Vinoth Ramachandra

Equality and Hypocrisy

Posted on: July 1, 2020

Stephen Spielberg’s film Lincoln (2012)- the most intellectually demanding of all his films- is set in the closing months of Abraham Lincoln’s life, when he is struggling to push through Congress a 13th Amendment to the US Constitution that would abolish slavery. There are fierce debates within his own cabinet as to whether the Amendment implies that “blacks are equal to whites” or whether “blacks are equal to whites before the law”. The moderates in his party favour the latter interpretation, while the radicals urge the former.

All talk of “equality” begs the question “equality in relation to what?” Clearly not all human beings are equal in their economic status, physical fitness, intellectual endowments or artistic abilities. And, in most societies and cultures untouched by the Judaeo-Christian tradition, human inequality has been taken for granted as a fact of life. It has never been seen as a problem that needs to be addressed. In traditional Greco-Roman philosophies, some are born to rule and others to be subservient. Those outside the civilization of Greece are “barbarians”, “savages”. In the dominant Hindu and Buddhist schools of thought, no less than in folk religious culture, inequality is the just outworking of the cosmic unfolding of karma and rebirth.

If, like the radical Republicans of Lincoln’s day, we urge that “blacks and whites are equal in their humanness”, we are invoking a concept of intrinsic human worth or dignity. This worth is independent of a person’s age, colour, origin or capacities. But, then, all who insist on “abortion on demand” or “euthanasia for the severely disabled” are denying such an equality, for the unborn yet developing human person and the incapacitated human adult are equal to us in their humanness.

It is because the notion of the intrinsic and equal worth of human persons, which undergirds equal respect before the law, is a difficult concept to justify on strictly secularist/naturalist grounds that this deeper question is side-stepped in the polarized discourse about equality in the Western media. But it is a question that needs to be raised, provided it does not deflect attention from the systemic/structural causes of racial and other forms of injustice that need to be addressed.

I have often commented in this Blog on the hypocrisy and one-sidedness that often attends talk about “equality” and “diversity” in the media and academic popularizers. There is a long history of “scientific racism”, encouraged by Charles Darwin’s The Descent of Man which influenced nineteenth and early twentieth-century colonial government policies. It was Christians, both indigenous and foreign missionaries, who countered such arguments. This is rarely mentioned in undergraduate history-of-science courses.

Racist attitudes and violence are not confined to chauvinist “whites”. One of the police officers indicted in George Floyd’s murder was from a Laotian ethnic community. Afro-Caribbean friends tell me that they have often encountered more hostility, even contempt, among so-called “Asians” in the US and UK than among Caucasians. India and China are perhaps the most racist societies on earth, as any black student or visitor to these countries will testify. The Indian caste-system may have originated in notion of religious purity/impurity and even of occupation, but it is clearly linked to colour: the lower-castes and those outside the system altogether are the darker-skinned. Indian TV carries ads for face creams that promise to “make your skin fairer” and in all Bollywood films you will never find a dark-skinned hero or heroine, but only villains. Why are there no calls to ban such ads, and even outlaw Bollywood movies on Netflix?

At the height of the Charlottesville violence by “white supremacists” in July 2017, the New York Times published a tweet from Gen. Mark Milley, the chief of staff of the U.S Army, which stated: “The Army doesn’t tolerate racism, extremism, or hatred in our ranks. It’s against our values and everything we’ve stood for since 1775.” Really? The US army had separate black and white units well into the 1950s, with black units always led by white officers.

If city mayors and state governors in the US are going to expunge all memorials to Americans who were “pro-slavery” or “white supremacists”, they should begin with Thomas Jefferson and shut down the University of Virginia.

Jefferson himself was a hypocrite. He owned over 600 slaves at one time, despite claiming, famously, in the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence (1776) that it was a “self-evident truth” that “all men are created equal”. In Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson described blacks as intrinsically and permanently inferior to whites. He hid his affair with his enslaved house maid by whom he fathered at least six children and shunned all financial responsibility for them. He also advocated the idea of forced repatriation of blacks to Africa, arguing that it was far preferable to the mixing of races in the USA. As for his presidential orders regarding the harsh treatment of native Indian Americans, this too never appears in American popular histories.

Countering racism has also to go beyond confronting the ideology of racism. I may not believe in the ideology that says “whites are superior human beings to blacks”, but if I live within and benefit from a socio-economic-political system that has been constructed on such a premise, I share in the guilt of racism. In many countries, the entire criminal justice system, with its disproportionate sentencing of ethnic minorities, needs to be overhauled. And what about the hiring practices of elite universities, the non-registration of many voters, lack of access to healthcare, and other sources of social exclusion?

Racism, like sexism, is more about systemic injustice than personal attitudes. But personal attitudes also matter as they are what shape our informal social relations. Global media and national educational curricula are far from egalitarian in their agendas. A Martian who scans news media on the planet Earth will conclude that, whatever some national Constitutions may say, the lives of “celebrities” and super-rich oligarchs and tycoons are far more valuable than others.

Dismantling memorials to slave-owners and racist imperialists was long overdue. But dismantling unjust structures and stopping modern, rampant forms of slavery worldwide (human trafficking, bonded agricultural labour) is far more important. And why cannot American governors erect monuments in places where black folk were lynched by mobs or First Nations tribes massacred by US cavalry? And why are there no slavery museums in southern cities comparable to the Holocaust museum in Washington DC? These will not eradicate racism, of course, just as Germany’s acknowledgment of its past has not entirely eradicated neo-Nazism in that country. But it will go a long way towards dispelling the ignorance over history that undergirds fear and racist politics.

7 Responses to "Equality and Hypocrisy"

These guys do grrat work in india including using the media and getting advertising to change. Loved your blog Vinoth.. hope your heart is ok despite the lovely Karin space in it… Melinda

Thanks as always, Vinoth, for your clear line of sight.

Very truthful and insightful writing. I completely agree with the points you’ve made. It’s always interesting when people talk about wanting equality. As you mentioned, the discussion is very one sided the majority of the time and a lot of people don’t realize what it would take or how they would be affected by equality. For instance, true equality and an end to racism would abolish white privilege. Although this concept is often denied, those with darker skin tones are well aware and are often reminded of its existence. Are those protesting for equality ready to give that up? Most likely not. Racism and inequality have been staples in societies around the world since the beginning of time. No human government has ever achieved true equality and they never will. It requires compassion, humility and love, traits that are not produced by money and power. And once power is acquired, no one wants to let it go. To dismantle the social constructs designed to uplift the rich and profit from the poor and middle class requires something humans do not possess, at least not on a grand scale. Only Jehovah God can bring about these changes. Only someone truly impartial could make the attempt.

Thanks Vinoth for keeping the conversation going; not being so quick to move on according to the short attention span of the 24 hour news cycle. This consistent engagement is essential to the very systemic overhaul to which you refer.

Thanks also for the historical pointers. Always so much to learn from your content. God bless.

[…] are superior to blacks,  cannot account for racism’s institutional consequences. Ramachandra draws the critical distinction: “If I live within and benefit from a socio-economic-political system […]

What an interesting blog that gave rise to 3 points of reflection for me.

“And, in most societies and cultures untouched by the Judaeo-Christian tradition, human inequality has been taken for granted as a fact of life….” May seem to neglect somewhat, the impact the rational humanism of the enlightenment had on Christian social doctrines.

“In the dominant Hindu and Buddhist schools of thought, no less than in folk religious culture, inequality is the just outworking of the cosmic unfolding of karma and rebirth……”
Seems a tad unfair by the Buddha – not only because of his trenchant critique of the Hindu caste system and his acts to empower women, but also because his significant unease with concepts of Karma and rebirth which evident in certain Buddhist texts. And on the balance, though cultural Buddhists today trample on his legacy of compassion and reason, they perhaps never quite reach the proportions of intellectual monstrosity found for instance by the papal bull dum diversas.

On the point of Indian cast and colour, the voluminous Vedic text, Laws of Manu, refers to its doctrine on caste as Varna – which in Sanskrit means colour..

I am sorry that this comment went to spam and I only discovered this now. Please can you point me to the texts that show the Buddha’s “unease with concepts of karma and rebirth”? Also, any texts that show that women can attain enlightenment as women?

Papal bulls don’t carry any authority in the church.

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July 2020
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