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Subverting A Model

Annette T. Rubinstein is an editor of Science and Society and the author of American Literature: Root and Flower (dist. by Monthly Review Press).

Vijay Prashad,The Karma of Brown Folk(University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 248 pages, $25 hardcover.

The Karma of Brown Folk is essentially addressed to two audiences and is surprisingly successful in being readable by both. Its primary audience is the “desi”—men and women of South Asian descent living in the United States. This widely dispersed group of some fifteen million first and second generation immigrants is often referred to as a model minority—untroublesome, hardworking, entrepreneurial, conservative, clannish, and family oriented. In approaching these countrymen the author’s freely avowed purpose is a subversive one. He wants to destroy the image by re-forming the fact behind it.

Prashad’s secondary audience consists of members of the general socially concerned public here, especially African Americans and other minorities disturbed by questions of race and by racism. One of his approaches to countering racist prejudice between such groups is offered by a number of brief but emphatic reminders of earlier cultural exchanges and support in anti-colonial struggles.

The other more unusual and, I think, more substantial stratagem is a careful analysis of immigration policies and general material circumstances as these differ between minorities. This is used to answer the misleading questions posed by such reactionaries as Dinesh D’Souza and Thomas Sowell who not only blame the victim, but do their worst to make the victim blame himself. “If these brown folk can make it why can’t we? Are we Blacks really inferior?” Anyone who has worked with or taught young African Americans must be aware of the anguish such questions cause them and the extent to which they may become a self-fulfilling prophecy. In this respect the importance of such a detailed concrete explanation as Prashad offers cannot be over-estimated.

The book’s historical material begins with a quick chronological tour of traditional views including statements by Emerson, Thoreau and, amazingly, Cotton Mather. In general New Englanders saw the East as “other-worldly,” superior in spirituality but inferior in practical life. A more detailed consideration of the recent past is used to show how new business needs demanded changes in government policies facilitating a huge increase in the number of technically qualified immigrants from Asia, especially India. The consequent enormous difference in average education and income between these and most members of black or even other “brown skin” (Mexican, Puerto Rican, etc.) groups fostered, for many desis, the illusion of achieving identification with the white middle class and strengthened their determination to maintain their distance from darker groups. The result was, of course, an acceptance and internalization of racism.

Here, if only to maintain truth in advertising, I must raise one serious question. The author presents racism as an evil of exclusively Western origin. He does mention the suggestion of a relationship between that and the caste system, but only to dismiss the possibility of such an explanation. He also altogether ignores the way in which class so often translates itself into color bias in the black community itself. While that is not strictly related to his thesis I think some consideration of the matter would greatly enrich the discussion.

His twenty page chapter “Of Yankee Indutva” bridges the turn from a general theoretical analysis to a specific account of recent developments in both India and the United States. Although the rapid historical survey of events in India is thick with (to this reader) unfamiliar acronyms and hitherto unheard of events the story line comes clear. The latter half of the chapter deals with the in- famous destruction of the great Banri Masjid and the subsequent much intensified, largely successful, conscious attempt by leaders of a Hindu political cultural movement to exacerbate religious and ethnic conflict transforming Indian cultural history into a highly sectarian religious history.

Unfortunately this travesty of their tradition has been successfully marketed to many homesick desis, as is evidenced by the enormous number of “gold bricks” sold here—ostensibly for funds to build a Hindu temple on the site of the ancient Moslem mosque.(The unconscious adoption of the term “gold brick” for their merchandise by political con men is deeply ironical to anyone who remembers its general slang meaning or O. Henry’s volume of stories about The Gentle Grafter, city slickers who despoiled trusting farmers by selling them gold bricks and shares in the Brooklyn Bridge.)

But in its Indian incarnation the con game has deeper roots than simple greed and gullibility. As the often underpaid doctors, teachers, or computer experts soon began to realize that neither they nor their children were likely to become hospital administrators, college presidents, or millionaire consultants they realized even more bitterly that those in power were determined they remain forever outsiders to American life. Even direct physical attacks were all too often unpunished! They frequently responded by withdrawing into as traditional a family and as homogenous a community as possible, selling their churlish hosts the work they wanted but no longer trying to share the lives they had rejected.

One is reminded of a nostalgic story by Sholem Aleichem about an earlier immigrant from Eastern Europe. Reading job ads he says bitterly: “Hands wanted! Hands wanted! That’s America for you! They don’t want your heart. They don’t want your head. Just your hands.” Similarly, Prashad says, many desis realizing that America doesn’t want their life but only their labor become nostalgic for their own somewhat illusory past. They are actively encouraged by religious con men and reactionary leaders to retreat to it.

But, he says, there not only could be but is already beginning to be a very different path than this self-segregation. That path would lead the “model minority to commit model minority suicide…and re-create a form of Asian misbehavior that is as desi as Gandhi.”

The last chapter of the book, “Solidarity and Other Desires” is devoted to specific reports of such movements throughout the United States. These are movements where inter-racial groups of black, brown, yellow, red and, yes, white working people have joined to demand their place in American life. Our own city offers an outstanding example; 60 percent of the super exploited taxicab drivers in New York are desis. These have been particularly targeted for persecution by our racist, anti-immigrant, anti-worker mayor so a group of desis took the lead two years ago in forming an inter-racial taxi drivers’ association. This has already mounted a huge amazingly successful city-wide demonstration and is growing very rapidly. The book concludes with a report of the New York Taxi Workers Association (NYTWA) and its hopeful brotherly struggles.

2001, Volume 52, Issue 10 (March)
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