03 July 2020
Race, caste and what it will take to make Dalit lives matter
A Dalit protest in Delhi in 1991. The caste system thrives on what BR Ambedkar described as “graded inequality”—a seemingly infinite fragmentation of castes and sub-castes, the position of each dependent on its discrimination and violence against those it claims superiority over.
ON A WEDNESDAY EVENING in July 1967, two white police officers dragged a black man, John William Smith, into their precinct building in the city of Newark. Smith, a taxi driver, had just been arrested, for the alleged crime of improperly passing the officers’ car, and had been beaten so brutally that he could not walk. Residents of a housing project saw him dragged in, and a rumour set off: the cops had killed another black man. A crowd formed, and resorted to attacking the precinct building. For five days, violence tore through the city, with a toll of over two dozen lives. Some called it rioting—others a rebellion.
That was just one flashpoint of what came to be known as “the long, hot summer of 1967.” The United States saw over a hundred and fifty “race riots” that season, with police brutality against black people a common spark, extending a long lineage of rage—Hough in 1966, Watts in 1965, Harlem in 1964 and 1943, Chicago in 1935 and 1919, and on and on. The US president, Lyndon B Johnson, already battling public anger over the invasion of Vietnam and faced with a fresh crisis, formed a committee to answer three questions: “What happened? Why did it happen? What can be done to prevent it from happening again?”
The Kerner Commission, as part of its work, hired a group of social scientists to bolster its research. Their draft submission to the commission echoed the radical language and ideas of the rising Black Power movement, and came to some alarming conclusions. Under the present course, the researchers wrote, the United States was headed for a full-blown race war, with “guerilla warfare of black youth against white power in the major cities of the United States.” The only way out was a radical programme to tackle the poverty and socioeconomic stagnation facing black communities, to reform the police and other institutions that plainly discriminated against black people, to make drastic changes that went far beyond the “token concessions” to the community so far. “There is still time,” the researchers added, “for one nation to make a concerted attack on the racism that persists in its midst.” If it did not, “The harvest of racism will be the end of the American dream.”