Paper Review: COVID-19 Pandemic and Racism in the United States and India

By Akash Sahu 

June 17, 2020

An article by Dr. Nehginpao Kipgen, Associate Professor and Executive Director of Center for Southeast Asian Studies (CSEAS), Jindal School of International Affairs, O.P. Jindal Global University, titled, “COVID-19 Pandemic and Racism in the United States and India”, was published by Economic and Political Weekly, Volume 55, Issue No. 23, pp. 21-26, on June 6, 2020. 

The article talks about racism in the two largest democracies of the world in the context of COVID-19 pandemic. Notably, the author in the conclusion of the article mentions that racism in both these countries has existed for ‘quite a long time’; it has been exacerbated by the ongoing pandemic to dangerous levels. The racist treatment that the author explains in his article is towards the ‘Mongoloid’ people.

The term has been in use to describe a historical racial classification denoting similar facial features of people spread out in East Asia, Southeast Asia and the Pacific regions. While the racial discriminatory past of the United States in context to African-Americans is not unknown to the international community, racism in India against the people of Northeast, who trace their ancestry to the Mongoloid race, has also been rampant and academically documented.

The author has quoted, throughout the article, incidences of racial attacks, often physical and violent in nature, in both these countries against Asian Americans and Northeast Indians. Almost all cases have been triggered due to their physical similarity to the Chinese. It has also been highlighted that inciting posts circulating on the social media were directed against them. Social media and real time violence have shown a strong correlation, and could be referred to in several cases of mob violence in India that has caused deaths. Even if such posts are not directed at particular individuals, they are often targeting a community and spread hate. 

A point of great concern and similarity in these racial attacks is the act of ‘spitting.’ The novel coronavirus is known to easily spread in such manner and infect more individuals. Not only it is a matter of unacceptable insult, it is a severe health hazard in the pandemic times. In some cases highlighted by the author, tenants have been evacuated on racial prejudice and many times their access to essential services such as medical care and transport was prevented. In this context, it is important to note that the European commission considers access to essential services an important part of social inclusion, the failure of which must call for public intervention.

The author explains that neither the government in Washington nor in New Delhi subscribe to the notions of racial discrimination against the communities in question, but unbalanced use of language and lack of timely action has allowed for racial violence to assume larger proportions. The author recommends that measures for containment of racist treatment must be taken immediately. Monetary fines and jail terms must be imposed on the perpetrators in a timely fashion. Mere advisories will not be enough to prevent large ignorant populations from stigmatizing a community. This is true for both India and the United States.

The author cites Phyllis Jones’ work to classify racism into three levels. He chooses the category of ‘personally mediated racism’; and Dovidio and Gaertner’s ‘aversive racism’, to explain the trend of coronavirus-related racist attacks in both the United States and India. While these categories do not involve the institutionalization of racism, they do arise due to inherent racial prejudice of an individual who practices racism when the opportunity presents itself. This sheds light on the lack of sensitisation of racial equality in these countries where difference of physical and facial features, ancestry, colour and language can often become the reasons for racist behavior.

The United States is witnessing one of the largest-ever demonstrations ‘Black Lives Matter’ against white supremacy and racism towards the African-Americans after George Floyd, a black man killed by the police. On the other hand, obsession with fair skin in India has led to social alienation and harassment of dark-skinned individuals since decades. It is indeed time to uproot racial injustice in all its forms. The pandemic has brought crisis upon the world, and more so for destitute and vulnerable populations. In such a scenario, collective fight against the virus can only be the solution.

The article becomes important in self-assessment and avoiding a path that leads to discord within well-intentioned democracies.          

Akash Sahu is a Research Assistant at Center for Southeast Asian Studies (CSEAS), Jindal School of International Affairs, O.P. Jindal Global University.