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Brown Bag Lecture series. . .

“Lessons Learned from Comparing the Application of Constitutional and Federal Discrimination Laws to Higher Education Opportunities of African-Americans in the U.S. with Dalits in India”


Professor of Law Kevin Brown
March 19, 2008

The world's largest democracy is home to perhaps the world's largest and most oppressed group of people - the Dalits, or "untouchables," of India. Professor Kevin Brown has researched the Dalits for the past seven year and has spent much of that time making a comparison between their conditions and those of Africans Americans, another large group of people with a long history of oppression. His conclusions are both surprising and complex, at least to an American audience unfamiliar with social conditions in India. (Brown noted that while many Americans may be familiar with Indian people because many come to the United States, those visitors and immigrants are virtually all from higher castes and are not Dalits.)

As Brown explained, Indian society is rooted in Hinduism, the dominant and state-sanctioned religious tradition of the country, which has been in place for thousands of years. The central tenant of karma, or deeds in life, leading to reincarnation, return of the soul to a new body, means that one's place in society is religiously predetermined and cannot be questioned. This is the source of India's caste system. The hierarchy of castes, from top down, begins with the intellectuals and priests (Brahmins), followed by the warriors, then the business class. At the bottom is the "support" class, whose duty it is to perform those many tasks that keep the higher castes functioning. Below the lowest class and, in fact, outside of the caste system, are the untouchables (Dalits), who are the lowest of the low. As the religiously impure, they are given the worst jobs and the worse conditions, with few resources and no recourse, in the entire culture. Karma both explains everyone’s place in society and rationalizes the treatment accorded each person. The system is maintained by millennia of rigidity.

Brown pointed out that, historically, Islamic invaders left the Hindu system alone in India, but later British colonialists viewed the system as evil and fostered Western democracy. During India's striving for independence from the British Empire, the British wanted to protect the Dalits under the developing Indian constitution. Mohandas K. Gandhi, so beloved in the West for his nonviolent struggle for Indian independence, was a Brahmin and, as such, fasted to protest the inclusion of Dalit rights in the new constitution. Nevertheless, Dalits gained some rights, for example, a quota system reserves spaces for them in public colleges.

The lists of atrocities against Dalits mirror, yet magnify, those against blacks in the U.S. throughout centuries of racial caste in this country up until the mid-20th century, as do the social conditions of poverty, housing, and resources. This has remained mostly unchanged since the democratic constitution, with its quotas, was instituted in India because of the embedded tradition and religious foundation for prejudice. On the other hand, says Brown, from the earliest time of Africans coming to America, there has been struggle against such conditions. Africans came here with a "warrior mentality," with rebellion and revolution always a possibility. The Dalits, according to Brown, do not and never did have such a will to rise against oppression.

In addition, the Western philosophical tradition of individualism, rooted in the Judeo-Christian heritage, has fostered the African American struggle to overcome oppression, while the Eastern philosophy of group primacy over the individual counters attempts to change the caste tradition. The Golden Rule and Christian outreach to the less fortunate tends to work in favor of African Americans, but the karmic system allows - even encourages - higher castes to mistreat lower castes, and most especially untouchables, as revenge for karma.

Despite these differences and as a result of a certain kinship in social status in their respective homelands, the Dalits admire and respect African Americans for the latter's efforts and successes in fighting against an oppressive system. There is a profound acknowledgement of African American accomplishments and victories in the past 50-60 years as compared to what Dalits have achieved. Brown pointed out that one of the strengths of racial segregation in the U.S. was that blacks had a separate and parallel society with schools, professionals, and an economy that provided support and opportunity, on a limited scale, which was completely lacking for the Dalits.

Holding up a water bottle in demonstration, Brown stated that many American blacks might view their glass as still half empty rather than half full. But he noted that it is the limitations of the glass that makes such a comparison itself limited. In the U.S., blacks compare unfavorably to non-Hispanic whites; but they compare well to the Dalits and some other oppressed groups around the world. To the untouchables of India, the African American glass is not just half full, but runs over indeed.

Professor of Law Kevin Brown "Lessons Learned from Comparing the Application of Constitutional and Federal Discrimination Laws to Higher Education Opportunities of African-Americans in the U.S. with Dalits in India".