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The primary trauma

How casteism is expressed in schools, and how it perpetuates inequalities.

Written by Ashwini Deshpande | Updated: May 3, 2014 5:15 am
Why are Dalit-upper caste inequalities so persistent, years after the establishment of legal equality? Why are Dalit-upper caste inequalities so persistent, years after the establishment of legal equality?

How casteism is expressed in schools, and how it perpetuates inequalities

The latest report of the Human Rights Watch (HRW) has brought to light everyday instances of discrimination against Dalit, Adivasi and Muslim children in primary schools. They are asked to sit separately, clean toilets, bring their own utensils for midday meals to keep school utensils “unpolluted” and reprimanded and punished routinely. Despite being illegal and supposedly abolished, belief in untouchability and its continued practice marks these children as objects of humiliation, ridicule and stamps them with a “stigmatised identity”.  The HRW report documents how this leads to many dropouts from primary schools and rehabilitation programmes don’t really work as children put back in school end up in classes with much younger peers, giving teachers and classmates one more reason to taunt and shun them.

This, unfortunately, is not an aberration, and could not result from random instances of bad behaviour. School authorities, teachers and students are acting individually, but according to socially predominant stereotypes and mindsets they consciously or unconsciously imbibe. More importantly, stereotypes representing marginalised groups  as innately inferior serve the collective function of maintaining and
perpetuating the sway of the dominant groups.

The everyday reiteration of prejudicial behaviour explains why social inequalities tend to persist long after the legal barriers to reduce inequalities have been removed. Why are Dalit-upper caste inequalities so persistent, years after the establishment of legal equality?
Social psychologists have examined this specific question by comparing the performance of school children from marginalised groups in the presence of other children who are unknown to them. An experimental study brought sixth-graders from different villages to one spot and gave them tasks to test their cognitive ability.  The study found that there was no significant difference between the performance of Dalit and upper-caste sixth-graders, as long as they were unaware of each others’ social background.  However, when the students’ caste was publicly announced, the performance of the two groups of students started to differ. Further, when caste was publicly announced and the children were segregated, the Dalit students’ performance worsened significantly. This confirms a well-known result from across the world: when social identity is made salient, stigmatised individuals are reminded of negative stereotypes against them, and this reminder shifts their behaviour in the direction of the stereotype. US studies show that when race or gender is made salient before a difficult mathematics or reasoning test, blacks and women perform worse.

The HRW report reminds us that caste, tribal and religious status is invoked repeatedly in schools. It is no wonder, therefore, that the average performance of Dalit, Adivasi and Muslim children tends to be worse than their upper-caste peers. However, the lower performance is used as the basis to put one more pejorative stamp on them: that  of incompetence.

This has an impact on their adult lives. All economies, regardless of how rich or poor, are characterised  by gaps in wages or earnings across social groups. The strong belief  that markets are essentially meritocratic, or should be, leads to the conclusion that if markets are allocating jobs, the more capable individuals would be rewarded, placing them in more prestigious and higher paying jobs. Thus, those earning more are assumed to be more able and those earning less in comparable jobs are assumed to have inferior “characteristics”.

In most instances, though, part of the earnings gap (say, between men and women in similar occupations, or between upper-castes and Dalits) can’t be accounted for by differences in characteristics. This is taken as a broad measure of labour market discrimination. What the HRW report underscores is that the process of formation of these characteristics — acquisition of education, skills — is marked by continuous discrimination, stigmatisation and marginalisation. By making social identity salient at every opportunity, the school community is ensuring that Dalit, Adivasi and Muslim children underperform compared to their ability. Thus, the so-called explained part of the wage gap embodies within it a long legacy of discrimination that economists refer to as “pre-(labour) market discrimination”. Estimates of labour market discrimination then, end up underestimating economic discrimination, to which we need to add wider social discrimination and atrocities to get the full range of constraints and obstacles that hinder individuals from stigmatised groups from expressing their full potential.

The evidence serves as a grim reminder that discrimination is not a thing of the past, and not confined to rural areas. It is perpetuated in the present and in urban settings where caste is supposed to be anonymous and irrelevant and where markets are meritocratic. There is no reason to believe that India’s integration into the global economy will automatically weaken discriminatory tendencies, as the richest and fully market-driven economies in the world are marked by discrimination. Casteism is alive and repeatedly continues to assert its presence, pointing to an urgent need for a strong anti-discriminatory framework, backed by strict laws and political will, governing not only employment and higher education, but also primary schooling.

The writer is professor of economics, Delhi University

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