Article: `Of Model Minorities and Racism'
(By M.V. Ramana, ©200, Frontline, July 6, 2001)
Addressing the Indian American Forum of Political
Education in September 1997, Jesse Helms, the
notorious senator from North Carolina, acclaimed:
"Indian Americans represent the best and
the brightest the United States has to offer".
Over the last decade, such lavish praise has become
commonplace as Indians shot to prominence in the U.S.
If in India newspapers prominently featured Bill Clinton's visits,
The New York Times carried a long story about Neera Tanden, a second
generation Indian who managed Hillary Clinton's Senate campaign.
Jhumpa Lahiri figured on the covers of literary magazines.
And so on.
All this cannot be explained merely by the 106 per
cent growth in the Indian population since 1990.
Much more important is the status
afforded to Indians as a "model minority".
But there is a deep irony here.
The U.S. was and is a racist society.
As the great black theorist, W.E.B. Du Bois, declared
with breathtaking prescience in his century-old classic
`The Souls of Black Folk':
"The problem of the 20th century is the problem of the colour line".
Indians have not been spared the effects of this prevalent racism.
Even among the (wealthy) Indians of Silicon Valley, a survey
showed that two-thirds believed in a "glass ceiling"
inhibiting their professional advancement.
However, by and large the Indian community's response to this state
of affairs has not been to join hands with other minorities and fight
it but to advance itself through a passive compact with racism.
Unlike the usual hagiographical accounts of the successes of Indian
immigrants, Vijay Prashad's `The Karma of Brown Folk' is a hard
hitting and perceptive exploration of the use of the community's
`model minority'-status in furthering `anti-black racism' in the U.S.
To do this, Prashad uses a combination of historical research
and insights from a variety of disciplines and humour.
In analogy with Du Bois, who posed the question
"How does it feel to be a problem?" a hundred years ago,
Prashad - a Professor in International Studies at
Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut - asks:
"How does it feel to be a solution?"
Prashad answers this by attacking the stereotype of Indians
(as `pliant, inherently-successful citizens') in two ways.
First, he looks at the history of how Indians
have been portrayed in the history of the U.S.
Second, he points out that the cross-section of Indians in the U.S.
is "NOT some RANDOM mixture of `typical' inhabitants" of the
sub-continent, nor chosen by a process of natural or cultural
selection, BUT "a `sample' CAREFULLY SELECTED" by immigration laws.
Early American awareness of India stemmed largely from philosophers
like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau ...
the result was an orientalist perception
of Indians as being naturally "spiritual".
It is this perception that people like Mahesh Yogi,
Rajneesh and now, Deepak Chopra, capitalised on.
It also helped that their teachings were in tune
with the dominant political dogma in the U.S.
For example, Rajneesh held that "socialism is impotent" and
that "capitalism is not an ideology...it is a natural growth".
(For an account of the contingent nature of the emergence
of capitalism, see The Origin of Capitalism by Ellen
Meiksins Wood, Monthly Review Press, 1999.)
Within this framework, Indians were
reduced to being apolitical and passive,
"absorbed in the pursuit of pleasure and success
without a developed social consciousness".
This spiritual tag fits nicely with the efforts
of the agents of "Yankee Hindutva" to translate
a "cultural dilemma into a religious solution".
For example, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America,
Hindu Students Council and the Jamaat-e-Islami offer "cultural
information packages" to immigrants in search of "their roots".
Apart from the narrow notion of culture they operate with, what
is really dangerous is the `political purpose' behind their efforts.
The Alliance for Secular and Democratic South Asia,
an organization based in Massachusetts, points out:
"The VHP pretends to be a cultural organization seeking to instill
'Hindu cultural values' among youth, yet a large
part of its work here has been to raise funds for
activities that lead to communal riots in India".
Although such anti-communal organizations have sprung up to
combat religious fundamentalism, especially in the aftermath of
the destruction of the Babri Masjid, their task has not been easy.
As Prashad points out, unlike organizations in India, they
"have to labor under the illusion that there is a distant
land that is the home of pure religion, of the dharma
that Hindu American children are told to long for".
Coming now to the second point, Prashad emphasizes the role
of the `1965 Immigration and Nationality (or Hart-Cellar) Act'.
Before 1965, the immigration system in the U.S. limited foreign entry
by mandating extremely small quotas according to the nation of origin.
Hart-Cellar, by contrast, allowed immigration based
on both the possession of `scarce skills' and on
`family ties' to citizens or permanent residents.
It also significantly increased the total
number of immigrants allowed into the U.S.
Prashad traces the antecedents of the Act to
the panicked reaction by U.S. politicians and
THE ELITE to the Soviet launch of the Sputnik in 1957.
In response, the U.S. government tried to
promote the study of science and technology.
However, these fields had relied largely
on immigrants since the 1930s.
Independent India's emphasis on science and technology, and the
concomitant increase in trained manpower, resulting from Jawaharlal
Nehru's great faith in the ability of science to "develop" India,
therefore provided an apposite source of skilled labor.
Between 1966 and 1977, 83 per cent of Indian immigrants
entered the U.S. under the occupational category
]of professional and technical workers.
That this CAREFULLY SELECTED SET of people were successful
in their careers, or their children at school, is not surprising.
This selection process, by `producing docile citizens' out of
Indians, lent a sociological basis to `popular perception'.
As Jeff Schmidt amply documents in his Disciplined Minds
(Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2000), the U.S. system
of professional education and employment push
"potentially independent thinkers" into
"a politically subordinate role".
This success of Indians results in effectively
reducing the plight of `blacks' in the U.S. to "their failings"
rather than `the overall structure of racism that pervades',
or their history of slavery and forcible relocation.
The praise as well as real and perceived privilege
afforded to Indians is but the mirror image of the
"why can't you succeed if they can"
question leveled at `African Americans'.
Leading the charge are ideologues like Dinesh D'Souza,
who claimed that the crisis of `black' America is made more
acute by "the embarrassing fact of Asian American success".
Unfortunately, as Prashad says,
"Far more South Asian Americans than I wish to admit
find merit in many of his arguments,
notably his pompous claim that immigrants
of the right sort are `a special breed' ...
we obsess on these stories of success not to praise
the few that make it (some despite tremendous odds)
but to argue that the rest fail of their own accord".
The history of [positive] relations between Indians and `blacks'
makes the current strain of [new found] racism among
middle class South Asians even more distressing
For over a century, leaders in both communities have looked
to each other, across continents, for inspiration and solidarity.
Jyotiba Phule, the Maharashtrian Dalit leader and reformer,
called upon Indians to look to the fight against
"Negro slavery" as "their guide in the emancipation of their S
udra Brethren from the trammels of Brahmin thralldom".
Half a century later, in 1943, the African American poet,
Langston Hughes, paid tribute to Mahatma Gandhi's fasting:
"You know quite well, Great Britain, /
That it is not right To starve and beat and oppress /
Those who are not white.
Of course, we do it too, /
Here in the USA May Ghandhi's prayers help us, as well, /
As he fasts today."
Prashad is not content with `invoking the past'.
He also offers a vision of the future
and offers possible paths to reach there.
The final chapter of the book is an inventory of South Asian
organizations engaged in a variety of struggles: against U.S.
imperialism, religious violence, the exploitation
of domestic labour, police brutality
and so on
"Radicalism," Prashad rightly notes, "is as South Asian as Gandhi".
This is concretely illustrated by a detailed account of the 1998
taxi drivers' strike in New York, when a group of mostly
immigrant laborers brought the city to a grinding halt.
It is noteworthy that not only a large fraction of
taxi workers, but also two organizers who played
important roles, were from the subcontinent.
(Of course, these South Asians
ceased to be a `model minority'.
New York City Police Commissioner Howard Safir, praised by Mayor
Rudolph Guiliani as the city's "greatest Police Commissioner",
termed them "terrorists")
From such actions, Prashad envisions an incipient progressive
South Asian community that draws on the alternate history
of immigrant struggle in the U.S. (for example, the Ghadar party)
that is opposed to an unequal social order and that is
in solidarity with `blacks' and other victims of racism.
However, he is clear that this solidarity
"requires a tremendous act of production...that there is a desire
to create unity among working class peoples and oppressed peoples
of colour does not mean the unity is waiting to happen."
Immigrants do have what it takes to make good activists.
As David Bacon points out in a recent article in Z Magazine,
"Immigrant communities are usually very supportive of working-class
struggles, and workers themselves have a tradition of mutual support".
Given the wide range of subjects addressed, there are discontinuities
and jumps in The Karma of Brown Folk, but these may be ignored.
Despite the chatty and informal style
adopted, the book is not easy reading.
But the effort is worth it.
Following in the tradition of people like Mike Davis, who in his
classic `Prisoners of the American Dream' (Verso Press, 1986)
called for a "broadly based solidarity movement" that could
"act as a major constraint on American intervention abroad",
Prashad's book is a timely appeal for joint struggle.
Given the spread of global capitalism and the
onslaught of right-wing politics in both
the U.S. and India, the task is urgent.
Ramana is Research Associate, Programme on Science
and Global Security, Princeton University, Princeton.
[Vijay Prashad is the author of "The Karma of Brown Folk"
(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000. 253 pp.)]
"In American, anyone can get away
with 'model minority' status if
they kow-tow to the majority.
It's a fact of life if you do not speak up,
you get to be pat on the head like a 'good boy'."
"There is difference and there is power and who holds
the power shall decide the meaning of difference."
- June Jordan in `Technical Difficulties `