Yes, Racism Is Ugly, But Its Denial Does Not Make It Prettier

30/05/2016 2:03 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:27 AM IST
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Members of the African Students Association hold placards during a protest in Hyderabad on February 6, 2016, in support of Tanzanian nationals assaulted by a local mob in Bangalore. Indian authorities suspended two policemen and made four more arrests over a mob attack on a Tanzanian student in Bangalore, police said February 5, in a case that has caused widespread outrage. AFP PHOTO / Noah SEELAM / AFP / NOAH SEELAM (Photo credit should read NOAH SEELAM/AFP/Getty Images)

It’s about loud music. It’s about public drinking. It’s about a parking spot. It’s about a traffic altercation. It’s about a spat over an auto rickshaw. It’s about drugs.

It’s about anything but racism.

The mob attacked the Africans in Rajpur Khurd village in Chhatarpur with cricket bats, rods and bricks. Cameroon national Shamira says they shouted racial slurs and chanted “Go back to Africa” but Delhi police chief Alok Verma refuses to see a racist angle in the attacks.

It’s about loud music. It’s about public drinking. It’s about a parking spot. It’s about a traffic altercation. It’s about a spat over an auto rickshaw. It’s about drugs. It’s about anything but racism.

VK Singh, minister of state for external affairs, tweets the media is “blowing up minor scuffle as attack of African nationals in Rajpur Khurd.”

It’s only minor because no one died unlike the attack on the Congolese youth in Vasant Kunj. After that attack, Mahesh Sharma, culture minister, retorted that “even Africa is not safe”. He had not been allowed out of his hotel in South Africa for a morning walk on his own for reasons of security. It’s as if Africans needed to tend their backyard first before complaining about our backyard. He said the incident was unfortunate and gave a bad name to India. It’s as if our major problem with it was not the violence but the image problem it left us with.

When African envoys alleged “Afro-phobia”, the Ministry of External Affairs rushed in to assuage their concerns promising “stringent action against the culprits”. But the ministry also said all criminal acts should not be seen as racially motivated.

africa india racism

(Members of the African Students Association hold placards during a protest in Hyderabad on February 6, 2016, in support of Tanzanian nationals assaulted by a local mob in Bangalore. Indian authorities suspended two policemen and made four more arrests over a mob attack on a Tanzanian student in Bangalore, police said February 5, in a case that has caused widespread outrage. NOAH SEELAM/AFP/Getty Images)

After a female Tanzanian student was attacked and partially stripped in Bengaluru in rage after a traffic accident involving an African man earlier this year, Karnataka’s home minister said “It was not a racial attack but just a violent response to the accident.” MEA spokesperson Vikas Swarup condemned it but stressed “this should be seen as an isolated incident.”

The more energy an administration spends in trying to prove that violent incidents against Africans are not about racism, the more it’s burying its head in the sand.

The more energy an administration spends in trying to prove that violent incidents against Africans are not about racism, the more it’s burying its head in the sand. Meanwhile the “isolated” incidents keep piling up but we refuse to connect the dots.

Racism is ugly. Denial of racism does not make it prettier.

Racist attacks do not have to have an immaculate conception. There are always triggers. There are always excuses.

africa india

(Mos for External Affairs V K Singh meets with African Heads of Mission during the Africa Day Celebration at ICCR in New Delhi. PTI Photo by Manvender Vashist)

In the American South, a black man accused of smiling or winking or whistling at a white woman, could be accused of “disrespect” and lynched. In the book Driven Out, Jean Pfaelzer told horrific stories about how Chinese immigrants were driven out of America’s northwest. There were signs that proudly proclaimed “ANY CHINESE SEEN ON THE STREET AFTER THREE O’CLOCK TODAY WILL BE HUNG TO THIS GALLOWS”. In 1885 Chinese were brutally expelled from the town of Tacoma in Washington state. Labour organizations often led the attacks accusing the Chinese of stealing jobs and depressing wages.

In 1982 when Ronald Ebens, a Chrysler auto plant superintendent beat Vincent Chin with a baseball bat it was triggered by the economic anxiety of American car manufacturers struggling against Japanese imports. “It’s because of you m_____f______ that we are out of work,” Ebens told Chin. Was this about economy and job loss or race? Could it not be both? Where’s the fine line that makes it one but not the other?

Even if Kejriwal’s charges were true, even if there was a drug mafia, it does not mean righteous rage cannot simultaneously be racist.

Racism does not mean that there is fault only on one side. When Somnath Bharti led that raid in Delhi’s Khirki Extension in 2014 he claimed he had community support, that locals were upset about prostitution and drugs. “Isn’t a drug, prostitution and sex racket active in Khiriki extension?” asked Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal in a jansabha, stoutly defending Bharti at that time for leading a midnight raid instead of sleeping under a warm quilt.

“You won’t find such a minister in India,” said Kejriwal admiringly. Even if Kejriwal’s charges were true, even if there was a drug mafia, it does not mean righteous rage cannot simultaneously be racist. It’s never okay for a politician to turn vigilante and lead a midnight raid on African residents even if he has the blessings of the neighbourhood. By calling these incidents violent reactions, by saying the Tanzanian woman would not have been attacked if the Sudanese student had not mowed down that pedestrian in the first place in Bengaluru, we want to dilute the racism charge.

A landlord in Khirki extension told Mail Today “We are conservative people and these African women dress up badly. Our children are influenced. Also there has been enough evidence of drug trafficking against them. Our children are sold drugs from Rs 50 to Rs 100. We aren't racists, but being a conservative society, we cannot let the Africans impact how our children grow up.”

Ergo, it’s OK to punish Africans as a whole because some might sell drugs. That’s called racism and it’s not as if Indians cannot recognize it when they are on the receiving end. When the Dotbusters attacked Indians in Jersey City in the late 80s, they wanted to drive Indians out of their town.

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(Mos for External Affairs V K Singh meets with African Heads of Mission during the Africa Day Celebration at ICCR in New Delhi. PTI Photo by Manvender Vashist)

“We will go to any extreme to get Indians to move out of Jersey city,” they wrote in a letter to a newspaper. Later that month, Navroze Mody walked out of a café and was beaten by group of youths who taunted him. Mody fell into a coma and died four days later. But in the trial the court ruled that the attack had not been proven to be a hate crime. Mody’s death did not go entirely in vain. Eventually tougher anti-hate crime laws were passed by New Jersey in 1990.

It is hard for any state to admit that it has a racism problem, that this is something systemic, something intrinsic, something that has deeper roots than a law and order issue. It’s far easier to say there are just some bad apples here than admit to a blight afflicting the apple tree itself.

India has a racism problem. It’s not unique to us but it is our ugly problem. But even worse than our racism problem is our dogged and defiant denial of it.

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