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Discrimination Lives

Guest Column
Arjun R. Narayanswamy

Of all the rhetoric and comment generated by the self-destruction of Senator Trent Lott at the head of the Senate GOP, the one that really caught my attention was a statement made by Senator George Allen (R-Va.), who said, “This is not an incidental moment. It is a historic moment when you look at the chronicles in the history of the United States Senate. This is a day that the United States Senate, with Trent Lott’s resignation, has buried -- graveyard dead and gone -- the days of discrimination and segregation.”

What a bold statement! Buried, “graveyard dead and gone” are the days of discrimination and segregation. Without picking on poor Sen. Allen, and taking his views as not atypical of the ones found unchallenged recently, let us look at this claim a little closer.

First of all, let’s be clear that this was no great institutional landmark. Sen. Lott’s exit was expedited by nothing nobler or baser than a politician’s fear of losing his electorate. If anything was remarkable about the whole process, it was the speed with which it proceeded, catalyzed by a nervous GOP and an unforgiving president. Historic moment? No. Damage control? Yes. Monumental? No. Reassuring? Yes. Hair-trigger democracy at work.

Moving on: The most appropriate background for this controversy is not the chronicles of the United States Senate (whatever they might say), but the chronicles of the United States itself. To wit, the landmark events of the Civil Rights movement culminating with the Civil Rights Act (1964), the Voting Rights Act (1965), and the strong history of segregation and discrimination that went before it. One telling statistic: the number of African-American Southern legislators now (approximately 300) is approximately the same as it was in 1872. And this number was close to zero during the Jim Crow days of 1900-1960. Evidence of massive disenfranchisement of African-Americans is clear; and it was on a platform of “States’ Rights,” condoning segregation and discrimination of this sort that Senator Strom Thurmond ran as a Dixiecrat in 1948.

History moves on. People’s memories are short. I am not arguing here that it was a “social crime” to support the Dixiecrats in 1948. (Clearly 2.4 percent of the 1948 voting population did not think so, and Thurmond carried Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and South Carolina in his campaign.) I can say however, that it is a social crime and morally reprehensible act to support the Dixiecrats in 2002. That’s the accusation that Lott could not dodge, and that’s why he’s no longer at the head of the GOP Senate.

If anything, this episode should convince us that the ghost of discrimination past is still with us. Sen. Allen is right in saying very little exists today by way of discrimination as far as legislation and laws governing public office are concerned. But does that surprise us? For the past 30 years, there has been little by way of legislated discrimination. In fact, the correct framework to pick when we talk of discrimination today is the framework of private attitudes. What are people thinking? Who are corporations hiring? What are institutions doing? That is the battleground on which the struggle against racism and discrimination is being fought -- and perhaps Sen. Allen does us all a disservice by deflecting attention from this battlefield.

Consider this excerpt from Amartya Sen’s Development as Freedom: “It is remarkable that the extent of deprivation for particular groups in very rich countries can be comparable to that in the so-called third world. For example, in the United States, African Americans as a group have no higher chance -- indeed, they have a lower chance -- of reaching advanced ages than do people born in the immensely poorer economies of China or the Indian state of Kerala (or in Sri Lanka, Jamaica, or Costa Rica...). For example, Bangladeshi men have a better chance of living to ages beyond forty years than African-American men from the Harlem district of the prosperous city of New York. All this in spite of the fact that African Americans in the United States are very many times richer than the people of comparison groups in the third world.”

Clearly if the freedom to live to an advanced age is some constitutive part of social equality, then the days of iniquity are far from being “graveyard dead and gone.”

Consider this also: I am a South Indian, not an Arab. Yes, I am tall with dark hair, dark skin and dark eyes but -- without condoning the stereotyping process that underlies discrimination -- I could not be mistaken for Arab by anybody who has any experience in these matters. Yet in the past year, walking between MIT and Central Square, I was approached by an angry young man who came up to me and said: “I hate you fucking Arabs.” Walking past a street musician in Rome, I heard the gentleman switch his refrain (for my benefit) to an oddly menacing whisper of “Taliban-ee, taliban-ee.” Elsewhere, someone came up to me and called me “Osama! Osama!” Me? Osama? What am I to make of this?

The racial profiling on display here is exactly the same kind of discrimination that drives police violence against Hispanics and inner city African-Americans. As illustrated earlier, this discrimination is of the same pernicious potency as forces that drive severe deprivation amongst third-world countries.

Finally, the discrimination I face today is of the same distinguished pedigree as the discrimination that rocked this country 40 years ago (Civil Rights), and 140 years ago (Civil War). If American society today is as unforgiving of racism as the national parties (and Senator Allen) would have us believe, then there is no place in society for the racial evil that accosts me ten steps from my home and tells me it hates me. It doesn’t matter whether I’m Caucasian, Asian, Arab or African-American. Please, no burning crosses on my doorstep.

Arjun R. Narayanswamy is a graduate student in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.