The Illusion of Merit and the Privilege of Caste – Why Affirmative Action is Justified.

Content note – discrimination, especially caste-based.

A barebones introduction to the caste system

India has had a long history of casteist oppression, and it looks like the practise is still rampant, with nearly 1 in 4 people across the country admitting to practising untouchability.

To anyone who is not familiar with the caste system; caste is an oppressive social force that imposes a hereditary social and professional hierarchy; with a caste traditionally associated with priests (called Brahmins)  being top of the social pecking order, and a group that were (and importantly, still are) considered untouchable bearing the brunt of oppression from those higher up the caste hierarchy.

The correct label to use for the group that is oppressed by untouchability is Dalits , for that is the identity they have themselves assumed, and not another traditionally used derogatory term imposed on them by the upper caste-hegemony, led by the Brahmins.

I believe I have a duty to talk about this by virtue of the fact that I had an upper caste-upbringing. The people in my family who continue to be religious still retain their caste identity. It is something that even I, being an atheist, will never be able to get rid of just because my name is so stereotypically upper-caste. This relationship between name, caste identity and privilege matters because of reasons that become apparent in subsequent paragraphs.

Before we move on – a bit about privilege.

The meaning of privilege, and common misconceptions

If you are already aware of the concept of privilege – feel free to skip this section.

Nowt gets people tangled up as much as the notion of privilege. Privilege is in effect the absence of a certain kind of oppression; so if one is rich they have class privilege in that they do not have to face issues that come from being poor, if one is white in a society where white people occupy positions of institutional power , they have white privilege in that they do not have to struggle with issues that come from being non-white.

Note that there is a reason I just brought up positions of power – being a majority in terms of population does not always guarantee being on the right side of the power balance – one only needs to look at the history of Apartheid in South Africa. More pertinently to this article, Brahmins are overrepresented in positions of power and are in terms of the population, a small fraction.

. Brahmins comprise a minority that nonetheless comes out top in terms of caste privilege.

From Outlook India. Accessed here http://www.outlookindia.com/article/brahmins-in-india/234783 – figures represent percentages of each state’s population.

There are many different forms of privileges that intersect, and groups that are defined by the intersection of multiple oppressed categories on average experience more discrimination as a consequence.

For example, a group of people who are black, poor, disabled, are women, and are transgender collectively on average are worse off because of the lack of white, male, cis, able-bodied and class privileges. Again, there is a very important reason for talking about groups – not every person within an oppressed group is going to experience the same detrimental outcomes.

Not every person outside that group is going to experience better outcomes relative to those within that group. However, when the groups are compared, one group will have worse outcomes compared to another. This is just like how, for example, in my field you can have two different types of cancer, with one type that responds well to therapy, and one that does not, and there still can be those in the good-response group that do worse, but members of the latter have a greater probability of a bad response.

The existence of various forms of oppression almost trivially implies, that due to the varied nature of discrimination and the varied nature of situations where discrimination happens,  it isn’t a monolithic thing; for example, as a brown guy I do not have white privilege over a white woman, and yet I have male privilege over a white woman. That she has white privilege does not nullify the fact that I have male privilege – both play out in different ways in different situations.

The point I am trying to make here is it can be a crappy idea to engage in whataboutery that surrounds a different parallel form of oppression in a brazen display of fondness for tangents. Usually, parallels only matter when they converge on common deterimental outcomes or patterns of discrimination, often intersectionally.

Anyway, that said and done, I want to talk about a rather popular idea that pervades upper-caste opposition to affirmative action from what I have seen both round me and on various fora that pertain to discussion of social justice issues along the axis of caste, and why that idea is shown to be mistaken by some really good research, and in the process talk about why names matter. For those unacquainted with the term – quotas instituted through affirmative action are called “reservations” in Indian English parlance.

The idea of a meritocracy and a popular cultural reflection thereof

There are multiple caricatures of affirmative action that seek to somehow seem to mix up merit with achievement and quotas with incompetence that I have seen shared amongst opponents of reservations for Dalits. Below I offer a rather ridiculous specimen that I last saw shared amongst certain relatives.

“Wipro chairman Mr. Azim Prem ji’s comment on reservation: Good one..read on…. I think we should have job reservations in all the fields. I completely support the PM and all the politicians for promoting this. Let’s start the reservation with our cricket team. We should have 10 percent reservation for Muslims. 30 percent for OBC, SC /ST like that. Cricket rules should be modified accordingly. The boundary circle should be reduced for an SC/ST player. The four hit by an OBC player should be considered as a six and a six hit by a OBC player should be counted as 8 runs. An OBC player scoring 60 runs should be declared as a century. We should influence ICC and make rules so that the pace bowlers like Shoaib Akhtar should not bowl fast balls to our OBC player. Bowlers should bowl maximum speed of 80 kilometer per hour to an OBC player. Any delivery above this speed should be made illegal. Also we should have reservation in Olympics. In the 100 meters race, an OBC player should be given a gold medal if he runs 80 meters. There can be reservation in Government jobs also. Let’s recruit SC/ST and OBC pilots for aircrafts which are carrying the ministers and politicians (that can really help the country.. ) Ensure that only SC/ST and OBC doctors do the operations for the ministers and other politicians. (Another way of saving the country..) Let’s be creative and think of ways and means to guide INDIA forward… Let’s show the world that INDIA is a GREAT country. Let’s be proud of being an INDIAN.. *SHARE THIS if u are against 🚫 reservation .”

The key supposed “points” one gets from reading the above are the notions that people should start off on a level playing field, regardless of the ground realities of the oppression they face on account of various identities, firstly, and secondly, it is somehow ridiculous to have quotas with different requirements for different people, and thirdly, that people who gain access to opportunities through affirmative action are somehow incompetent.

There is also the brazenly casteist accusation that people from scheduled castes/tribes/other backward castes (all categories that experience casteist oppression and therefore have quotas under Indian policymaking) are incompetent at whatever they do, just because they have been afforded opportunities through reservations.

The idea of accomplishments in the backdrop of a level playing field is somehow perceived in the minds of reservation opponents to be a reflection of merit, and which lends justification in their mindsw to the argument that reservations would be unnecessary if Dalits were not so incompetent.

This brings me to the crux of my post – to show evidence that this perception of merit in fact is an illusion that masks an inherently unfair game, where continued casteist discrimination is passed off for merit. Before I talk about the evidence though – I wish to make another point with a metaphor – the trope above tries to paint reducing the burden on some participants as fundamentally unfair on the rest, without acknowledging the fact that some of those people have already been beaten up so they cannot compete on a level playing field.

A level playing field is only appropriate when people have a level starting point, and the evidence is clear that caste disproportionately tracks with worse outcomes. There is also the fact that the analogy of a sporting contest is nonsensical here, sensu stricto,  cricket matches manifestly are *not* analogous to egalitarianism in Indian society;  To promote social equality is an axiomatic principle espoused in the Constitution of India, whereas an equality of outcome in cricket matches is not held to be ideal in any axiomatic sense.

The private sector and evidence for casteism in a supposed meritocratic setting

One place where reservations do not take place, to the best of my knowledge, is the private sector in India. This then, offers a fertile testing ground for the hypothesis that the outcomes in the private sector are strictly a matter of merit. The thing about caste/religion in India is that names by themselves are very powerful markers thereof, and this lends itself to some very powerful, and important research.

If merit was all that mattered, if you were applying to jobs, then the name itself (and by proxy, caste and/religion) should have no influence on outcomes, and if you carry out the experiment across lots of recruiters with lots of CVs identical in every way but for the caste/religion that the name implicitly conveys, you would only see differences if they were due to discrimination, since everything else has been controlled for.

So when Professor Sukhadeo Thorat and colleagues ended up carrying out a study looking at whether names made a difference to interview-call ups from recruiters, using a sample of up to 4808 CVs, sent in response to a 548 job postings, they found that CVs with SC/ST names or muslim names attracted remarkably fewer interview call ups despite every other detail on the CVs being similar to ones with upper caste names.

They found that if one had a muslim name they got call-ups at a rate that was 2/3 lower than upper class applicants, if one had an SC/ST name, they were called up at a rate a third lower – a difference larger than between underqualified upper-caste CVs and adequately  qualified Dalit CVs, a difference so big it would happen less than 2-3 times out of every 100 times the experiment was done if there was no discrimination.

The study, in other words, revealed rampant discrimination even at the very first stage of the job application process in a supposed meritocratic environment. That study is available here

In additional studies, they showed that being Dalit was associated with reduced access to work opportunities and promotions, as well as lower pay, despite being equally qualified. which is yet more testament to the fact that all the clamouring about merit is a convenient smokescreen that obscures discrimination and masks the brutal existence of caste as an oppressive force. That study, incidentally, is here  .

Then there is also this study, which is fairly self-explanatory  http://www.epw.in/caste-and-economic-discrimination/where-path-leads.html

This study attempts to trace the differential pathways that dalit and non-dalit students from comparable elite educational backgrounds traverse in their journey from college to work. While the training they receive in the university world is quite comparable, dalit students lack many advantages that turn out to be crucial in shaping their employment outcomes. Dalit students support the affirmative action policy completely, which allows them to break their traditional marginality. Our findings suggest that social and cultural capital (the overlapping of caste, class, family background and networks) matter a great deal in the urban, highly skilled, formal and allegedly meritocratic private sector jobs, where hiring practices are less transparent than appear at first sight.

So the point is that even if people get into a great university , they still experience different career trajectories and challenges just by virtue of caste privilege or the lack thereof, again in a supposed meritocracy. The lack of transparency and the challenges of addressing individual instances of discrimination is why affirmative action is justified.

The influence of caste is measurable, as is the population size of oppressed groups, and reservations offer an easy and pragmatic way of examining and quantifying the extent of discrimination, and reacting by ensuring that the pre-existing bias against victims of caste-discrimination is eliminated.

So if you, like me, have caste privilege, I suggest you’d be doing a good thing by not buying into ridiculous, casteist, anti-reservation rhetoric and by talking to people that do oppose reservations about the reality of caste discrimination, the illusion of merit, and why reservations continue to be an essential component in the battle against discrimination. There are also other misconceptions regarding caste and reservations that I have seen, but they will be the subject of another post altogether.

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