The worldwide protests against police violence and racial injustice stirred by the police killing, in a small American city, of George Floyd — a black man few had heard of till recently — has taken many people by surprise.
In Western European countries — especially those with a history of colonial conquest — echoes of racially-discriminatory policing at home have animated protesters. This is true also of countries like Australia and New Zealand that share with the United States a history of a white settler past. These are countries where, as the African thinker Mahmood Mamdani puts it, settler colonialism was victorious — unlike Africa where the settler colonialism was defeated.
In some countries, domestic critics have been suspicious of the cosmopolitan gesture of fellow citizens protesting police brutality and racial injustice in a powerful and wealthy foreign country. In India, critics have legitimately called out the hypocrisy of elites who express digital solidarity with American protesters but ignore police violence and racial prejudice at home. Bollywood celebrities, says one critic, “tweet for American lives but can’t tweet for Indian lives”.
Yet, a palpable sense of political solidarity that draws on a shared understanding of racial injustice is amply evident in these protest marches, vigils and painted murals. The significance of this extraordinary outburst of solidarity should not be minimised.
In the United States, there have been calls for radical police reforms, and evidence of a new willingness on the part of many in the white majority for introspection of the country’s legacy of racial oppression. There is genuine appreciation amongst Black Lives Matter activists of gestures of solidarity from abroad. But few observers have bothered to pay attention to the global history of racial thinking and the ideology of racial hierarchy that provides the context for this moment of solidarity.
Perhaps the last time the world saw the mobilisation of this particular form of nation-state-transcending solidarity was in support of the South African anti-Apartheid struggle. Activists in both the global south and the global north joined postcolonial state actors — including India — in accepting the view that the Apartheid regime was an obvious case of institutionalised racism that could be dismantled only with concerted global action. This form of solidarity against racial violence, however, has a much older history.
Prophetic political thinkers saw the need for it more than a century ago. For the African American intellectual, W E B DuBois (1868-1963), the race problem in America “is but a local phase of a world problem.” His widely quoted line, “the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the colour line” captures his political vision.
In a 1915 essay, DuBois framed the issue in global terms sharply laying out the racial ideology behind colonialism and the scramble for overseas territories. The “brutal truth” becoming more and more evident to “the yellow, brown, and black men”, he wrote, is that “a white man is privileged to go to any land where advantage beckons and behave as he pleases; the black or coloured man is being more and more confined to those parts of the world where life for climatic, historical, economic, and political reasons is most difficult to live and most easily dominated by Europe for Europe’s gain”.
On similar lines, the Indian nationalist intellectual, Lala Lajpat Rai (1865-1928) wrote of “the right of the white man to inherit the earth” being accepted as an indisputable axiom. The white man can go to any part of the world with the assumption that he was “born to possess the earth and that the coloured man was born to be his hewer of wood and drawer of water, used if he needed him and thrown aside if he did not need him”. While “every riff raff of a European, not to speak of British colonials,” he complained, “has free admittance into India,” Indians suffer doubly. On the one hand, “his country is open to the competition of the whole world,” on the other hand, “he is debarred from admittance even into parts of the British dominion”.
Referring to the tenacious efforts by self-governing white settler colonies such as Canada and Australia to exclude Indians, despite the shared bond of citizenship of the British empire, Rai wrote prophetically — in words reminiscent of DuBois’ famous line — that “the dread of the Asiatic is the dominant fact in the world today, and it will largely govern the politics of the 20th century.”
It is remarkable how much asymmetry in global mobility, even after the end of empire, continues to resemble the world of DuBois and Rai. Instead of explicit racial restrictions, we now have borders of rich democracies guarded primarily by a passport and visa regime that creates a global hierarchy of passports. Those issued by mostly white rich countries — barring a couple of non-white ones — give privileged visa-free access to many more countries than the passports of black and brown poor countries. This covert form of white privilege eludes the attention of its beneficiaries, but not of its black and brown victims.
DuBois and Rai were friends. A shared understanding of the international nature of the race question was key to their friendship and cooperation. The two first met during Rai’s long stay in the United States during the First World War. They met and conversed on several occasions at DuBois’ home, his office and in civic clubs.
In the preface to his 1916 book, The United States of America: A Hindu’s Impressions and a Study, Rai acknowledges DuBois’ help. His letters of introduction opened doors to him in exploring “the conditions and problems of the coloured people.” The other prominent African American figures that Rai acknowledges for providing help and support in the course of his “study of the Negro problem in its different phases” were Booker T Washington — one of the most influential African Africans of the time and Dubois’ ideological rival — and the educator John Hope, the then President of Morehouse College, the historically black men’s college in Atlanta, Georgia.
Rai and DuBois maintained correspondence after Rai returned to India in 1920. The Crisis, the magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), then edited by DuBois, reported on the progress of the anti-colonial movement in India; their correspondence informed those articles. DuBois sought Rai’s feedback on the draft of his novel, The Dark Princess, regarded by some as “one of the most significant moments” in the “history of Afro-Asian internationalism”. The novel, said DuBois in his letter to Rai accompanying the draft, “touches India incidentally in the person of an Indian princess”.
Included among the enclosures in the same letter were six issues of The Crisis and, significantly, “one picture of a lynching”. Rai died in Lahore on November 17, 1928. The official cause of death was a heart attack. But, it was widely believed that the injuries he suffered a few days earlier from the blows of a police baton at a violently dispersed protest demonstration precipitated his death.
On hearing the news, DuBois wrote a letter to the editor of The Lahore People. “When a man of his sort can be called a revolutionist and beaten to death by a great civilised government,” he said, “then indeed revolution becomes a duty to all right-thinking men.”
Remarkably, the lesson that DuBois drew from the circumstances of Lajpat Rai’s death continues to resonate until this day — almost a hundred years later.
This article first appeared in the print edition on June 17, 2020, under the title “A moment of solidarity”. The writer is Professor of Political Studies at Bard College, New York
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