de Tocqueville, in Democracy in America justified the continuation of segregation on account of racial differences. The slaves were claimed to have been better looked after by their masters. George Fitzhugh said that a Negro is little better grown up child and must be governed as a child. The slavery was sought to be made light of by Congressmen in the U.S. in those days as nothing more than an employment for life compensated by a life with “no starvation, no begging, no want of employment”.
The position in Europe has not been different. One has only to refer to Code Noir promulgated by Louis XIV to regulate the slave trade and institution of slavery. In Louisiana, the French colony in the U.S., the Code was adopted. This Code did recognise for the slaves the right to marry, but prescribed corporal punishment for dereliction of the tasks entrusted to them. One of the punishments was to separate married couples. Children could be separated from their mothers. The slaves were also to be instructed Catholic faith conceding that the slaves too had a soul, a matter on which apparently there had been some differences!
In all the States in U.S., religion whether Protestant or Catholic strictly discouraged inter-racial relationships with segregation common in churches.
Extreme care was taken to eliminate the risk of slave rebellions. Voices were sometimes raised on moral grounds as well as practical reasons to oppose slavery, but vigorously opposed by slave merchants. During most part of the British colonial history, slavery existed. In 1703, more than 40 per cent New York city households had slaves. In the South, labour intensive agricultural produce like indigo, rice, tobacco and cotton, which were major crops, required manual labour. In South Carolina, 65 per cent of the population was enslaved.
The Constitution of the United States in 1797 permitted a tax on import of slaves at ten dollars each. It was in 1807, the Importation of Slaves Act was adopted to bar import. These steps affected economy of the Southern States aggravated by Abraham Lincoln’s call for abolition of slavery resulting in the civil war. But slavery continued for a few decades thereafter.
The conditions of the Black people continued to be degrading. Emancipation proclamation by an executive order of the President Lincoln changed the legal status of the slaves, who were made free. But the fight for social status was a long drawn one. Notwithstanding the 13th Constitutional Amendment, involuntary servitude continued. Many were re-enslaved with shocking brutality. Segregation for Black was the rule. Black schools were manned by Black teachers in the South. It was as late as 2007, an apology for involuntary servitude was organised in the Virginia General Assembly.
Martin Luther King’s contribution
Martin Luther King Jr, a pastor, used the power of the church to bring some sanity in approach to the problem of discrimination. He was constantly engaged in the fight against segregation with the authorities on one side and the die hard extremists like Malcolm and Ku Klux Klan on the other. Blacks were kicked, ejected from the churches and thrown into jails. When things went out of hand, King called off the demonstrations and held a day of penance following Gandhi’s method and was criticised for surrender to the Government. But he provoked mass arrests thereafter, had them widely publicised, when protestors were sought to be dispersed with high pressure water jets and police dogs.
King was arrested and jailed, his 13th arrest out of 29. From his cell, he composed the now-famous letter which called for a relentless movement to pursue legal channels for social change. He said, “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” He pointed out that the Boston Tea Party, a celebrated act of rebellion in the American colonies was illegal and conversely, what Adolf Hitler did in Germany was legal! This was his explanation to justify defiance of law to vindicate the rights.
King also expresses his frustration with white moderates and clergymen too timid to oppose an unjust system. The Whites justified the attack on the Blacks by pleading the law and order and advised Negros to wait for a “more convenient season”. It was then he made the famous “I have a dream” speech which took the U.S. by storm. It is worth repeating:
“I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its Governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little Black boys and Black girls will be able to join hands with little White Boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today”
The above speech is one of the finest orations in the history for inspiring the affected.
Civil rights movement on a Sunday in 1965 turned out to be a “Bloody Sunday” because of mass violence provoked by police violence. King then became desperate and wrote that equal rights for African Americans could not be far away, “because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”. The battle was to go on till it succeeded. He wanted housing and means of alleviation of poverty for the poor and wrote a book on the subject calling for “Economic Bill of Rights for Poor Americans with the title “Where Do We Go From Here? – Chaos or Community?”.
The place where Martin Luther King was assassinated on 4th April, 1968 now houses National Civil Rights Museum.
Vested interests are bound to ensure that they are not divested by all means. It is, therefore, not surprising that all kinds of arguments are canvassed against reservation policy for schools and colleges and for jobs. Both in U.S. and India, the argument is that merit gets ignored in the process. Merit is assumed to be the privilege of higher castes. A DNA theory of inherited genes goes round making the twice-borns to be the sole depositories of merit. Though this kind of argument is a silent one prompted in India, there has been a parallel but more open development in the U.S. where the Whites have openly canvassed the view that the Blacks are mentally inferior with a pseudo-scientific approach to support this absurd proposition. It was opposed by an equally fanciful theory, by Lysenko, a Russian agronomist, that acquired characteristics can be inherited.
A new theory to oppose reservation in favour of the Negros was styled in America as “reverse discrimination”, which is supposed to be the result of reservation for the Blacks. In both India and U.S. there is a plea to adopt economic criteria so as to dilute the reservation system. In India, reservation for women including political reservation is talked about, but it is claimed, that open/ general/ non-reserved categories results in significant reverse discrimination and affects the poorer sections of the unreserved classes. The lesser qualifying marks for the reserved category comes in for heavy criticism.
The question of reverse discrimination has come up not only with reference to the colour of the skin but also of the sex due to competition of women in recent times especially in educational and medical fields. In the case of women, it is stated that no preference should be given to them because of prosperity of their husbands! It is pleaded in the US that preference shown to the Negros or women or the aged has resulted in a “mismatch” hurting the society as a whole.
Both in India and U.S., number of cases are being filed on the plea of reverse discrimination. In U.K. too, criticism of the policy is evident from an Article written by David Rosin, a former Vice President of Royal College of Surgeons lamenting “it is time that someone spoke of concerning the reverse discrimination” adding that “female and ethnic minority consultants are being given preferential treatment to meet artificial quotas”.
In U.S., preference on the basis of race (colour) was challenged unsuccessfully in 2003 in Gruttar Vs. Bollimger, when race was held to be a diversity factor as justifying the affirmative action in admission in University of Michigan Law School.
Propaganda that reservation undermine the quality of standards in the U.S. is persistent. A similar propaganda in India is that the present malaise of corruption and inefficiency is on account of reservation policy, though a statistical study is bound to expose the absurdity of this mischievous claim.
There has been a conflict between law on equal opportunity on one hand and the law against discrimination in other in the Courts in U.S. and Indian Courts.
Martin Luther King is no more, but the battle is on. Election of Obama as the President is a significant success for social justice platform in the U.S. In India, the progress is tardy with a long long way to go. The battle for social justice by way of agitation for civil rights in U.S. is a lesson for fighters for social justice in the rest of the world and more so in India. Notwithstanding rights under the Constitution or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, equality is still a dream. Men like Martin Luther King and Abdul Kalam dreamt for a better world. So do we. Will our dreams only be dreams?