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Stars and gripes

The rise of Indian Americans in politics could spawn its own discontents

Written by Pawan Dhingra | Published: April 22, 2013 12:07:19 am

The rise of Indian Americans in politics could spawn its own discontents

An United States Supreme Court Justice of Indian descent? It is not as unlikely as it may sound,especially for a community already imagining a President Bobby Jindal or Vice President Nikki Haley. Srikanth “Sri” Srinivasan is considered by both major political parties to be one of the best appellate lawyers in the US and has been nominated by President Obama to be a judge on the US court of appeals for the district of Columbia circuit. This court has served as a stepping stone to the Supreme Court for four current SC justices.

The nomination of Srinivasan is especially noteworthy as it furthers a judicial and political tide. To name just a few,Neal Katyal has served as principle deputy solicitor general of the US and then acting solicitor general. Preeta Bansal has served as solicitor general of the state of New York,both in the Obama and Clinton administrations. Kamala Harris,also rumoured to be a potential SC nominee,was elected in 2010 as attorney general of California. Harris joins a number of high profile Indian Americans in elected office. This political ascendency suggests a community that is finally “making it”,using its economic and social integration within a meritocratic nation to exert widespread influence. Indian Americans often serve as further evidence of a “post-racial” America. Milestones have been reached,barriers broken,dreams attained.

How true is this national narrative that Indian Americans so often serve as major characters within,a narrative that supports America’s desired image abroad as a fair and welcoming nation? The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ’60s seems to have ushered in an America dedicated to equal opportunity and minority protection,overruling legalised discrimination and ensuring social equality. The history of Indian immigration has a similar narrative: Bengali,Gujarati,and Punjabi immigrants,from the late-19th century up to the mid-20th century,encountered race riots and open refusals for jobs. Today,things are different.

Yet,underneath the noted achievements of today is a continued struggle for civil rights. For African Americans,legalised discrimination was replaced not by a level playing field but by a system of mass incarceration. The Indian American experience does not parallel such disfranchisement. Still,the notion of a post-civil rights era is exaggerated. The respect Indian American physicians,IT professionals,professors and motel owners have earned did not come through individual achievement alone. Often,individuals have banded together to overcome conspicuous and subtle discrimination,using their economic might to earn equality — not the other way around.

Just like the economic gains of many,the election and appointment of Indian Americans to various offices across the country is impressive. Yet alternative narratives of Indian Americans’ role in politics also find support. When non-Indian politicians find themselves under pressure or backed into a corner and look for an easy way out,racial distinctions surface. References to the Indian American senatorial candidate aide,S.R. Sidarth,as “macaca” by his candidate’s opponent,and to Hillary Clinton as the representative of Punjab,are not random exceptions. Neither is it a coincidence that immigrants and their children become seen as real Americans through a familiar process: by changing their names and religions,becoming generic immigrants rather than outwardly ethnic. Politicians or business leaders are seen as honorary whites in spaces that are clearly white and black. Even Obama had to downplay his own middle name (Hussein) to be elected.

Ironically,the more Indian Americans achieve in a particular realm,the more likely a critique will grow. When “too many” Indian Americans enter a line of work or locale and others feel their chances are limited as a result,then the group is no longer read as individuals with a distinct heritage who achieve through hard work. Rather than being exemplars of the American Dream,they become threats to that Dream. So,the rise of Indian Americans in politics could instigate its own discontents.

Representations of the Indian American community can work against these trends as they share the community’s full histories with the broader public. For instance,the Smithsonian Institution will be opening an exhibition,“Beyond Bollywood”,in December 2013,which will represent the heterogeneity of the Indian American communities. The South Asian American Digital Archive makes available the efforts of South Asian Americans to help form the US and South Asia. Other organisations strive to document personal narratives of immigrant generations.

The day I write this,the tragic explosions at the Boston marathon have occurred. Among more immediate concerns for those directly impacted,thoughts turn to the possible backlash against Indian,South Asian,and Arab American communities — all merged in the racial imaginary of the potential terrorist. It is a reminder that it only takes one incident,domestic or international,to derail the dreams of many Indian Americans. It is a reminder that the achievements of a few individuals do not necessarily signal the future.

The writer is professor of sociology,Tufts University,and author of ‘Managing Multicultural Lives: Asian American Professionals and the Challenge of Multiple Identities’

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