British Colonialism in India and Anti-Black Racism in America, Not So Different

07/12/2016 06:45 pm ET

As a people who have lived through and are still dealing with the legacy of colonialism, Americans of Indian origin can no longer be content to sit on the political sidelines. We must stand in solidarity with Black Americans and act in support of #BlackLivesMatter.

Anti-black racism in America is much closer than some of us might realize to British colonialism in India. The very same sorts of arguments that were used to justify British colonialism in India can now be found within certain conservative narratives in America and are being used to justify anti-Black racism. We have suffered the dire consequences of a racist British occupation. We cannot allow our fellow Black citizens to suffer in kind from American racism.

There is a common conservative narrative that claims Black Americans have a biological and/or cultural tendency toward crime and violence and, for this reason, are deserving of police and state interference. This sort of argument should feel familiar to people of Indian origin.

When the British sought to colonize India, they justified themselves through claims about the biological and cultural tendencies of Indians. Though, he never actually visited India, in 1819, James Mill - a British historian and philosopher - wrote a book named, “History of British India.” Mill argued that Indian culture was backward and inimical to human progress. He believed that “India would progress and the Indians would be able to have more happiness under British rule than when they were governed by their native kings.”

Mill wasn’t the only one who wrote such things about Indians. In 1927, at the height of the Indian independence movement, Katherine Mayo, an American researcher, wrote, Mother India. Mayo portrayed Indian culture and its people as barbaric, backwards, and ignorant. Mayo argued that many of the problems in India stemmed from Indians’ innate tendency toward prostitution (of both boys and girls) and a general lack of “sexual restraint.” She believed that, for these reasons, Indians were unable to rule themselves and required British oversight.

Conservative claims about the inherent and cultural inferiority of Black Americans are no more true or well supported now than they were of Indians during British rule of India. Just as claims about Indian inferiority were never based in evidence but were supported through appeal to people’s unreflective prejudices, so too are claims about Black inferiority and the need for harsh policing, which are also equally lacking in evidence. Indians must reject and work to challenge these claims about Black Americans as a means of resisting the forces that underlie not only American racism but also British colonialism.

Another common claim among conservatives is that slavery plays no explanatory role in the current circumstances of Black Americans: since slavery ended over 150 years ago, it cannot be blamed for the current state of impoverishment or incarceration among Black Americans. This is very similar to arguments raised against Indians: since the British left India almost 70 years ago, British colonialism cannot be blamed for the continued and severe poverty of Indians. Often implicit in these claims is another claim about the inherent tendencies of Black Americans and Indians. Of Indians, Mayo wrote “[i]nertia, helplessness, lack of initiative . . . sterility of enthusiasm, weakness of life-vigor itself―all are traits that truly characterize the Indian not only of today, but of long-past history,” and one can only assume, on her view, of the future as well. The implicit claim is that Indians are lazy. Similar claims are being made today about Black Americans by the conservatives. They argue, Black Americans are lazy, unwilling to pick themselves up by their own bootstraps.

As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “it’s all right to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it is cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.” And, I would add, it is especially cruel when the man is told to do so by those who took his boots in the first place.

It is also commonly argued among conservatives that impoverishment and incarceration and even police brutality used against Black Americans is the result of failed parenting within the Black community. Rudy Giuliani, previous mayor of New York, recently claimed that Black children are “the real danger” and that they need to be taught by their parents how to behave appropriately. As many Indians will recall, similar claims were made about us. In 1900, in Wrongs of Indian Womanhood, Mrs. Marcus B. Fuller – an American Christian Missionary in India – claimed that Indian men were raised to be passive and weak and women were raised to be shallow and overly materialistic.[1] Mayo argued something similar. Indian men were raised to revere tradition and mistreat women. Women were simply raised in a way that perpetuated their ignorance. On her view, this explained why there were so many problems in India. It was in large part a result of poor rearing among Indians. Indeed, the British were so worried about how Indian children were raised that they worked hard to keep their own children away from other Indian children lest they be influenced by them.

What belies all of these arguments about Black Americans and Indians is an ideology that supports white supremacy. Black Americans and Indians were and are often still argued to be biologically and culturally inferior and in need of white interference, influence, and control. What is often missed by our conservative critics is that structural factors – not biological or cultural – better explain the problems that both communities face. White supremacy works its way through legal and political institutions, national and global, embedding inequality in the very structure of our societies.

There are not only parallels to be drawn between the oppression of Indians and Black Americans. Our struggles for freedom also share commonalities. Gandhi initiated his first campaign against the British after almost 400 Indians were massacred by the British in Amritsar in 1919. In 2015, almost 400 Black Americans were shot and killed by on-duty police officers. #BlackLivesMatter was borne as a response to the excessive use of force against Black Americans.

Indians know better than to stand meekly by. We stood bravely as we marched with salt in our hands to secure Indian home rule. Let us now stand again with Black Americans as they work for fair and just treatment. Fair and just treatment begins by ensuring that Black Americans can safely walk the streets and that they are treated with respect by police officers. Please find your local Black Lives Matter chapter and act now.

[1] Interestingly Fuller was anti-imperialist. She believed that Hinduism was at the real heart of the problem and advocated abandoning it to take up Christianity.

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