It was 1 December 1955. Rosa Parks, an American activist, refused to give up her seat on an Alabama bus in favour of a white passenger, which was required by law at the time. While she was not the first voice against the segregation laws that persisted in the United States for decades, the movement set an example for nonviolent resistance resulting in corrective action.
In December 1956, the Supreme Court in the United States opened the doors to equality by ruling that segregation on public buses in Montgomery and Alabama was unconstitutional, after what was a 381-day-long resistance against the decades of racial discrimination experienced by Black Americans.
More than 60 years later, Seattle became the first city in the United States to pass a law banning caste discrimination. The legislation will recognise caste as a unique basis of discrimination, similar to race or gender. The Seattle Law refers to the 2020 U.S. Census, which found that Washington is home to more than 167,000 people from the South Asian diaspora, most concentrated in the Greater Seattle area.
The fight against caste-based practices that resulted in the passing of the law in Seattle, followed a years-long push by the Dalit civil rights organization Equality Labs, and other local and national groups. A survey conducted by the organization in 2016 showed that “one in four caste-oppressed people faced physical and verbal assault, one in three faced education discrimination, and two in three (sixty-seven per cent) faced workplace discrimination.”
While the roots of traditional caste-based practices can be traced back to India, they certainly did not stay there. Indian Americans are the second-largest immigrant group in the United States, swelling upwards of four million, showed a recent study by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“Everywhere South Asians go, they bring caste and trauma from caste apartheid. Caste migrates and spreads, re-establishing itself in our new geographies as we arrive as settler colonials. Caste is embodied by all diasporic South Asians, regardless of our ethnic, national, linguistic, religious, sexual, or political affiliations,” said Thenmozhi Soundarajan in her book “The Trauma of Caste”.
However, as more activist groups speak up, efforts are being made to initiate conversations regarding caste, especially in educational institutions. In what could be termed a watershed moment, one of the largest academic institutions acknowledged the presence of caste-based oppression on campus and sought to tweak its anti-discrimination policy.
In January, California State University, with more than 437,000 students and 44,000 employees statewide, added caste to its non-discrimination policy, becoming the largest academic institution to do so. Brandeis University was the first to achieve this feat in 2019. Other universities that followed suit included the University of California, Davis, Colby College, Colorado College, The Claremont Colleges and Carleton University.
Parallels with India
While the caste system in India has been talked about, anthropologists and scholars have found common aspects with the race-based caste system that exists in the west - both practices create a notion of inferiority and superiority within societies.
One such anthropologist, Ashley Montagu wrote, “The idea of race was, in fact, the deliberate creation of an exploiting class seeking to maintain and defend its privileges against what was profitably regarded as an inferior social caste.”
But, race and caste are not synonymous. American journalist Isabel Wilkerson in her book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents noted that race is the visible agent of the unseen force of caste.
This agent took many forms in the west. The notion that the dominant caste is “pure” and would be polluted by the other castes was strongly followed during the “Jim Crow” (these laws were introduced in the Southern United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. "Jim Crow" was used as a pejorative term for an African-American) era. The laws also sought to confine the “lower castes” to perform menial jobs such as working in tobacco fields and serving their “masters”.
Right after the Civil War, South Carolina passed a law stating that “all persons of color who make contracts for service or labor, shall be known as servants, and those with whom they contract, shall be known as masters.”
In 1848, the Massachusetts legislature banned segregated schools, in what became the first legal action against such schools in the United States. The action came in response to a lawsuit filed by Benjamin Roberts against the city of Boston on behalf of his five-year-old daughter, Sarah, who was denied admission to schools in the neighbourhood and was given admission in the only all-black school in the city.
US senator Charles Sumner, one of the lawyers in the case, said, “The separation of children in the Public Schools of Boston, on account of color or race, is in the nature of Caste, and on this account is a violation of Equality,” adding that caste makes distinctions among creatures where God has made none.
In fact, in one of the largest Civil Rights movement demonstrations that broke the silence about racial segregation in schools, over 4,64,000 New York City children — almost half of the city’s student body — boycotted school on 3 February 1964. Although the boycott did not achieve immediate reform in the schools of New York City, it proved to be a turning point towards a larger reform that The Civil Rights Act of 1964 tried to enforce.
The Act that was enacted five months after the New York City school boycott, outlawed discrimination based on race, colour, religion, sex, and national origin.
However, school segregation continued in major northern cities including New York City, Boston, Chicago, and Detroit. According to the UCLA Civil Rights Project, New York City continues to have the most segregated schools in the country.
In fact, after more than six decades since the Act was passed, the governing document of Alabama still says white and coloured children are prohibited from attending school together, Associated Press reported in 2021.
But the tactic of non-violent civil disobedience coupled with support from other communities made strides in some areas. “Sit-ins'' were a common form of protest that began when four freshmen from a historically Black college made some purchases at the local department store - F.W. Woolworth - but were refused service when they sat down at the “whites only” lunch counter.
They remained seated. And arrived the next day with a dozen more students which eventually led to the F. W. Woolworth Company department store chain removing its policy of racial segregation in the Southern United States.
Although civil rights laws were passed in the subsequent years including the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibited discriminatory voting practices; and the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which barred discrimination in housing sales, rentals, and financing, racial equality was not yet achieved.
Black leaders who were committed to fighting against racial injustice and white supremacy became targets of harassment at the hands of law enforcement. Such kind of harassment foreshadowed the events of resistance in the year 2020. When the world was forced to close its doors to protect itself from a deadly virus, thousands took to the streets expressing outrage over the death of an African-American man, George Floyd. Videos surfaced of Floyd lying face down and handcuffed, while a Minneapolis police officer pressed a knee to his neck for nearly nine minutes as he gasped for breath – "I can't breathe".
The origins of such violence against African Americans date back to the last hundred years of American history that have witnessed such events. In 1921, Oklahoma’s busiest black business district, Tulsa, also known as “Black Wall Street,” saw one of the worst incidents of racial violence in America.
White mobs burnt homes and businesses into ashes, killing about 300 people and leaving nearly all of the city’s black population stranded and homeless in a matter of 35 hours. Since then, many reports have accused Tulsa city officials of ‘covering up’ the white mob violence and leaving the violence out of public discourse for a long time.
However, the protests demanding justice for George Floyd spread to countries across the globe and transpired a shift in public discourse about the “Black Lives Matter” movement. Each country had its own George Floyd for which they sought justice.
What transpired following the protests saw lawmakers vowing to bring reforms in the police department, toppling down of several confederate and slavery-linked statues around the world, and more importantly, it brought the onus on industries and organisations — including the media — to address such institutional discrimination.