Indians' Debt to Black America
The evening was incredible. I met a 14-year old that had invented a braille printer. I met a lawyer who was cleaning up generations of corruption in New York's state capital. I met the owner of a professional basketball team, the country's Surgeon General, who was using his White House appointment to fight against our country's epidemic of gun violence. I even met the very first Desi Miss America.
This was just a small cross-section of the talent that makes up the Indian-American community. We can count some of America's most innovative and successful people as members of our diaspora---doctors, authors, lawyers, musicians, and of course, the backbone of Silicon Valley. In 2010, the Pew Forum found that average household income for Indian Americans was $88,000 a year---almost double the US average. 70% of adult Indian Americans had college degrees, higher than any other Asian-American groups and 2.5 time the US average. This success has even transformed India itself, as Indian Americans have invested money, championed minority rights that had long gone ignored, and shaped new ideas about what's possible in India.
But flattering as it may be, it's a reputation that glosses over our tremendous diversity, stereotyping us as monolithic. (Plus it sweeps under the rug the 300,000 of us that live in poverty, the 22% of us that speak limited English, and the struggles that come with being the fastest-growing group of undocumented migrants in the country).
At its worst, though, it's a reputation that's given us contempt for other groups in the US that haven't "mastered the system" in the same way. It's a contempt that's most often directed at Black Americans, who are derided as irresponsible, violent, scary, and worse. They're stereotypes that are sadly pervasive throughout the US, but we've internalized them with the Hindi slur "kallu" that too easily finds itself on the lips of many South Asians. As the comedian Russell Peters pointed out, "it's not like Black people colonized India for 200 years!"
In fact, it's the Black community to whom Indian-Americans, and India, owe a tremendous debt for our current stature. Let me unpack that.
Small as our numbers are, South Asians have a pretty long history in America. As far back as the 1800s, north Indian traders came bearing 'exotic articles from the orient,' selling silks, spices, and hookahs in New Orleans, Detroit, and even the old Southwest (think of Ali Hakim from the play Oklahoma!).
Not just lacking immigration papers, but having brown skin, these Indian migrants were shown the door at White-owned hotels and neighborhoods. And the racism and antipathy didn't stop there. The 1917 Immigration Act made Indians, as author Vivek Bald puts it, "equivalent in the eyes of the law to alcoholics, professional beggars, and the insane," and the Supreme Court ruled that "Indians who were already in the United States were racially ineligible to become citizens."
Fears of a "Hindoo Invasion" and a "Turban Tide" swept American newspapers, and as Erika Lee documents in The Making of Asian America, brown people from Washington State to Florida were denied citizenship (despite American military service, in the case of Bhagat Singh Thind), beaten by white mobs, forcibly removed from entire towns, imprisoned if they sought to marry Caucasian women, and worse.
But where they did gain acceptance were the Black majority enclaves of all of these cities. In his brilliantly revelatory book, Bengali Harlem, Bald describes communities in Tremé, New Orleans, the west side of Baltimore, and East Detroit where scores of Desi men married local African American women and settled down.
And through the 1900s, when British vessels docked in New York Harbor, dozens of Indian maritime workers jumped ship, interspersing in New York's crowded streets before settling in the "Black Mecca" of Harlem.
Across the country, another group of South Asians made their way to the West Coast, working as farmers in California's upstart agricultural economy. Together, Punjabi and Mexican migrants picked fruits and vegetables for low wages and in poor working conditions. Years before Cesar Chavez, Punjabis like Dalip Singh Saund helped to organize workers of both ethnicities---many of whom were intermarried---to demand labor rights.
In solidarity with Mexican workers, Saund traversed the US, mobilizing undocumented Indian workers to become more politically active. He, along with Arizona farmer Mubarak Ali Khan, JJ Singh of New York's India League of America, and other Asian activists lobbied Congress to pass the Luce-Celler Act, which allowed 100 Indians to gain US citizenship every year.
This act wouldn't be enough to bring all South Asians out of the shadows, to end the racist immigration quotas that had restricted America's talent pool to Europeans, or to bring a new generation of South Asians to American shores.
What did push the envelope was the Black Civil Rights movement of the 1950 and 60s. Coming at the height of the Cold War in defense of democracy, the sight of Black activists being hosed, beaten, and tortured by their own government, just for trying to live their lives, made America rethink its own contradictions. How could Washington be the standard bear for freedom if it was beating down its own citizens because of their race?
As a result of this raised consciousness, Congress passed the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts that would remove explicit racism from the books. America's awareness of its own racial inconsistencies, awakened by the Black civil rights movement, soon extended beyond US borders. The Immigration Act of 1965 took down racial quotas and allowed a new generation of Asians to enter the US---including my own parents.
The next phase of South Asian immigration was not from the same working class that had found refuge in Black communities and organized for change therefrom, but professionals who had received training in India and arrived in the US mostly ready to provide the engineering, medical, and other talent that American consumers needed. Even today, almost half of the H-1B visas given by the State Department go to Indian engineers, many of whom are already trained in the discipline before arriving in the US.
This leg up, in terms of educational legacies and social networks, within South Asia and the US, helped a generation of Desis attain the successes that would be honored at events like the Person of the Year awards. Compare this with many of the migrants from throughout the world, including India itself, that have come since---many escaping tyranny, only dreaming that their children could have in America the kind of education my parents left India with.
What about Black Americans? Didn't the Civil Rights movement end racism in the United States and put that community on equal footing?
A Black middle class of professionals has unquestionably established itself, which is why we've seen Black doctors, CEOs, Secretaries of State, preeminent astrophysicists, and even a President of the United States. But all of these people have had to be, as the saying goes, "twice as good to get half as far," precisely because Black Americans still face structural hurdles that other groups don't.
For example, since World War II, as European and Asian Baby boomers have built up their own wealth in the form of suburban home ownership---subsidized by Mortgage Interest Rate and other tax deductions---most Black Americans were not given any access to home ownership because of blatantly racist practices initially supported by the government: racially restrictive contracts, zoning laws, and neighborhoods "redlined" as too risky for lenders.
Left to languish in urban areas, too many children of the Civil Rights movement were unable to build wealth---notably the housing assets that other communities used to underwrite college loans---even as highway construction tore through their neighborhoods, hastening their decline.
Education might have paved a path out of poverty, but since it was funded by property tax, its quality mirrored the poor economic circumstances in which many Black people found themselves.
Compare this with our relative luck. Nancy Foner, a leading immigration scholar at Hunter College points out that "because they are not Black, Asian immigrants face less discrimination in finding a place to live...which translates into access to heavily white neighborhoods with good public schools."
Meanwhile, a 'War on Drugs' specifically targeted Blacks and Hispanics simply for the crime of being young---white and suburban youth consume drugs at a higher rate than Blacks, with little consequence, but more than 1 out of 3 Black men will find themselves in the clutches of the correctional system for the same offence. This has of course meant that many have been left far from the American dream, languishing on street corners and in prisons---just three out of every ten Blacks are able to make it to the middle class, compared to two-thirds of Whites. As President Obama once said, "what's remarkable is not how many Black men and women failed in the face of this discrimination, but how many overcame the odds."
This racial violence directly harms all of us. Just last year, an old Indian man was left partially paralyzed after Alabama police responded to a call about "a skinny black guy" walking around the neighborhood.
And though it's nowhere near the same scale, it's a similar strain of systemic violence and vitriol that brown people in America have felt since the War on Terror. As the Black writer Greg Tate said of South Asians after 9/11, "welcome to racial profiling." This strand of ignorant virulence targets many people of color, regardless of religion or economic "success": In 2012, a Hindu PhD student named Sunando Sen was fatally pushed into the subway tracks in New York by a woman who claimed she "hates Hindus and Muslims ever since...they put down the twin towers."
These realities tell us that even as the successes of Indian Americans are celebrated, our challenges remain---and they intersect with those of people we too often exclude. It's a strange paradox we live; as the pianist Vijay Iyer has said, "to succeed in America is, somehow, to be complicit with the idea of America--which means that at some level you've made peace with its rather ugly past...with all of its structural inequalities, its patterns of domination, and its ghastly histories of slavery and violence."
As the #BlackLivesMatter movement seeks to correct injustices that should have long been consigned to history, we need to recognize that true Black liberation in America will lead to liberation everywhere. Let's start by making sure our workplaces look like our country; by acknowledging the impacts of past and current discrimination; and by fully championing, without coopting as our own, the message that Black lives really ought to matter today, as always---only then would all lives truly matter.
Fundamentally, as members of our diaspora go on to lead the largest companies, invent the next path-breaking technologies, and even populate the nation's highest courts, let us, as Iyer put it, "choose to be that kind of American that refuses to accept what America has been, and instead help build a better America even for others, who might not immediately seem to 'belong' to us."
This piece was originally published in India Abroad Magazine