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Posts Tagged ‘INS Act of 1965’

The Fact of Being Black:  History, Culture, Politics IX

 It is not surprising that a good portion of even mainstream America should have unequivocally condemned the display in Charlottesville of right-wing terrorism.  President Trump cannot be counted among those who came down swiftly on the neo-Nazis and their kinsmen.  He did not merely prevaricate but, in a scarcely veiled attempt to exonerate “white supremacists”, took it upon himself to condemn “all extremist groups”—though even this disapprobation was late in coming—before, on August 15th, stating with greater conviction in his pathetically juvenile English that “there is blame on both sides”: “You had a group on one side that was bad. You had a group on the other side that was also very violent.”  To take only the examples of prominent public figures who cannot remotely be accused of having a liberal disposition, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan described the white supremacists as “repugnant”, while Senator John McCain called them “traitors” on his Twitter account.  Even Attorney-General Jeff Sessions, whose own commitment to civil rights is, to put it mildly, exceedingly questionable, but who as the country’s chief law-enforcement officer must at least put forward the semblance of some respect for the rule of law, was moved to admit that “the violence and deaths in Charlottesville strike at the heart of American law and justice.”

CharlottesvilleViolence

Street clashes in Charlottesville, 12 August 2017. Source:  Los Angeles Times.  Photograph:  Michael Nigro / Pacific Press.

The widespread outrage over white extremist violence that followed has doubtless been genuine.  The liberal constituency in the US is considerable, and most people in that community do not condone violence, at least not right-wing violence directed against other Americans.  Moreover, one can even subscribe to racist sentiments and yet forswear violence.  In the frenetic world of social media, the hashtag #thisisnotus was at once embraced by thousands.  They may have done so to bring to mind the better possibilities that reside in the American self and to invoke a necessary political solidarity for the present.  And yet I have the inescapable feeling that the crass affirmation, “this is not us”, creates a much smaller place for reflection and dialog than the unthinkable:  #thisisallofus.  One could invoke, of course, “the hooded Americanism” that historians of the KKK have documented in such meticulous detail, or the lynchings that were invitations to Sunday picnics in Jim Crow South[i]; one could also point, if one stretched one’s canvas beyond the cruel deprivations to which black America has been subjected, to the genocidal tendencies that have conspicuously been part of the grand design of making and keeping America “great”.  Just how do these disingenuous expressions of outrage permit whiteness to remain unscathed even as white supremacists are banished, as they should be, to the realm of the barbaric and the unforgiveable?

LynchingAJollyGoodShow

Lynching:  What a Jolly Good Show!  This lynching took place in Duluth, Minnesota, not in the Deep South.  Source:  https://sherielabedis.com/2015/03/29/new-report-on-lynchings-in-jim-crow-south/

White supremacism necessarily entails a profound adherence to whiteness, but (to borrow a phrase from the scholar George Lipsitz) “the possessive investment in whiteness” runs deep through American culture and only manifests itself as white nationalist ideology or outright fascist-style violence occasionally.  A large and increasingly growing body of commentary by liberals and left-leaning scholars has now made the idea of ‘white privilege’ a familiar part of American political discourse.  Such white privilege takes many forms, some obvious and others scarcely so, commencing with the assumption that is tantamount to the original sin, namely that America belongs to white people just as white people can rightfully, naturally, and preemptively call America their own.  The white American, unlike the African-American, Japanese-American, or Chinese-American, has never had to be hyphenated:  as Roland Barthes would have it, he belongs to the realm of the exnominated, those who never have to be named, those who can be universalized and whose rules become everyone else’s rules (Mythologies, 1972, trans. Annette Lavers [New York:  Farrar, Straus & Giroux]).  There are other less transparent forms of whiteness, though with even a little prodding they can be easily excavated.  Such, to take one example from studies of environmental racism, is the notion that non-white communities should have to bear the burden of toxic and nuclear wastes, pollutants, and the garbage produced in everyday life.

White privilege is perhaps best witnessed in the mounting critiques over US immigration policy and affirmative action in higher education.  The Trump regime has, contrary to common opinion, little interest in stemming illegal immigration; by law, those who are in the US “illegally” can be summarily deported.  This is apart from the consideration that illegal immigrants are an invaluable asset to the American economy.  To understand the true import of pervasive anti-immigrant sentiments, it is sufficient to understand that the slogan, ‘Take America Back’, means nothing but taking America back to the period before the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 which made possible Asian and African migration into the US and thereby slowly but surely altered the social fabric of American life. “Make America Great Again” is not only a slogan calling for the revival of manufacturing in the United States and once again turning the country into the predominant industrial power in the world:  it is also a call to make American white again.  It is thus legal, rather than illegal, immigrants who pose by the greater problem for those who would like to see the US restored as a principally white dominion.

Similarly, the massive white unrest over affirmative action occludes two facts.  First, as every study has shown, and as is confirmed by a recent New York Times analysis extending to 100 universities, including Ivy League institutions and the flagship public universities, black and Hispanic students are today more rather than less underrepresented at such institutions than they were 35 years ago.  More significantly, it is almost never conceded that the entire system of higher education is effectively the consequence of an unwritten code of affirmative action over decades on behalf of white students. It is white entitlement, not supposedly the lower bar for admission for blacks and Hispanics, that has kept Asian Americans from predominating in elite American institutions.

In speaking of “the possessive investment in whiteness”, George Lipsitz was adverting to something more than white privilege; indeed, the more compelling part of his argument resides in the claim that “all communities of color suffer from the possessive investment in whiteness, but not in the same way.”[ii] Immigrant communities have, in their own fashion, sought to claim whiteness, or at least an approximation to it; whiteness has entered into the sinews, pores, arteries of American society.  Ironically, much of white America hasn’t quite fathomed its own overwhelming success; if it had, white Americans would not be staging, as they are today, a new secessionist movement.  Robert E. Lee, at least, would have understood the animated and largely cliché-ridden dispute over Confederate statues as fundamentally a proxy war over whiteness.  Even as he might have looked askance at having his own statues knocked down, he would likely have been pleased that the idea of secessionism continues to thrive.

 

[i] On the Ku Klux Klan and lynchings in the US, I would point readers to a few works, among them:  Leonard J. Moore, Citizen KlansmenThe Ku Klux Klan in Indiana, 1921-1928 (Chapel Hill:  University of North Carolina Press, 1991); Allen W. Trelease, White Terror: The Ku Klux Klan Conspiracy and Southern Reconstruction (Baton Rouge:  Louisiana State University Press, 1971, reprint ed., 1995); David M. Chalmers, Hooded Americanism:  The History of the Ku Klux Klan, 3rd ed. (Durham, North Carolina:  Duke University Press, 1987); and Witnessing Lynching: American Writers Respond, ed. Anne P. Rice (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2003).

[ii] See George Lipsitz, The Possessive Investment in WhitenessHow White People Profit from Identity Politics Philadelphia:  Temple University Press, 1998), 184.

 

(Concluded)

The two pars of this article were first published as a single piece in somewhat shorter form as “Whiteness and Its Dominion:  Letter from America”, in the Economic and Political Weekly (Mumbai) 52, no. 35 (2 September 2017).

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The Indian diaspora is an ineluctable fact of contemporary global culture.  Its presence around the world is signified by Indian writers of renown settled in the Caribbean, Britain, the United States, South Africa, east Africa, and Fiji; the widespread availability of at least some generic, or allegedly ‘Mughlai’, form of Indian cuisine; the emergence of hybrid forms of music –– among them, desi hip-hop and chutney; the proliferation of software engineeers and doctors of Indian descent; a nearly ubiquitous fascination for Bollywood; the growing engagement of diasporic Indians with the political cultures of their adopted lands; and much else.

If India, in some fundamental respects, is not one country, the Indian diaspora similarly does not exist in the singular.  One can speak of the diasporas of the north and the south, though, in India, there is still little awareness of the complex histories of displacement, migration, and overseas settlement that have informed the Indian diasporic experience since the 1830s and 1840s when Indians first departed for Mauritius and the Caribbean.  Newspaper reports from the last few days mention the emotional visit of the Prime Minister of Mauritius to the village in Bihar from where his ancestors made their way to an island that was one of the more remote outposts of the former British empire.  More than a decade ago, something similar was reported about the homecoming of Basdeo Panday, then the Prime Minister of Trinidad, to his ancestral village.

In India’s metros, and increasingly in larger towns, a good number of people have some kin living abroad.  When the designation NRI first came about around three decades ago, it signified only those diasporic Indians who, in the middle class imagination, had done the country proud.  Indeed, it would no exaggeration to suggest that for many people, ‘NRI’ meant only Indians settled in the United States, and to a lesser extent in Canada and Britain; in recent years, Australia has made the cut.  It is said that more than 25% of the start-ups in Silicon Valley are run by Indians, and statistics are flaunted with evident glee to suggest that Indian scientists, engineers, and especially doctors occupy a hugely disproportionate place, considering that Indians are just marginally less than 1% of the American population, in the professions.  This is the diaspora that the Indian middle class holds up as an example to India itself.  Thus the observation, encountered at every turn in conversations at middle class homes, that the same Indians who are unable to make anything of themselves in their country flourish overseas.

However, even in the US the story of the Indian presence has more twists and turns than is commonly imagined. The Punjabi farmers, students, and later Ghadrites who made their way to the US in the late 1890s and in the subsequent decade saw their numbers dwindling when the entry of Indians and other Asiatics to the United States was prohibited by law in 1924.  Many Indian men married Mexican women, and thus we have Punjabi-Mexican Americans. The vast bulk of Indians arrived in the US following the immigration reforms of 1965:  notwithstanding the common impression that they are largely affluent and highly educated professionals, Indians also ply taxis in New York, dominate the Dunkin Donuts franchises around the country, and of course have a huge hand in the motel business.  In California’s Central Valley, which Indians have helped to turn into one of the country’s greatest agricultural hubs, 14% of the Indians according to a 2005 report lived below the poverty level and 35% had not even earned a high school diploma.

The origins of the other Indian diaspora lie elsewhere, in the political economy of colonialism that sent indentured laborers, mainly from the Gangetic heartland and the Tamil country, to forge the white man’s empire of sugar, rubber, and cash crops.  As one prominent scholar opined, indentured labor was simply a new form of slavery.  Nationalist opinion, and the efforts of English sympathizers such as C. F. Andrews, aided in shutting down the system of indenture in 1917, but not before 1.5 million Indians had sold themselves into debt-bondage.  They lived in appalling conditions, in the “lines” formerly inhabited by the slaves.  These Indians humanized the landscape, tilled the soil, and put the food on tables:  they are the great unsung heroes and heroines of our diaspora.

At the present moment, in the midst of the ‘NRI season’ and the celebration of the recnetly concluded Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, it is well to reflect on the future of the Indian diaspora.  Among the affluent Indians in Britain, Canada, and especially the United States, there is some desire to influence the course of events in India itself.  On the other hand, as the massive exodus of Indo-Fijians since the coups of 1987 and 2000 suggests, ‘mother India’ is frankly unable to do very much to enhance the rights of its dispersed children besides engaging in grand rhetorical exercises in impotent institutions such as the Commonwealth.

India’s policymakers are mainly interested in how the diaspora can feed the engine of growth in India.  But we need a less impoverished and more civilizational view that would make us aware not merely of the accumulated narratives of our Silicon Valley ‘miracles’ and the triumphant success, year after year, of Indian American children at the National Spelling Bee, but also of the histories of those Indians who, braving conditions of extreme adversity, nurtured new forms of music, literature, religious worship, and even conviviality.  It is a remarkable fact that, from within the depths of Ramacaritmanas country in Fiji, we have had the first novel ever written in Bhojpuri.  Our Indian diaspora, complex and variegated, needs a hefty Purana.

–First published in a slightly abridged version as “Diasporas of India: Shiny NRI success stories obscure older migrations from our colonial past”, Indian Express (18 January 2013), p. 12.

 Slightly amended Hindi version published as “Bharatiya Nagarikon ka Purana”, Prabhat Khabar (22 January 2013), p. 8.

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