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View PointOpinion: The race of numbers

Opinion: The race of numbers

Published: 24th Nov 2021 11:52 pm

By Pramod K Nayar

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The much-criticised Nazis developed a test for ascertaining the degree of Aryanness or Jewishness. With the eugenics movement and its associate, Social Darwinism, as ideological foundations, this quantification of ancestry, belonging and kinship enabled the Nazis to target, deny and exterminate those whose blood was not pure enough. The concern with racial and ethnic purity is as old as the rapidly eroding hills, but it gathers strength in states where the “nation” is coded as homogenous, a homogeneity that is as mythical as exclusionary.

Nazi Numbers

The Nazi test, often called the “Mischling test” was simple enough. A person with either three or four Jewish grandparents is a Jew. A person with two Jewish grandparents is either a Jew or a first-degree Mischling. A person with one Jewish grandparent is a second-degree Mischling. The test was refined to account for those with two Jewish and two non-Jewish grandparents. A chart to codify and explain these combinations was issued in Nuremberg — the site of the future trials after the Second World War — in November 1935.

However, the law that initiated this quantification had been promulgated in 1933, in the form of First Supplementary Decree for the Execution of the Law of Restoration of the Professional Civil Service.The decree, as cited by Paul Mendes-Flohr in his 900-page, The Jew in the Modern World: A Documentary History, reads:

“A person is … non-Aryan [if] … descended from non-Aryan, especially Jewish, parents or grandparents. This holds true even if only one parent or grandparent is … non-Aryan … [and] especially obtains if one parent or grandparent was of the Jewish faith.”

Employment and state benefits, evidently, drove the Nazi movement to quantify racial purity.  The Nuremberg chart itself is now available at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, as a key document in the unmaking of citizens. But we are wrong to accord the status of “inventors” of the “racing numbers” model to the Nazis. It began, in fact, on a different continent, but with the same intentions and purposes.

“New World” Number Systems

In 1705, the county of Virginia adopted the “Indian Blood Law”. It enabled the government to define and limit who counts as “Native Americans”. The Law endured and in 1924, the Pocahontas Clause in the Racial Integrity Act, stated that more than 1/16th Indian ancestry in a white person would mean a loss of legal status as a “white”. For the Native Americans it meant far worse.

The implementation of these “blood quantum laws”, as they are known, was varied. In his detailed study of the legal history of these laws (2006), Paul Spruhan of Navajo Nation Department of Justice observes that the irresolvable issue was “the interlocking foundational contradictions of Indian legal status: 1) Indian as race and as political group, 2) the Indian as sovereign and as ward”. Protests about the “blood quantum” measures have been staged by various Native American communities especially since the genetic profiling of races under the Human Genome Diversity Project took off.

As Jack Forbes, who teaches Native American studies in UC-Davis, argued: “The possibility exists that numerous persons of full American indigenous racial ancestry will be counted as mixed-bloods and that, gradually, American Indians will be eliminated as a people as they marry non-Indians or currently non-Federally recognized Natives.”

As expected, these modes of measuring ancestry were also applied to African Americans, especially in the form of the notorious “one drop” rule (also called the “hypo-descent rule”), where even one black ancestor would render a descendent “black”.

Race’s Quantum Mechanics

In 2020, Tailyr Irvine created the exhibition “Reservation Mathematics: Navigating Love in Native America” for NatGeo. Interviewing residents on the reservations in western Montana, Irvine summarised the blood quantum laws as follows:

“if a person has ancestors who all descended from one American Indian tribe and has a child with someone who is not a member of that tribe, their child would have a blood quantum of ½. If this child grows up and becomes a parent with someone who is not a citizen of his or her tribe, their offspring would have a blood quantum of ¼. For those tribes that use blood quantum as a criterion for tribal enrollment, the minimum blood quantum requirements vary and have ranged from ½ to ¹⁄16.”

Irvine’s photo-essay pointed out that the choice of partners for Native Americans was now increasingly complicated by this numerical insistence.

Irvine, a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, has a blood quantum of 7⁄16. Nelson, a member of the Navajo Nation, has a blood quantum of 3⁄4. Because Irvine’s tribes require 1⁄4 Salish and Kootenai blood for enrollment, their child will not qualify to be a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and will be enrolled in the Navajo Nation.

But this is not all. Blood quantum calculations are central to the possibility of state aid, services and rights. About the Tribal ID (as it is called), Irvine writes:  “On each card is the tribal member’s photo, enrollment ID number, and blood quantum, indicated by a fraction. The ID is an official documentation of enrollment status and is needed to complete paperwork that requires proof of American Indian status, such as applications for federal student aid, health care benefits, and tribal housing.”

None of this makes what the Nazis did forgivable, but we need to recognise that everything evil did not originate with them.

When a state legislates using numbers (majority/minority) and inventories (citizens/aliens), it is usually the first step towards control and exclusion, based on what it deems to be “accurate” numbers. As the Reservation Mathematics project demonstrates in its individual stories, the numerical laws are an innocuous looking preliminary to what the novelist called the “love laws”… “the laws that lay down who should be loved, and how. And how much”. 

(The author is Professor, Department of English, University of Hyderabad)  

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