P.K.BALACHANDRAN | 11 JUNE, 2020
Missing from action
Tou Thao, an Asian American police officer, nonchalantly watched his White colleague Derek Chauvin killing a Black man George Floyd by crushing his neck with his knee for almost nine minutes in full public view. The expressionless face of Tou Thao, of South East Asian origin, was a graphic illustration of the way Asian Americans look at racism in the US, especially its application to the Afro-American community.
Pictures and video footage from city after city in the US showed Blacks, along with a large number of Whites, demonstrating against the killing of Floyd, racism, and police brutality against the Blacks. But Asian Americans, who are 20 million in the US, were conspicuously missing in the footage.
“I’m tired of the Asian community being quiet or missing from action when it’s time to side with our Black brothers and sisters,” Maius Bianca Bermejo, an Asian American activist told Rachel Ramirez of vox.com. “White people use Asians as pawns while some get to enjoy the privileges of the White system. And whenever we’re attacked, we use the sympathy of being people of Color. But when it’s time to defend other people of Color, we are missing,” Bermejo observed.
Dr.Devaki Jain, the Indian economist and a member of the erstwhile South Commission wrote in The Citizen in a similar vein: “A shocking aspect of what is happening is the silence of other non-Whites especially the Asians, Chinese and Indians. They too, less visibly, discriminate or have a sense of distaste and distance from the African origin.”
Asian Americans, an upwardly mobile community and one of the most successful in the US, like to portray themselves as a “model minority”. Among the many things this description means is that they will do what the White majority expects them to do but without considering themselves to be equal to the Whites and without resisting White racism even when it is applied to them.
For the Asian Americans, the US is the promised land, a land of opportunity. In their view, pocketing a racial slur or an unfair denial of an opportunity is a small price to pay. On top of this, they share with the Whites, the latter’s stereotyped unflattering image of the Blacks, as Dr.Devaki Jain, formerly of Delhi University, pointed out.
When an affirmative action in favor of Blacks threatens to affect their prospects, the Asian Americans would oppose that measure. Ramirez points out that in a court case in 2014, the Asian American plaintiffs argued that the Harvard University admission criteria discriminated against them. The case was filed with the assistance of a White supremacist.
In the case of Indian-Americans, an aversion for the Blacks could be partially explained by the Hindu caste system, which is partly based on skin color. Called the “Varna” (color) system, the hierarchical caste system presumes that the upper castes are fair and the lower castes are dark. As per this system, power and privileges are a prerogative of the fair upper castes.
A survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2012 revealed that only one fifth of Asian Americans said they had personally been treated unfairly in the past year because of racism. Only one tenth said that they were called by an offensive name. Just 13% of Asian Americans said that race was a major issue while 48% said it was a “minor problem” and 35% said it was not a problem. Overall, more than 80% Asian Americans said their group got along either “very” or “pretty well” with the Whites.
The Asian Americans forget or are not aware that they too had faced discrimination and violence in the past. According to the website intechopen.com, the early 1900s saw the rise of the “Asiatic Exclusion League” and the American Federation of Labor which lobbied for laws excluding Asian Americans from housing, education, and labor.
Considered the “new menace” by White legislators, Asian Americans were the target of the immigration restriction law of 1917 which led to an “Asiatic barred zone” and mass deportation. Some 1700 Indians were deported and 1400 left the US voluntarily.
The 14th. Amendment passed in 1868, shortly after the Civil War, extended citizenship to anyone born in the US, including children of Indians and other immigrants. But in actual fact, only White immigrants could become citizens. To circumvent this, some Indian Americans used a pseudo-scientific race theory to claim “Whiteness”. Fair skinned North Indians wanted to be classified as “White” as they were supposedly “Aryan/Caucasian”.
But this loophole was closed in 1923 by the judiciary in the United States vs. Bhaga Singh Thind case. The court ruled that while Indians may be Caucasian, they were not White. Following the judgment, the government took away the right to naturalization from Indian Americans, and even revoked the citizenship of those who had been already naturalized.
The ruling impacted the lives of many Indian Americans. They were shut out of “Whites-Only” schools, swimming pools, and barbershops. White American women who had married Indian men lost their citizenship, becoming stateless in their own country. Congress went a step further in 1924 by passing the Immigration Act, which instituted race-based criteria for immigration and entirely banned the immigration of Indians. Many Indians had to return to India.
However, in the 1960s there was a sea change due to geo-political reasons. The US was eager to cultivate Asians to gather support for the country’s move to expand and strengthen its influence in Asia to counter the Soviet Union and China there. The US Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, scrapped the old immigration system completely.
The 1965 Act replaced the old quota system established in the 1920s based on racial and national traits favoring Europeans over others, with a system that gave preference to immigrants with specific, in-demand skills in the United States. Indians benefited from the new criteria immensely. They migrated in large numbers.
Today, a record 20 million Asian Americans trace their roots to more than 20 countries in Asia. More than 11 million of them will be able to vote in the coming election, making up nearly 5% of the eligible voters in the US.
The condition of the Asian Americans, especially Indian Americans, has vastly improved now. In prosperity and influence they are next only to the Whites though they still have way to go in so far as leadership positions are concerned.
But still there are racial obstacles. To overcome a subtle color bar, Indo-American politicians Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley (nee Randhawa) wanted to be known as “Whites” like Baga Singh Thind did in 1923. Their bid raised eyebrows. According to New York Times, Asian-Americans are the least likely to be promoted to managerial and executive ranks in American companies.
“White men and women are twice as likely as Asians to hold executive positions. And while white women are breaking through the glass ceiling, Asian women are not. Asian-Americans are the forgotten minority in the conversation about the glass ceiling. Asian-Americans also fall behind in earnings. College-educated, U.S.-born Asian men earn 8 percent less than White men,” the NYT piece said. Harvard University had said that Asian Americans are technically sound but they are not “leadership material.”
But many Asian Americans are now destroying this image. There are three Senators of Asian-American descent. Three Asian-American women have been elected to the Senate representing California, Hawaii and Illinois. There are Asian Americans in the House of Representatives too. Bobby Jindal was Governor of Louisiana and Nikki Haley was Governor of South Carolina.