As the “Black Lives Matter” protests sweep across the U.S.A, with thousands of people, Black, White and Latino, out on the streets protesting against racial injustice and racially-targeted police brutality, deep fissures within the US society have come to light. A country which has vaunted itself as the “oldest democracy” has shown up the deep inequalities and discrimination which underlies this so called democracy, a land of apparently free opportunities to achieve what has been widely advertised as the “American Dream”. But achieving this “American Dream” itself is all about your background, the privileges which you have actually been born into. And these differences in opportunities and background get most amplified in fields which apparently work on the basis of “merit” such as the much-vaunted STEM (science, technology, engineering and medicine) fields, but which actually are the havens of privilege. As a post-doctoral scientist who worked and lived in the USA for four years during the middle of the last decade, my observations and insights into the deep racial divisions and discrimination in American society in general, and in the field of science and technology in particular, was an eye opener.
What was most astounding for me, and something which I think has been one of the major causes for the outpouring of the anguish of African-Americans on the streets of USA, is the internalization of racial discrimination within American society. No one talks about race, it is impolite to talk about race! Everyone is impeccably polite while dealing with people of other races, no one will utter the N-word, “diversity” is highlighted in every institutional programme, every city has a road named after Martin Luther King, African-American sports stars and music artistes are celebrated, but everyone is blind to the blatant racial divisions openly existing in society. The progressive and well-meaning whites, such as the ones in research and education, like to believe that the civil rights movement solved the race “problem”, and bland and innocuous formulations such as “diversity” can take care of whatever residual racial divisions still exist. In terms of admission to higher educational institutions, strict formulae are followed, giving representation to fixed numbers of Caucasians, African-Americans, Hispanics, Asian-Americans (which means people of Chinese descent) and Indian-Americans (which means people of Indian descent) with mathematical precision. To someone unaccustomed, or wilfully blind, to racial discrimination, it will look like an ideal society where Blacks, Whites, Hispanics, India, Chinese and everyone else is living happily together, eating the same Big Macs and drinking the same coke, and driving the same cars. But in the middle of all this the huge racial divides between Blacks and Whites will stare at your face, for anyone who cares. Police violence on Blacks is just the naked part of it, the structural violence runs much deeper.
The statistics tell their own story. The science and engineering workforce in the US only employs 5% Black Americans, although their proportion in the working age population (18-64 years) is 12.3 %. Contrast this with the White male population: 51% of the science and engineering workforce is White American although they make up 32.1% of the total working age population. But beyond the statistics lie the everyday experience of institutionalized, internalized, disparities. I worked in one of the largest research hospitals in the USA, in a city which lies on the northern borders of the US, with a majority Black population. The city has a rich history of Black culture and activism, being the place where the black poet and activist Langston Hughes grew up. During my four years of stay in the research institute of this famous hospital, I found only one Black faculty member, he too not an African-American but a native Ghanaian educated in England, who moved away in a couple of years. There was a single Black graduate student, who also did not finish his PhD. In contrast, the entire cleaning staff was Black; I did not find a single White American. This contrast, breathtaking in its starkness and unfairness, confronted everyone every day, but no one noticed it or commented on it. There was a very friendly Black gentleman who would come to clean my lab late in the evening, by when nearly everyone had left, and would chat jovially with the people who were still around. I would speak with him, and imagine that his profession had probably remained unchanged from that of his ancestors a hundred or two hundred years back, who would have been doing the same thing in the house of some rich White planter in the South before “emancipation” and “civil rights” happened. But he was happy, and proud, doing this job! And this was not the scenario in this particular scientific research institution. I attended something like ten scientific conferences during my stay in the USA, and later, and I have barely seen a Black face among the sea of White participants in these conferences. Chinese, yes, and some Indians, but no Blacks. Large scientific societies such as the American Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, would go to pains to introduce “diversity” in their annual meetings attended by tens of thousands of scientists, by having some special sessions with “diverse” participants, but small and focused meetings did not nearly have any black participants. People going to these conferences years after years, the best minds in science, would not even notice this. At least, I did not find this ever as a topic of discussion around dinner tables or in so called “mixers” held in the evenings. It was enough for such people that Barack Obama, a Black American, was the president, and they would get startled when I reminded them that Obama was also not a real African-American as he did not bear the legacy of slavery which every Black American did, being the son of a Kenyan father.
The cause of these widespread racial disparities in science is a result of the deep-seated racial divisions persisting in American society, which no “affirmative action” or “diversity” programmes can change. The public school system, although officially desegregated as a result of the famous civil rights movement, is de facto segregated and has become increasingly so over the years. This is because of a specific feature of the American school system, which was originally meant to do good, but has ended up segregating schools for white and Black students. Under the public school system, children from a particular area or county can only go to the public school or schools in that area or country, and the school is run on taxes paid by inhabitants of that locality. This was meant to localize and decentralize school education, providing all children residing in the area equal opportunities to receive education and with the parents of the students going to a particular school having close contacts and high stakes in the schools of their children. However, in reality, as American neighbourhoods have become increasingly segregated, with whites occupying the affluent, stately suburbs and the Blacks living in the dingy downtown and innercity areas, the schools have become completely segregated. As schools run on the taxes paid by the wealthy white residents, the schools in the suburbs are well maintained, with efficient teaching and wonderful facilities, and with 100% white students. The schools in the inner cities are poorly maintained, with abysmal teaching and other facilities, and with solely Black pupils. The major concern in these schools is not education, but protecting the students from violence and drug addiction. The disadvantage that this puts Black children in, vis a vis white children, at the beginning of their lives is something that they carry for the rest of their lives, and leads to the high levels of poverty and lack of education in the Black communities. I had volunteered as a teacher in such an inner city school, and found that it was a struggle even to get such children to come to school every day. No amount of “affirmative action” in higher education admissions will change this scenario. In the absence of a solidly educated middle and working class, a few sport stars or rock stars are held as role models in front of Black youth, positions which no one barring a miniscule number will ever be able to attain. On the other hand every Black youth is suspected of being a potential criminal making them the subject of police brutalities.
These divisions were there everywhere. In small cities the transport system was itself de facto segregated. The desegregation of public transport is of pivotal importance in the history of the civil rights movement in the USA, with the famous Rosa Parks incident in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955 leading to the Montgomery Bus Boycott movement by the Blacks. However, now in the small cities, the whites had boycotted the buses! In my four years of travel in the public transport buses, the number of whites whom I found sharing the buses with Blacks can be counted on fingers. These too were mostly white students. The whites have left the public transport for the Blacks in the small cities, and this has left the public transport system in the lurch in most of these places. The public transport, catering mostly to the poor and unemployed, has therefore become completely underfunded and nearly non-existent in many of these cities.
I felt that more than the actual disparities and discrimination, what was more toxic was the absolute absence of discussion about them. There was no discussion in gatherings, in offices, in families, as everyone wanted to avoid discussions which could be deemed offensive to some. Even in white progressive circles, there was nearly no discussion about the actual racial divisions. Today nearly every scientific society, organization and company in the USA is giving out statements in support of the “Black Lives Matter” movement and expressing their commitment to racial justice, but unless they recognize this structural injustice built into the fabric of the American system, it is not going to change the situation in any meaningful way. The only people I found talking about the racial disparities and structural injustice were the white radical leftists, but few would take them seriously. Today, these are the people who are out on the streets shoulder to shoulder with their Black brethren, confronting the police, and being denounced by Trump as the Antifa.
I was most surprised to see the position of my fellow Indians, or maybe I should not have been. I had thought that highly-educated Indians whom I interacted with, coming from a country with a colonial past, and a deeply caste and class divided society, would immediately understand the conditions the African-Americans lived in, and empathize with them. But instead what I found was that a majority of Indians had comfortably selected a position for themselves somewhere in between the whites and Blacks, considering themselves somehow inferior to the whites but superior to the Blacks. Blacks were held at best patronizingly, at worst with hatred and fear. They would refer to Blacks in informal discussion among themselves as “Kallus”, but would be careful to conform to the norms of civility in public. My own community, the Bengalis, added their own “intellectual” touch to this too and it took me a while to understand when I heard for the first time a Bengali referring to a Black as “Shyamalda” (coming from Shyam, meaning Black). But I never heard a Bengali refer to a white as “Panduda”, although Pandu means pale, which is the correct description of the white complexion. I was warned a number of times about my safety and security by these “concerned” Indians when I used to go for walks in Black neighbourhoods. I soon understood that most of the Indians I interacted with, who had come to the USA for higher studies or research, were steeped in the privilege of caste and class themselves, and readily identified themselves with privilege, and considered the racial division in the USA as “normal” as caste divisions in India. The highly successful NRI community in the USA, also born from this privileged background, therefore mostly maintained its distance from its colored co-citizens. However, I should also add that this was mostly the case with recent Indian immigrants on one hand, and first generation immigrants on the other, while I found a number of second generation Indian youth, brought up within the American education system, highly empathic with African-Americans and Hispanic people and vocal about racial and social justice.
I also realized that the easy acceptance of the blatant racial disparities in the US science and technology field by my fellow Indians came from their experience of similarly stark caste divisions in the Indian higher education system. Coming from the most premier research institute in India situated in Bangalore, and referred to sarcastically as the “Iyengar Institute of Science” by local activists due to its highly Brahmin-dominated faculty and student body, this was no surprise to me. But what saddens and frightens me is that after returning to India and working in academic research for the last ten years, I find the situation to be equally bad. Again, the statistics tell the same story. Recently, in reply to a question in the Lok Sabha, the union HRD minister had disclosed that only 2.8% of faculty members among all the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), the much vaunted centres of science and technology education and research in India, belong to the scheduled castes and communities. Which means that out of the 6,043 faculty members in the 23 IITs, only 149 are dalits and 23 are adivasis! 16 of these IITs have number of dalit faculty members in single digits whereas 14 have zero adivasi faculty members. Including the OBCs too, the percentage comes to an abysmal 6%. This is in the context of the Constitutional mandate that educational institutions should ensure 15 per cent reservation for SCs, 7.5 per cent for STs and 27 per cent for OBCs among their faculty members, which is our version of “affirmative action”. The situation is same in the prestigious Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs), where out of 784 faculty positions, only eight faculty members are dalits, two are adivasis and 27 belong to OBCs. The number of Muslim faculty members is possibly even less.
Beyond the statistics, my personal experience of working in another premier science education and research organization for the last ten years, has showed me how these caste and religious divisions get reproduced and perpetuated in Indian academia. I have taught class after class of undergraduate and postgraduate students where out of forty or fifty students only one or two would be Muslim, that too coming from only Kerala or West Bengal. I would see that every year in first year courses the students having the worst performance would be adivasi students. Faculty candidates in most “special drives” to recruit SC and ST faculty members would be found “unsuitable”. And just as in America, there is no discussion about this in faculty meetings, student gatherings or informal chats, except for some derogatory references to the reservation system. At the same time over the past years the newspapers have been rife with news of mob lynchings and beatings of dalits and Muslims. The structural violence in these disparities contributes to the dehumanization and naked violence against dalits, adivasis and religious minorities that we have come to see today. I do not claim that in every institution of higher education and research there is active discrimination against dalits, adivasis and Muslims just as there is no active discrimination against Blacks in the science and technology fields in the USA. However, the socioeconomic disadvantages which children and youth from these sections come with, the historical burden of discrimination which weighs down upon them, and which has been compounded by the silence which engulfs its today is what gives rise to the situation which exists, both in the USA and India. This silence is a sure stepping stone to fascism, one of the main features of which is the dehumanization of the “other”, be it a different race, religion or caste. Today, I hope that as the “Black Lives Matter” movement has opened the world’s eyes to the structural injustice and discrimination against African-Americans in the USA, it will also open our eyes to the similar discrimination and injustice that we live with everyday in our lives in India.
Partho Sarothi Ray is Associate Professor in Biological Sciences in IISER, Kolkata.
An abridged version of the article appeared in The Wire: https://thewire.in/world/india-science-black-lives-matter-justice