Slavery in the United States, apartheid in South Africa, and the Indian caste system are now all illegal. However, this does not mean that the consequences of these systems of violence against people have vanished. This paper examines the ways in which these three systems continue to affect the lives of people today, even (as in the case of American slavery) the system itself has not been in existence for decades. Widespread institutions based on the power of one group over another group or other groups have significant staying power because even when the ideology that upholds such institutions end or become unpopular, the power structures remain. These power structures can welcome in new ideologies: The "new wine" in old bottles effect of such dynamics are one of the reasons that repressive institutions persist.
One of the key points of this essay is that effects of a form of social organization that is wide scale (whether in terms of influence, number of people involved, or degree of wealth involved) can persist for generation upon generation. It is also important to note at the beginning of this essay that the lingering effects of a terrible system there may still be some positive consequences that can be seen in later generations. This is not said to diminish or dismiss the terrible lingering effects of practices such as slavery. It is, rather, an acknowledgement that individuals even in the worst of situations can often find the strength to redeem at least in some small measure what has happened to them. Thus solidarity among African-Americans today, for example, or grassroots support of women's rights in India, can be seen as the children of past repressive practices. Good can, of course, be born from evil. But, of course, this can never justify the initiation of evil.
Slavery was outlawed in the United States 175 years ago. What degree of race relations in the United States are still affected by the once-widespread practice of slavery is an issue that is a very-much contested one, and one that more-or-less breaks down along racial lines, with whites in general arguing that blacks are responsible for any disadvantage that they now face and blacks often arguing that the vestiges of slavery resonate throughout black communities today and can be seen in the high poverty rates among blacks, the high incarceration rates among blacks, the lower education rates among blacks, among other indices.
Santana (n.d.) summarizes this thread of thinking about the ways in which slavery continues to affect African-American families. These effects do not stop with the African-American community, of course, for just as not individual is an island, no community is either, and the ways in which African-American communities live affects the ways in which all other American communities live as well.
Santana is referring to a 1964 White House report on the state of the black family in the following excerpt:
A meticulous if controversial piece of research, the report described the ongoing disintegration of the Black family, as demonstrated in particular by the weakened role of men. It emphasized the need for public policies designed to strengthen the economic role of Black men, and raised serious questions about the ability of the Black family to continue in its important function as socializer of future generations. It argued that the roots of problems in the Black family -- stemming from the lingering effects slavery, growing urbanization, modern-day discrimination and the mounting tradition of matriarchy -- would lead to the destruction of the family structure (Santana, n.d.)
This a heavy burden for even an institution as violent and pervasive as slavery once was, or at least it must be seen as such given that slavery was outlawed nearly nine score years ago, to reference Abraham Lincoln.
One important thing to note is that belief is a very powerful thing: If enough people believe that slavery still affects their lives, then by definition it does. Again, this is in no way meant to trivialize the experiences of African-Americans, for oppression is psychological and emotional as well as economic and political. People act on their beliefs, and so some African-Americans today may guide their choices in some cases by their beliefs about how their present is affected by the past.
However, it is also a seemingly reasonable response to the intergenerational poverty and dysfunction that are rampant in the African-American communities across the nation. Another way of stating this idea is that it seems almost necessary that there be some pervasive explanatory factor that can explain why African-Americans so continually fail to gain their share of the American Dream.
To turn now to apartheid we can see a political system whose name is still infamous. Apartheid -- a radical system of segregation on the basis of race that held South Africans in their own form of slavery. There are key similarities between the practices (or institutions) of slavery and apartheid: Both were race-based systems and both were enforced by legal mechanisms. This is an important point: Racist regimes can exist without legal support. People, in other words, can act in even highly violent racist ways without the backing of a government.
However, when there is government support for a repressive system, then there must be at some point remedied through governmental action. Slavery in the United States was ended through presidential action; apartheid too was ended by official government action. This differentiates the systems of slavery and apartheid from that of the Indian caste system.
Apartheid existed from 1948 and 1994 and allowed for a radical division of race in South African society with white South Africans having dramatically more wealth and power in the nation. The particulars of the system were point into place after World War II by a political party that had its roots in South Africa's colonial history (Meredith, 1988, pp. 16-9). It is hard not to see that apartheid continued the radical racial politics that Germany had failed to institute (on a permanent basis) in the war that had just ended, although it is important not to draw any facile or direct lines between the two political conditions and geographic regions.
Under apartheid, different racial groups (white, Indian, colored, and black) all lived in segregated neighborhoods, with the poorest and least habitable sectors being where black South Africans were forced to live and to try to make a living (Meredith, 2005, p. 36).
Apartheid came to an end much more recently than did slavery. It was in many ways a far more pervasive system than was slavery in the United States. There were always individuals who did not own slaves in the United States, either because they could not afford to do so or because they had moral objections to the practice.
Moreover, there were large portions of the country that were never home to slavery. South Africa, however, was universally and entirely under the sway of apartheid. Thus it should not in any way be a surprise that there remain significant effects across South African society even though the system has been outlawed.
A decade after the formal end of apartheid, its pernicious effects were still very much in evidence, as the following passage describes:
In one ironic aspect, the South Africa of 2004 resembles the South Africa of the early 1900s. Then the Afrikaners gained control of government and the English remained in-charge of business and commerce.
Today, the country is under majority Black rule, but business and commerce remain entrenched in White hands. Largely because of this fact and the clear threat of economic disruption implied, change has been slow in coming despite affirmative action programs meant to speed up the process of redress for the many inequalities in South African society and economy.
In other more subtle ways as well, South Africa's racist past refuses to let go. (South African Equality Courts, 2004).
Apartheid remains in South Africa in the fact that those who grew up under apartheid are still the people of the nation. Even when a government disables a system, it remains in the bloodstream of the people and their culture: Black South Africans are poorer still, less educated, live shorter lives, are more likely to be infected with HIV / AIDS. They are far from as free as no doubt many had believed that they would be when blacks took the reins of majority rule.
The caste system in India is more complex in terms of the relationship that it draws between social stratification and race. Indian society was traditionally divided into strata that were separated from each other through cultural, religious, and economic barriers. Members of each caste married within their own caste and worked within carefully defined life paths that were defined by caste membership. Thus the enforcement mechanism of the caste system is not a formal legal one but the weight of practice and culture.
The fact that the caste system was kept in place not by…