The UN World Conference Against Racism, which took place in Durban, South Africa in 2001, featured an extraordinary range of experiences, testimonies, and recommendations, but the Dalit were disappointed, even angry. The Dalit are the 250 million people who represent the lowest Hindu caste in South Asia: the “untouchables.” They are one-sixth of India’s population, and seventy percent of them live below the poverty line.

Though technically discrimination against Dalits is illegal in India, the oppression of this group continues virtually unabated.  The Dalit, along with others who are discriminated against on the basis of work and descent, wanted their issues reflected in the agenda and draft recommendations at the Durban conference.  India blocked their efforts, arguing that race and caste were not the same.

The Dalit rallied support from other groups that are oppressed based on hereditary caste, such as Japan’s Burakumin.  A group once associated with the tanning of hides and butchery, taboo professions for Buddhists, the Buraku people no longer work with animals and are physically indistinguishable from other Japanese.  But because of a history of social oppression, the Buraku remain stigmatized, discriminated against in housing, education, and the workplace.  The Buraku and the Dalit waged a concerted campaign both prior to the 2001 conference and during the proceedings.  To get the issue of caste onto the conference agenda at Durban some Dalits even launched a hunger strike.  Even though the issue of discrimination based on work and descent was ultimately not included in the UN’s final document, many NGOs and politicians began to incorporate the issue of caste into their statements and perspectives.  Hereditary caste was finally being included in the global understanding of social oppression.

Oppression thrives along the dividing lines of society. Any marker that distinguishes a minority – or in some unusual cases even a majority – can serve to foster the oppression of the weak by the strong.  Many of these cases are indicated by the suffix “ism,” such as racism, sexism, ageism, ableism, anti-Semitism, and so on.  But some oppression is defined less by visible markers, such as the color of skin, than by custom.  Caste systems discriminate on the basis of work and descent.  The “untouchables” often have no distinguishing physical features, but their progress in society is checked by customary discrimination.

The movement for equal rights, created by anti-slavery and women’s rights activists, has made strong inroads against structural oppression.  The U.S. civil rights movement, and the subsequent Black Power movement, proved influential throughout the world, inspiring the Dalit, Buraku, and Roma peoples.  These groups have debated over whether to pursue an inclusive or an exclusive approach.  For those who experience social oppression, the political choice has often boiled down to a choice between assimilation and separation: Booker T. Washington versus Marcus Garvey, for instance. Today, a synthesis of the two – maintaining the distinction of difference without the stigma of difference – has become a third option.

Does the success of equal rights movements in reducing structural oppression undercut the very sources of support for those movements?Does social oppression ever truly disappear, or does it simply find different and more subtle ways of expression?  Why have movements based on securing political and cultural rights failed to make substantial headway on economic rights?  Is the backlash against the equal rights movement  — such as forces opposed to affirmative action or organizations that express a more militant racism – the final sputtering of antiquated ideologies, or do the movements for equal rights of all peoples still face significant resistance?  Is the persistence of the various Talibans of the world, those intolerant and fundamentalist formations that exist in all societies, an inevitable accompaniment to globalization?

On a trip to Provisions, learn more about the disability movement in Len Barton’s Disability, Politics, and the Struggle for Change, leaf through the quarterly Social Justice for an academic treatment of oppression, log on to the European Roma Rights Center website to find out more about Roma peoples, learn more about the Holocaust through art, listen to the folksongs about oppression by Woody Guthrie, and see the film The Fourth World War to get a global panorama of struggles against oppression.

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