Every history I have read of Indians in America seems to cite certain moments or figures which have become almost canonical (if not mythic) in their significance for the story of our community. I believe two recent events will come to define a new chapter for Indians in America: the February 2015 unwarranted assault and paralysis of 57-year-old Sureshbhai Patel by police in Madison, Alabama, and two years later, the February 2017 attack on Alok Madasani (who survived) and Srinivas Kuchibhotla (who did not) in Olathe, Kansas, by the deranged, White terrorist Adam Purinton.
In each of these cases, an Indian man in the United States was attacked for not being viewed as the acceptable type of American (White, English-speaking Christian). While the police justified their treatment of Patel because they believed he was resisting arrest, Purinton thought he had done his patriotic duty by shooting two Iranians. That Patel, Madasani, and Kuchibhotla were all Hindu and in the country legally — Patel to visit his grandchildren, and the two Kansas men on work visas for Garmin — hardly matters. Make America less Brown again, right?
Indians in America have a race problem, and while it is one that is carried over from India (through immigration, colonialism, patriarchy, and colorism), it is further whipped into frenzy by the hubris and superiority complex that Indian Americans have created for themselves. Sandip Roy noted as much in this editorial after the Kansas attacks:
It just goes to show that Indian Americans do not exist in a vacuum. They are part of the immigrant story, and when the backlash happens, they will be part of that story too, as the Kansas incident tragically illustrates. Indian-Americans must be a part of the movement to resist the forces unleashed in America today, they cannot set themselves apart from it.
While the theory of the model minority owes its existence to two 1966 articles by sociologist William Petersen (who was actually writing about Japanese Americans), it has become the stuff of legend (and nightmare) in the fifty years since. The myth, according to scholar Helen Zia in Asian American Dreams, “proved tenacious, surfacing like clockwork whenever the Westinghouse Science Talent Search winners or other scholastic prizes were announced, with tales of stunning accomplishment by Asian immigrant youngsters who had just learned to speak English.”
“In The Other Once Percent: Indians in America, the authors challenge the model minority myth almost immediately.”
In The Other Once Percent: Indians in America (Oxford University Press, Nov. 25, 2016), academics Sanjoy Chakravorty, Devesh Kapur, and Nirvikar Singh challenge the model minority myth almost immediately. They make it very clear that the success of Indians in America is not due to some divine providence or genetic brilliance, but rather a “triple selection” process (that sounds like the distillation of a specialty vodka):
in India, first through a social hierarchy that generally restricted access to higher education to groups with high socioeconomic status, then through an examination and education-financing system that further limited the number of individuals who received the inputs that made it possible to become eligible for immigration to the United States, and finally in the United States, selected through an immigration system that was geared to admit students and workers who matched the country’s high-end labor market needs. (p. xiii)
The authors note that this book, born out of different projects on various aspects of the Indian American from each of the three authors, is the first comprehensive effort to apply a social science, data-drive approach to the topic. No doubt it is a staggering effort and perhaps one of the most insightful books in Race, Ethnicity, and Politics (REP) for some time.
But Chakravorty et al. also acknowledge at the very beginning of The Other One Percent, that not only do they not engage on the topic of race in America, but that their assumption is that the criteria that matter more for the Indian story are class and linguistic differences. The reasoning is that,
these categories from ‘home’ are more meaningful in terms of outcomes in the host. We submit that this approach reverses the analytical orientation — we look at Indians in America from an Indian perspective rather than an American one. (p.xi)
What is “an Indian perspective”? If I am reading between the lines, then it is quite depressing to understand that the authors are insinuating that by not engaging with critical race theory, they are assuming an “Indian perspective.”
This denial thus creates a document that again focuses on desi success, political victories, and socioeconomic growth, but obscures realities recognized by other authors: anti-Black racism (Vijay Prashad in The Karma of Brown Folk), pro-orientalist views, Hindu hegemony (Khyati Joshi in New Roots in America’s Sacred Ground), and lack of cooperation with other Asian Pacific Americans (Pei-te Lien in The Making of Asian America through Political Participation).
The result is a book that almost reeks with pseudo-liberalism; time and time again, the authors suggest that Indian Americans either see themselves as “post racial” (if that’s even a thing) or that America is no longer the country where everything is about race. Both assumptions do a major disservice to this nation’s checkered past with immigration and race.
“The irony in all of this is that the authors do occasionally mention Indian American experiences with race, and racial discrimination, but then step away from the topic as if not to offend anyone.”
The irony in all of this is that the authors do occasionally mention Indian American experiences with race, and racial discrimination, but then step away from the topic as if not to offend anyone. They reference it in their discussion of Dalip Singh Saund, the first South Asian American (as well as Asian American overall) to be elected to Congress, as well as in their chapter on “Becoming American.”
They even acknowledge the work of Indian freedom fighter Lala Rajpat Rai who as early as 1916, noted in his post-visit travelogue The United States of America that the treatment of Blacks in the early 20th century was akin to the experiences of lower caste people in India.
In perhaps the lowest of low blows, the authors actually begin the book with what they must have thought would be a delightful commentary:
Half a millennium after Columbus’s epic voyage, the original ‘Indian’ in Columbus’s discovery — now renamed “Native American” and sometimes “American Indian” — languishes at the bottom of the socioeconomic hierarchy in the United States, a poignant testament to the ravages suffered by the original inhabitants of the Americas. Meanwhile, the Indians from the part of the world whose riches Columbus was chasing have emerged as one of the most economically successful (and arguably the most successful immigrant groups in the United States. (p.1)
Comparing the “failures” of American Indians with the success of Indian Americans seems like one hell of a cheap shot. Those “ravages” were created by the United States government who continue to (pardon my language) f*ck over Native Americans.
Conversely, as the authors note over and over again, Asian Indian immigrants have been granted access and to some degree, groomed for success in America. But that success has come at a price; no amount of self-congratulatory masturbation over “living the American dream” can hide the insidious influence of race and ethnicity-based selection policies that continue to dominate American politics and cultural mores.
Later in this book, Chakravorty, Kapur, and Singh note that, “the United States of the twenty-first century is a much more diverse society, where old prejudices and intolerances are more muted, or at least less overt, than the blatant institutionalized racism of a century or more ago.” (p.132) This conclusion seems almost laughable now, especially with the post-Trump regime change occurring after the book’s release late last year.
“By acknowledging that the Indian American community has a race problem, we can begin the slow and difficult work of also examining racism in India as well as in other Diaspora communities.”
There was so much about The Other One Percent I enjoyed, but like a hot spot that grows into a blister while hiking, I was not able to shake my disbelief with the authors — all public and highly-sought out scholars — and their calculated move to set aside critical race theory to explain the success of Indians in America. No discussion of immigrant success, especially of Asian Americans, can avoid theories of racial triangulation, imperial racialization, or racial bipolarism.
I am proud of my Indian heritage and grateful that my parents made the decision to move in the mid ‘70s from Chennai (then Madras) to Chicago so that my sister and I could have new opportunities. As the first person in my family born in America, I relish the privilege that comes with citizenship, but I am fully cognizant that the success of Indians in America was less trial and error, and more a giant experiment in assimilation and citizenship sponsored by the United States government.
By acknowledging that the Indian American community has a race problem, we can begin the slow and difficult work of also examining racism in India as well as in other Diaspora communities. But refusing to see the racial hierarchy and order to which we are simply a cog is more than hubris: it is the slow poison of a superiority complex that will destroy us.
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Shyam Sriram is a Ph.D. student in the department of political science at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His primary area of focus is Asian Pacific American politics, but he also works on the political attitudes of refugees. He was born in Chicago, and he lived in India from age nine to 17.