Friday, June 29, 2007

(I've been traveling and hence the downtime the last few days.)

A couple of nights ago I had dinner with Ilan Meyer, a visiting scholar this year at the Russell Sage Foundation in New York City. Ilan is writing a book about his research that measures the health effects of stress from sexual orientation discrimination and he told me about a colleague, an economist doing research on the Dalit (the so-called untouchables) in India, and their efforts to mobilize against their oppression.

When I met Ilan's colleague, Christian Davenport, at lunch on Thursday I told him I write about immigration law and politics, and that I was really interested in his research because of the disturbing similarities between the social acceptance of persecuting people without the right nationality in the United States and the social acceptance of the caste system in India. The mix of resentment, anger, and endorsement of dehumanizing conditions for noncitizens living in the United States without state permission has no peer for its normalization. For instance, Lou Dobbs is outraged when people accuse him of being racist. He clearly finds it embarrassing to have his anti-immigrant cause confused with racism. He knows that racism is socially unacceptable. But endorsing discrimination and imprisonment because of nationality is something Dobbs and most people finds perfectly acceptable, noble in fact. So it occurred to me that perhaps the tools being used to fight the untouchable stereotypes might be adaptable to the circumstances of undocumented immigrants in the United States.

Christian is tres cool. He's using the tricks of the economics trade, through a series of projects under the umbrella The Radical Information Project, to call into question numerous assumptions about how power is organized. He was brought to India to work with a group of Indian lawyers and activists calling their organization Dalit Shakti, "The Power of Equality in Practice." (The link is, and it was working a couple of days ago but there is a message "problem with upstream provider" just now.) Anyway, Christian was telling me that activists are organizing on many levels, from consciousness-raising among the Dalit to encouraging them to bring lawsuits, as discrimination based on caste violates Indian law and Dalits suing successfully may win major damages.

"Why don't more Dalits sue?" I asked. Christian told me it's because of fear, but also because many have internalized the oppression. At one meeting a woman raised her hand and told an organizer that the sort of resistance being discussed was fine for humans. The method for encouraging the Dalit to understand the incorrectness of the caste system and their status of humans, Christain explained, was to remind them that they considered themselves Indian citizens, and that Indian law said as much.

Of course coming back to the situation of immigrants outside the legal status structure of the U.S. government, it seems that the untouchables of India have it better off than Mexicans in the United States. Not only are undocumented Mexicans unable to sue for discrimination but they are victimized by virulent name-calling and derisive comments on everything from street corners to talk radio. Mainstream politicians say they'll do their best to keep them out of this country and levy fines against those who help them. In the United States discrimination based on race is grounds for a lawsuit and in India, actions of the sorts taken against Mexicans living in the U.S. are also discouraged by the government, as opposed to all countries, where nationality is a legitimate basis for discrimination.

Still, the law is not ultimately friendly even to the untouchables, since it is the kinship rules there and everywhere that maintain the belief that certain groups, be they castes or nations, are inviolably and irresolutely distinct, even amidst the obvious facts that this is a complete fantasy. For if India and the U.S. government truly believed that people were obviously different then they would abandon kinship rules, and the border patrol would not need biometric tests and forgery-proof passports to ensure they can tell who is from what group and whether they are truly deserving of rights.

This all brings us back to dinner with Ilan and his research on the effects of chronic stress based on minority status: why have governments at all if their effect is to create the majorities and minorities that lead to debilitating health consequences at the very least, as well as the kinship structures that give rise to systemic mass violence in war? Or rather, why have the kinds of government policies with these consequences? Why not alternative policies that eliminate birthright prerogatives and the kinship rules that make them seem necessary?
image from Dalit training workshop

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