The Karma of Brown Folk

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Overview

What does it mean to be a model minority?

"How does it feel to be a problem?" asked W. E. B. Du Bois of black Americans in his classic The Souls of Black Folk. A hundred years later, Vijay Prashad asks South Asians "How does it feel to be a solution?" In this kaleidoscopic critique, Prashad looks into the complexities faced by the members of a "model minority"-- one, he claims, that is consistently deployed as "a weapon in the war against black America."

On a vast canvas, The Karma of Brown Folk attacks the two pillars of the "model minority" image, that South Asians are both inherently successful and pliant, and analyzes the ways in which U.S. immigration policy and American Orientalism have perpetuated these stereotypes. Prashad uses irony, humor, razor-sharp criticism, personal reflections, and historical research to challenge the arguments made by Dinesh D'Souza, who heralds South Asian success in the U.S., and to question the quiet accommodation to racism made by many South Asians. A look at Deepak Chopra and others whom Prashad terms "Godmen" shows us how some South Asians exploit the stereotype of inherent spirituality, much to the chagrin of other South Asians. Following the long engagement of American culture with South Asia, Prashad traces India's effect on thinkers like Cotton Mather and Henry David Thoreau, Ravi Shankar's influence on John Coltrane, and such essential issues as race versus caste and the connection between antiracism activism and anticolonial resistance.

The Karma of Brown Folk locates the birth of the "model minority" myth, placing it firmly in the context of reaction to the struggle for Black Liberation. Prashad reclaims the long history of black and South Asian solidarity, discussing joint struggles in the U.S., the Caribbean, South Africa, and elsewhere, and exposes how these powerful moments of alliance faded from historical memory and were replaced by Indian support for antiblack racism. Ultimately, Prashad writes not just about South Asians in America but about America itself, in the tradition of Tocqueville, Du Bois, Richard Wright, and others. He explores the place of collective struggle and multiracial alliances in the transformation of self and community-in short, how Americans define themselves.

Vijay Prashad is assistant professor of international studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut.
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Editorial Reviews

A Magazine
Prashad begins by tracing the evolution of an American strain of Orientalism in the early 19th century. He demonstrates how this method of cultural reification was transmitted through popular culture, such as brown-face shows in circuses that toured the country. This Orientalism, according to Prashad, finds its way into the modern day with 'sly babas and Godmen' like Deepak Chopra who exploit its East/spiritual-West/material dichotomy for their own personal profit. He then shifts gears, addressing a range of topics including immigration policies, the difficulties of building 'authentic cultural lives' in America, the often Hindu-nationalist, political underpinnings of nonpolitical cultural organizations in the immigrant community, and finally, the sources of and possible solutions to South Asian anti-black racism. The Karma of Brown Folk is fascinating reading because of the very 'experiential' knowledge that the author explicitly wishes to submit to more 'theoretical' bases of understanding. He is a keen eye-witness of South Asian American (desi) life in America, especially when interpolating snatches of conversation or reporting events. He has a genius for selecting the precise detail that makes observations spring to life. For example, Ralph Waldo Emerson's pet name for his wife was 'Mine Asia,' and Dizzy Gillespie sometimes wore a turban to pose as South Asian in order to escape the restrictions of American apartheid.
— (A. Magazine: Inside Asian America)
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Taking a cue from W.E.B. Du Bois's The Souls of Black Folk--which poses the question, "How does it feel to be a problem?"--Prashad's book on race relations asks Asians, "How does it feel to be a solution?" An assistant professor of international relations, he shows how neoconservatives have used the success of South Asian immigrants (though most of the book deals with Indians) to argue that America now offers a level playing field and that if other minorities, particularly African-Americans, have not achieved as much success, it is due to their own lack of initiative. Yet Prashad demonstrates how the U.S.'s extremely selective immigration policy (from 1966 to 1977, for example, 83% of Indian immigrants to the U.S. were professionals) has led to the myth of the "successful race." In the same vein, Prashad also argues that "sly Babas" (or "Godmen"), like Deepak Chopra, perpetuate the idea that Asians are a pliant, spiritual group and do a disservice by peddling "opiates that comfort" rather than challenging people to alter the causes of their distress. Throughout his book, Prashad repeatedly reproaches society for forgetting the poor--chastising Bobby McFerrin, for example, for releasing his song Don't Worry Be Happy at a time of great economic insecurity, and castigating the medical community for not doing enough to control preventable diseases common among the poor. Though Prashad includes many revealing insights about South Asians in America, at times his book seems more like a scattered collection of anecdotal lectures than a cogent analysis of race relations among minority groups in our nation. (Mar.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Andrew Hsiao
The Karma of Brown Folk is [a] fascinating genealogy of the idea of India in America...remarkable.
The Village Voice
Pankaj Mishra
Prashad's considerable book is part of that clear-sighted assessment of a fast-changing people and world.
Times Literary Supplement
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780816634385
  • Publisher: University of Minnesota Press
  • Publication date: 3/28/2000
  • Pages: 253
  • Product dimensions: 5.88 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Read an Excerpt




Chapter One


OF INDIA


India as a Land of Desire forms an essential element in General History. From the most ancient time downwards, all nations have directed their wishes and longings to gaining access to the treasures of this land of marvels, the most costly which the Earth presents; treasures of Nature—pearls, diamonds, perfumes, rose-essences, elephants, lions, etc.—as also treasures of wisdom.
—G. W. F. Hegel, The Philosophy of History


India came to America by mistake. A Genovese navigator landed in the Bahamas in search of India. He saw and slaughtered the Bahamians (and rescued for world history one Bahamian word, "hammock"). Those whom he found he named "Indians," and the land he called "India." Aided by his maps of the world (mappe-mondes) and his medieval library, Columbus could have called the land China (for he thought he was somewhere in the vicinity of Cathay). He had read the diaries of Marco Polo and was in search of landmarks noted by the Venetian. To Columbus, the Caribbean appeared at times much like the familiar descriptions of China and at other times like the popular textual accounts of India by the fictitious Sir John Mandeville. Constrained by his charge to seek out Prester John in order to open a second front against the "sect of Mahomet," Columbus was happy to think he was in India, the supposed home of this other Christian king. Till the end of his life, he was convinced that America was but India.

    India emerged in the Americas as a fantasy of redemption for the trials of thisworld.Columbus's journal begins with a summary of the political economy of contemporary Spain: The union of Castile and Aragon enabled the defeat of the Moors, the expulsion of Jews from the Iberian peninsula, the start of the Inquisition, and finally, the continuance of the crusades against Islam. For all this, the military might of the Spaniards required treasure and allies, both of which it hoped to gain from India by way of a sea route toward the west. Even though India did not appear in the west, the western lands provided ample silver and gold to prop up a withered monarchy. Not six years after Columbus reached the Americas, Vasco da Gama found the original India by sailing around Africa, but the record was not set straight. We now had two Indies, one in the east and one in the west. India did not vanish from the western lands, now called the Americas. As an idea it was to reappear numerous times, but mostly to chastise the opulent flamboyance of the Americas. It continues to appear in our own day, in the body of people such as Deepak Chopra, those sly babas (Godmen) who peddle opiates that comfort our decrepitude rather than challenge us to change what produces our distress in the first place.

    India is present today in the body of the Indians and others from the South Asian subcontinent, who now number 1.4 million in the United States. But these people are not all "Indians." Many are from Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, the Maldives, Africa, England, Canada, Fiji, or the Caribbean, and many are born and bred within the United States. The stain of ancestry and the hegemony of the word "India" remains with us as we seek to make our own way through the morass of the contemporary world. We are "Indians," not of India necessarily, but certainly seen as spiritual beings who are pliant and cooperative—those willing allies sought by Columbus, allies now not only against Islam but against those who are deemed by the power elite to be the current foes of U.S. civilization, black Americans. For it is here that we can make sense of that gallant ideologue of the Right, Dinesh D'Souza, who reveals a hidden transcript that needs to be confronted rather than denied. 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 (since, we are told, they demonstrate the finest qualities of hard work and an impatience to succeed). This is why Phil Gramm was feted by many South Asian Americans during his run for president in 1996. When asked about immigration policy, he pointedly noted that "people who work in America often talk with distinct foreign accents. Do you know why? Because we have a welfare system that rewards our own citizens for not working. I do not think it is fair to say because people come to America and they are willing to work, when some Americans are not, that they our taking jobs away." The way to fix the problem, he noted, is not to end immigration policies but to end the welfare system. The immigrants are good; the blacks are bad. Punish the latter. And many South Asian Americans applaud. Though there is some consensus in South Asian America that D'Souza has a point, there is also a sense of embarrassment over his open and aggressive posture. When he draws attention to the comparison between blacks and the "right sort" of immigrants, he exposes the sorts of arguments that many South Asian Americans would prefer to see acted out in social policy rather than in political debate. South Asian Americans prefer to detach themselves from the minutiae of democracy and to attach themselves solely to the task of capital accumulation. All the while, there is a sentiment that we will be praised by white supremacy and left alone to do our own work at society's margins. Ed Koch, former mayor of New York City and now talk-show host, summarized our position in the United States: "They give us their culture and their taxes—and their wonderful restaurants." And we are happy to oblige.

    When Dinesh D'Souza published The End of Racism in 1995, most commentators found it excessive and racist. Glenn Loury, otherwise in step with D'Souza, noted that he "violated the canons of civility and commonality." D'Souza, a migrant from Goa in western India, argued that the oppressive conditions of life among black Americans is more a result of their civilizational collapse than of the persistence of racist structures. The crisis of black America, he claimed, is made more acute by "the embarrassing fact of Asian American success which has become evident to most people in recent decades." D'Souza's racism is premised upon a faulty analysis of Asian success in the United States. Those attainments are not caused by natural or cultural selection; rather, they are the result of state selection whereby the U.S. state, through the special-skills provisions in the 1965 Immigration Act, fundamentally reconfigured the demography of South Asian America. This skewed demography is only now being corrected as nonprofessionals migrate to join families, as economic and/or political refugees; as workers in the transportation, lodging, and other trades; and as small businessmen (running shops, motels, and so on). Ignoring these facts of South Asian America, D'Souza asks, "why can't an African American be more like an Asian?" It is not an unusual question. "Where did you learn to speak such good English?" "Your people work hard." "We like your people." These are the inevitable chatter of a benevolent racism. On The Jerry Seinfeld Show when Elaine chides Jerry for being partial toward Chinese women, he responds, "It is not racist if I like your race." Many folks feel, it seems, that to make positive statements about what they consider to be a race is just fine; racism in this light becomes the use of negative statements about a people. In my mind, the very conceptualization of a people as having discrete qualities is an act of racist thought, whether the resulting statements be charitable or not. "Why is it that all Indians are so smart and well-behaved?" Piyush Jindal, confronted with this question by his elementary school teacher, paused and then, "being a smart-aleck, told her it was the food." These are not only statements of admiration. Apart from being condescending, such gestures remind me that I am to be the perpetual solution to what is seen as the crisis of black America. I am to be a weapon in the war against black America. Meanwhile, white America can take its seat, comfortable in its liberal principles, surrounded by state-selected Asians, certain that the culpability for black poverty and oppression must be laid at the door of black America. How does it feel to be a solution?

    Obviously, it is easier to be seen as a solution than as a problem. We don't suffer genocidal poverty and incarceration rates in the United States, nor do we walk in fear and a fog of invisibility. To be both visible (as a threat) and invisible (as a person) is a strain disproportionately borne by black America. This is not to say that we don't feel the edge of racism (both as prejudice and as structural violence), but we do so in a far less stark sense than do those who are seen as the detritus of U.S. civilization. Nevertheless, to be a solution has its problems too. When one is typecast as a success, one's abilities cease to be the measure of one's capacity. A young Asian child now, like a pet animal, performs his or her brilliance. Those Asians not gifted in technical arts see themselves as failures and suffer the consequences of not being able to rise to the levels expected of their genes. Jazz musicians! Poets! Carpenters! Taxi drivers! Homeless! Many Indian American parents worry that their children will not inherit the values they themselves embody. When Michigan State University published a study in 1994 showing that second-generation Asian children have lower GPAs than new immigrants, it was reported as the "'Americanization' of Immigrant Children." The study showed that the average U.S. GPA is 2.0, whereas immigrant children earn an average GPA of 2.58. The average GPA for second-generation children is 2.44, a fraction lower than that of immigrants. Confronted with such studies, we tend to forget the Immigration and Naturalization Services' rigorous filtering out of those who are not already furnished with the cultural capital for success. We tend to assume that the high averages have something to do with the immigrant's genetics or culture (in the sense of a noun, as static) rather than something to do with the process of selection adopted by the U.S. state.

    But this is not the only thing that counts. We are not simply a solution for black America but, most pointedly, a weapon deployed against it. The struggles of blacks are met with the derisive remark that Asians don't complain; they work hard—as if to say that blacks don't work hard. The implication is that blacks complain and ask for handouts. After the historic Civil Rights Act and in the context of the Watts uprising of 1965, US News & World Report ran a story on Chinese Americans, who believe, we are told, in "the old idea that people should depend on their own efforts—not a welfare check—in order to reach America's `promised land.'" This autonomous effort, the magazine argued, came at "a time when it is being proposed that hundreds of billions of dollars be spent to uplift Negroes and other minorities." As if to say protest is un-American, the myth of the model minority emerged in the wake of the Civil Rights movement to show up rebellious blacks for their attempts to redress power relations. The state provided the sop of welfare instead of genuine redistribution of power and resources, and even that was only given as reluctant charity. And whatever good social change emerged from the social struggles of the 1960s came as a result not of benevolence but of the unyielding passion of the oppressed, who fought to keep this racist polity even an iota honest. Look at the Asians, the black intelligentsia was told, they work hard without complaint. True, to some extent, but they don't seem to get very far either. Or else the yearly reports of the glass ceiling must be concocted by those who complain too much and don't themselves work hard enough; or else the unrealized sentiment among South Asian Americans that they must retire in the homeland, away from a racist society, must be a collective hallucination. A heart that beats to justice must murmur in this state.

    Jesse Helms addressed the Indian American Forum of Political Education in early September 1997. "Indian Americans represent the best and the brightest the United States has to offer," said the senator from North Carolina. "You go to the finest hospital, you can go to the universities, you can go into business and there they are, people from India." His praise was boundless. "You understand the free enterprise system far better than a lot of people who were born and raised in this country." The language is a code. I am being told that I am good not according to my own terms but according to terms devised by the values upheld by Helms. My being good is easily used to denigrate those who not only do not do well but who also deride the values upheld by Helms ("free enterprise" is, after all, not so much an economic system as an ideological value system). The foes of this civilization, in Helms's view, are those in poverty (in the main, the black and Latino working class). Both liberals and conservatives have entered a dreary theoretical and moral desert in which it is impossible to see the persistence of structural barriers to equality (the speaker could just as well have been Daniel Moynihan or Bill Clinton). That some people of color achieve appreciable levels of success, for whatever reason, is used as evidence that racism poses no barrier to success. 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. In the midst of all this, the South Asian Americans provide a role model for success, and too many of us uncritically adopt that role without conscious reflection on the political and racial project to which it is hitched. In loving detail I will try to offer the karma that has befallen my people as we wend our way in the United States, unaware of how we are used as a weapon by those whom we ourselves fear and yet emulate. This is our dilemma.

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Table of Contents

Preface Karma Sutra: The Forethought vii
Acknowledgments xiii
Of India 1
Of the Mysterious East 11
Of the Oriental Menagerie 21
Of Sly Babas and Other Gurus 47
Of the Origin of Desis and Some Principles of State Selection 69
Of a Girmit Consciousness 85
Of Authentic Cultural Lives 109
Of Yankee Hindutva 133
Of Antiblack Racism 157
Of Solidarity and Other Desires 185
Notes 205
Index 247
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