Wednesday, November 23, 2016

The Identity Politics of Whiteness

First Words


Illustration by Javier Jaén 

Three years ago, I read “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” to my daughter. She smiled as she heard about Huck’s mischief, his jokes, his dress-up games, but it was his relationship with the runaway slave Jim that intrigued her most. Huck and Jim travel together as Jim seeks his freedom; at times, Huck wrestles with his decision to help. In the end, Tom Sawyer concocts an elaborate scheme for Jim’s release.

When we finished the book, my daughter had a question: Why didn’t Tom just tell Jim the truth — that Miss Watson had already freed him in her will? She is not alone in asking; scholars have long debated this issue. One answer lies in white identity, which needs black identity in order to define itself, and therefore cannot exist without it.

“Identity” is a vexing word. It is racial or sexual or national or religious or all those things at once. Sometimes it is proudly claimed, other times hidden or denied. But the word is almost never applied to whiteness. Racial identity is taken to be exclusive to people of color: When we speak about race, it is in connection with African-Americans or Latinos or Asians or Native People or some other group that has been designated a minority. “White” is seen as the default, the absence of race. In school curriculums, one month is reserved for the study of black history, while the rest of the year is just plain history; people will tell you they are fans of black or Latin music, but few will claim they love white music.

This year’s election has disturbed that silence. The president-elect earned the votes of a majority of white people while running a campaign that explicitly and consistently appealed to white identity and anxiety. At the heart of this anxiety is white people’s increasing awareness that they will become a statistical minority in this country within a generation. The paradox is that they have no language to speak about their own identity. “White” is a category that has afforded them an evasion from race, rather than an opportunity to confront it.

In his campaign for the presidency, Donald Trump regularly tied America’s problems to others. Immigration must be reformed, he told us, to stop the rapists and drug dealers coming here from Mexico. Terrorism could be stopped by banning Muslims from entering the country. The big banks would not be held in check by his opponent, whose picture he tweeted alongside a Star of David. The only people that the president-elect never faulted for anything were whites. These people he spoke of not as an indistinguishable mass but as a multitude of individuals, victims of a system that was increasingly rigged against them.

A common refrain in the days after the election was “Not all his voters are racist.” But this will not do, because those voters chose a candidate who promised them relief from their problems at the expense of other races. They may claim innocence now, but it seems to me that when a leading chapter of the Ku Klux Klan announces plans to hold a victory parade for the president-elect, the time for innocence is long past.

Racism is a necessary explanation for what happened on Nov. 8, but it is not a sufficient one. Last February, when the subject of racial identity came up at the Democratic primary debate in Milwaukee, the moderator Gwen Ifill surprised many viewers by asking about white voters: “By the middle of this century, the nation is going to be majority nonwhite,” she said. “Our public schools are already there. If working-class white Americans are about to be outnumbered, are already underemployed in many cases, and one study found they are dying sooner, don’t they have a reason to be resentful?”

Hillary Clinton said she was concerned about every community, including white communities “where we are seeing an increase in alcoholism, addiction, earlier deaths.” She said she planned to revitalize what she called “coal country” and explore spending more in communities with persistent generational poverty. Senator Bernie Sanders took a different view: “We can talk about it as a racial issue,” he said. “But it is a general economic issue.” Workers of all races, he said, have been hurt by trade deals like Nafta. “We need to start paying attention to the needs of working families in this country.”

This resonated with me: I, too, come from the working class, and from the significant portion of it that is not white. Neither of my parents went to college. Still, they managed to put their children through school and buy a home — a life that, for many in the working class, is impossible now. Nine months after that debate, we have found out exactly how much attention we should have been paying such families. The same white working-class voters who re-elected Obama four years ago did not cast their ballots for Clinton this year. These voters suffer from economic disadvantages even as they enjoy racial advantages. But it is impossible for them to notice these racial advantages if they live in rural areas where everyone around them is white. What they perceive instead is the cruel sense of being forgotten by the political class and condescended to by the cultural one.

While poor white voters are being scrutinized now, less attention has been paid to voters who are white and rich. White voters flocked to Trump by a wide margin, and he won a majority of voters who earn more than $50,000 a year, despite their relative economic safety. A majority of white women chose him, too, even though more than a dozen women have accused him of sexual assault. No, the top issue that drove Trump’s voters to the polls was not the economy — more voters concerned about that went to Clinton. It was immigration, an issue on which we’ve abandoned serious debate and become engulfed in sensational stories about rapists crossing the southern border or the pending imposition of Shariah law in the Midwest.

If whiteness is no longer the default and is to be treated as an identity — even, soon, a “minority” — then perhaps it is time white people considered the disadvantages of being a race. The next time a white man bombs an abortion clinic or goes on a shooting rampage on a college campus, white people might have to be lectured on religious tolerance and called upon to denounce the violent extremists in their midst. The opioid epidemic in today’s white communities could be treated the way we once treated the crack epidemic in black ones — not as a failure of the government to take care of its people but as a failure of the race. The fact that this has not happened, nor is it likely to, only serves as evidence that white Americans can still escape race.

Much has been made about privilege in this election. I will readily admit to many privileges. I have employer-provided health care. I live in a nice suburb. I am not dependent on government benefits. But I am also an immigrant and a person of color and a Muslim. On the night of the election, I was away from my family. Speaking to them on the phone, I could hear the terror in my daughter’s voice as the returns came in. The next morning, her friends at school, most of them Asian or Jewish or Hispanic, were in tears. My daughter called on the phone. “He can’t make us leave, right?” she asked. “We’re citizens.”

My husband and I did our best to quiet her fears. No, we said. He cannot make us leave. But every time I have thought about this conversation — and I have thought about it dozens of times, in my sleepless nights since the election — I have felt less certain. For all the privileges I can pass on to my daughter, there is one I cannot: whiteness.

Laila Lalami is the author, most recently, of “The Moor’s Account,” a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Source: nytimes

Treat contempt with contempt


Abhinav Chandrachud

November 24, 2016 00:02 IST

IN THE MIND: “Contempt powers today are unnecessarily designed to try and maintain a good public image for the judiciary.” A view of the Supreme Court of India building. Photo: V. Sudershan

 The notice against Justice Katju is an opportune moment for the Supreme Court to reconsider if ‘scurrilous abuse’ of judges should attract summary punishment

The Supreme Court recently created history by issuing a contempt notice against one of its own former judges, Justice Markandey Katju. After retiring from office, Justice Katju has been known for making some very controversial remarks on social media. He has said that “90 per cent of Indians are idiots”, that Gandhi was a British agent, and that Kashmir and Bihar should be offered to Pakistan as a “package deal”. More recently, he put up a post on Facebook in which he called a former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court “one of the most corrupt judges in India”. Since then, Justice Katju has made insinuations — again on Facebook — against the Supreme Court judge who issued the contempt notice against him. Although there is a right to free speech in India, no person can say anything here which “scandalises the court”, i.e., which lowers a court’s dignity or shakes public confidence in the judiciary. However, Justice Katju’s remarks, unbalanced though they may be, offer an opportunity for the Supreme Court to reconsider whether “scurrilous abuse” of judges should attract summary punishment under Indian law.

Blaze of glory

India got its law on “scandalising the court” from England. One of the earliest such cases decided there was R v. Almon (1765). A publisher in Piccadilly, London, had printed a pamphlet which accused Chief Justice Mansfield of acting “officiously, arbitrarily, and illegally”. He was hauled up for contempt of court. Justice Wilmot held that courts would lose all their authority if people were told that “Judges at their Chambers make Orders or Rules corruptly”. The purpose of the law of contempt, said Justice Wilmot, was “to keep a blaze of glory” around judges.

However, the doctrine of scandalising the court was used very sparingly in England thereafter. In a case decided in 1968, Lord Denning said that contempt of court must not be used to protect the dignity of courts, because “[t]hat must rest on surer foundations”. In 1974, the Phillimore Committee wrote in its report that most scandalous attacks against judges were best ignored because they usually came from “disappointed litigants or their friends” and to initiate proceedings against them would “merely give them greater publicity”. In 2012, the Law Commission there found that though there was a lot of abusive material directed against English judges, particularly online, much of it was “too silly” to be taken seriously. It was also noted that judges had successfully used civil defamation laws, instead of contempt of court, to penalise wrongdoers. For example, in 1992, Justice Popplewell succeeded in a defamation suit which he filed against the Today newspaper which had insinuated that he had fallen asleep during a murder trial. Eventually, in 2013, England abolished the offence of scandalising the court altogether.

Likewise, courts in the U.S. do not have the power to punish anyone for scandalising the court. In Bridges v. California (1941), Justice Felix Frankfurter of the U.S. Supreme Court called the doctrine of “scandalising the court” an example of English “foolishness”. In another case, Justice William O. Douglas wrote that judges are supposed to be “men of fortitude, able to thrive in a hardy climate”, who should be able to shrug off contemptuous statements.

From Davar to Tarkunde

Scandalising the court was an offence in colonial India much in the same manner as it was in England at the time. For instance, in 1908, the Bombay High Court hauled up N.C. Kelkar, publisher of Bal Gangadhar Tilak’s English-language newspaper, The Mahratta, for contempt. At the time, Justice Dinsha Davar had sentenced Tilak to be transported to a prison in Burma for six years upon his conviction for sedition. A July 1908 article in the paper accused Justice Davar of dishonestly colluding with the government for securing Tilak’s conviction. The article referred to Davar as “a medical quack in a red robe (and)… an impudent glow-worm holding his torch to the Sun.” Chief Justice Basil Scott in his judgment said that the article had “(overstepped) the bounds of fair criticism” by indulging in “scurrilous abuse” of Justice Davar.

When the Constitution was enacted in independent India, contempt of court was made an exception to the right to free speech, with very little debate in the Constituent Assembly. Consequently, the enactment of the Constitution made virtually no difference to the law on scandalising the court. For instance, in the 1960s, a defamation suit had been filed by Krishnaraj Thackersey against the prominent Bombay tabloid, Blitz, in the Bombay High Court. The case was decided by Justice V.M. Tarkunde, who awarded damages of Rs.3 lakh to Thackersey. Soon thereafter, an article appeared in the periodical Mainstream which alleged that Justice Tarkunde’s close relatives had been given a large loan from Bank of India, in which Thackersey was a director, as a quid pro quo for the judgment. The article was not very direct in making this point, but it made insinuations and relied on innuendos. Finding this to be in contempt of court, in Perspective Publications v. State of Maharashtra, the Supreme Court held that “the obvious implications and insinuations” in the article “immediately create a strong prejudicial impact” in the minds of the readers “about the lack of honesty, integrity and impartiality” of Justice Tarkunde in deciding the libel suit.

It is not contempt of court for a person to say, as Justice Katju has, that a Supreme Court judge “does not know an elementary principle of law”. This is intemperate criticism, not “scurrilous abuse”. However, since Justice Katju has questioned the integrity of a Supreme Court judge as well, he could be held in contempt of court unless he is either able to prove that his allegations were true or he unconditionally apologises to the court. However, one wonders if it is now time for India to reconsider whether courts should have the power to summarily punish those who make such statements. Are Justice Katju’s comments not, as the U.K. Law Commission wrote in 2012, “too silly” to be taken seriously? Are Indian judges not, as Justice Douglas said, “men of fortitude, able to thrive in a hardy climate”? Contempt powers today are unnecessarily designed to try and maintain a good public image for the judiciary. However, muzzling trenchant criticisms against judges will not preserve public confidence in courts. A person’s faith or confidence in a court will, after all, depend on the work that the court does, not on what people are publicly allowed to say about it. In the words of Justice Frank Murphy of the U.S. Supreme Court, “Silence and a steady devotion to duty are the best answers to irresponsible criticism”.

Of course, courts must have powers to preserve the dignity and decorum of day-to-day proceedings. For example, if a person starts shouting slogans during an ongoing court proceeding, flings a shoe at a judge hearing a case, or calls him corrupt in open court, the judge must have the power to remove that person from court and to penalise him so as to prevent this from happening again. But wild, scurrilous abuse heaped on judges on blogs or social media websites are perhaps best left ignored.

Abhinav Chandrachud is an advocate at the Bombay High Court.

Source: thehindu

Wednesday, November 02, 2016

An abandoned ayah

26 October 2016

Imagine being abandoned at London’s King’s Cross railway station with just one pound in your pocket. In 1908, this is exactly what happened to an ayah who had travelled from India to Britain to look after a family’s children on the journey home.  An India Office Records file reveals the details of this story which was told in last night’s Sky Arts programme ‘Treasures of the British Library’ featuring Meera Syal.

Many British people employed an ayah to look after their children on the long voyage from India to Britain. The ayahs were at the heart of the family during the voyage, and their employer was supposed to provide for their passage home. However it was not unusual for ayahs to be dismissed once in Britain and left to fend for themselves. There were many critics of this callous behaviour because ayahs often suffered poverty and poor living conditions. In the late nineteenth century, these concerns led to the founding of the Ayahs’ Home in East London. Such was the demand that it moved to larger premises in 1921. They could enjoy a safe place to stay in the company of other ayahs and Chinese amahs, with food and décor that was intended to make them feel at home.

Untold lives blog
Inside the Ayah's Home in East London from G Sims Living London (1904-06) 

The ayah highlighted in the broadcast arrived in England from Bombay with a Mrs Catchpole in May 1908. Mrs Catchpole asked Thomas Cook and Son to find the ayah another employer returning to India. The ayah’s services were duly transferred to a Mrs Drummond and she journeyed to Scotland where she spent fifteen days with the family.  On 24 June the Drummonds came to London to take passage to Bombay the following day on SS Arabia. The family left the ayah at King’s Cross Station, giving her £1.

Untold lives blog
The Ayahs’ Home in Hackney East London, London City Mission Magazine (1921) PP.1041.C 

From King’s Cross, the ayah managed to find her way to the office of Thomas Cook at Ludgate Hill. She was advised to go to the Ayahs’ Home in King Edward Road, Hackney.  The matron of the Home, Sarah Annie Dunn, wrote to the India Office on 16 July reporting the case.  Although the Home did not take charge of destitute ayahs, it would not turn the woman away. Mrs Dunn questioned whether it was against the law for a native of India to be abandoned in such a manner.

Untold lives blog
Sarah Annie Dunn’s letter 16 July 1908 IOR/L/PJ/6/881, File 2622 Noc 

The India Office believed that the ayah had no legal remedy unless she had a written agreement that she would be taken back to India. The file notes that the India Office had declined to take responsibility in a previous case in 1890, and that the Government of India had then also refused to intervene. However Council of India member Syed Hussain Bilgrami recorded his disagreement with the proposed response, writing of ‘dishonest and cruel’ European employers inveigling Indian servants to travel with them and then abandoning them on arrival.

Untold lives blog
Syed Hussain Bilgrami’s dissenting minute 24 July 1908 IOR/L/PJ/6/881, File 2622  Noc 

Nothing more is written in the file about the destitute woman. Perhaps she was one of the ayahs who developed a special expertise in looking after children on voyages and travelled regularly to Britain. But if it was her first voyage, then her experience of being abandoned must have been truly terrifying.

Penny Brook and Margaret Makepeace
India Office Records

Further reading:
Rozina Visram, Asians in Britain: 400 Years of History (Pluto Press, 2002)
Learning website: Asians in Britain
Making Britain
Judicial and Public Annual Files 2575-2672: Case of an ayah abandoned in London, 16 Jul 1908, IOR/L/PJ/6/881, File 2622 Explore Archives and Manuscripts
London City Mission Magazine, report on the opening of the Home of Nations (Ayahs’ Home) on 4 King Edward Road, Hackney in June 1921 (Dec 1921 issue, page 140) PP.10451.C