Broken Black-White Relations: An Indian-American Perspective
Periodically in American life, prominent tragedies such as the violent deaths of African-Americans like Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, or Eric Garner cause a firestorm of international media attention and bring America’s truths about race relations to the forefront for all to see in its naked ugliness. It reminds us that racism is alive. These events, along with the response of the judicial system, the protests, and the rioting that follow show that many tensions are simmering constantly below the surface, and can easily boil over once that single match lights this powder keg of race relations that is the United States of America even in the year 2014.
Indian-Americans like myself have a front row seat to all of it, but we are still on the sidelines, and we largely come from a very different world. Famously, some of us are either “black-identified” or “white-identified,” more likely the latter, which means siding more with one race or the other due to cultural, political, or identity affinity, often a product of where one grew up. I am non-aligned on this journey: I truck with both races, have a deep connection with both, and do not side with either. I am just as comfortable in a group of all whites or all blacks as I am with a group of Indians (ironically sometimes more so, LOL). I believe this gives me the credibility to be a uniquely neutral commentator on the black-white condition.
I have been wanting to write down my thoughts on this topic for years, but have avoided doing so owing to the controversial nature of these thoughts that could easily be misconstrued as racist against either blacks or whites. The events of the past few months have resulted in a large amount of dialogue, which is a good thing. But in our current world of political correctness, I am well aware that there are many words left unsaid because people may be worried about speaking their mind freely. There is also a glaring lack of solutions being presented. I intend to address both of these, for myself internally if nothing else. After all, the US government guarantees freedom of speech, and if this sacred right isn’t exercised then what was the point of the American Revolution?
Some readers will probably come to the conclusion that I am a racist in either direction. The truth is more nuanced: I am incredibly disappointed in both races in the American context. I think we can do better. I stupidly believed that the election of Barack Obama, easily my favorite president of my lifetime thus far, would help move America past some of its checkered history as Americans of all stripes, and especially African-Americans would see themselves differently. Clearly this did not happen. So why are race relations still so fraught? The answers are actually not that complicated, but they are certainly unpleasant.
America is a segregated country. Everything I learned about segregation, I learned in school. And I am not talking about history class. In early years, I attended a nearly all-white elementary school in an all-white neighborhood of the Midwest, where my family and a few other Indian ones were the entire minority. I have come to understand that most of America is like this: segregated cities and towns, or segregated sections of cities and towns. While desegregation laws exist the government cannot force integration everywhere, and in any case gerrymandering incentives and a dizzying array of powerful economic practices go against integration.
Later on, I attended a high school in a big city suburb that was nearly 40% black, with the rest being white and a few token Asians like me. This experience was far more interesting on the racial front. Every single day, the large open cafeteria at lunchtime would be a stark contrast in color: whites on the left side of the aisle, and blacks on the right side of the aisle. Without fail, every single day. Exceptions occurred, but rarely and those individuals were given labels such as “wigger” or “Uncle Tom.” It was an unwritten and unspoken rule but very clearly in force. In an integrated school, the young adolescents chose to self-segregate on their own. I recognize today that this situation played to my personality, however: I was easily able to slip in and out of either side to eat lunch on any given day. In skin color, I was closer to the black camp, and my Ebonics was fluent. My interactions with black females were more, um, lively- which in turn earned me a certain respect from the black boys. On most other cultural indicators such as the way I dressed or the music I listened to, I was closer to the Caucasians. I could really go either way, as few others could. In reality, I was also the ultimate outsider.
The most fascinating thing about this phenomenon was that outside the cafeteria, some white students and black students lived on the same block, played together on the football team after school, worked next to each other at McDonald’s, or collaborated on the same science project for class. Perhaps in these cases there was no choice involved, but once they did have the choice at lunchtime, they made a clear one.
In my travels across the country over the years, these segregation trends have held strong. Because individuals choose to be among their own, an option simply not available to most Indian-Americans, whether it’s by street, neighborhood, or town, or by school or church, America is a very segregated place. How can these two races ever fully understand each other from across the tracks- which are so much more symbolic than just being a railroad line, practically an invisible wall? It’s not possible.
The Cult of Victimhood. One of the worrying trends in modern America is how easily people feel sorry for themselves and believe themselves to be victims of an unfair society. Of course, there are cases of injustice, nasty ones, and it flows every which way. Indians are no stranger to this, and in fact Indians have suffered heavily in America due to discrimination, including many people who are very close to me. Some of the worst examples are Indians who have been killed after 9/11 in multiple places after ignorant Americans falsely thought they were affiliated with terrorism somehow, including a mass murder in Wisconsin. That’s as bad as racism possibly gets in the 21st century.
Yet Indians in the United States are, at least financially speaking, the most successful diaspora in the country and have been for two decades. This can be attributed to many things, foremost among them that the immigrants who arrived from India are by and large among the brightest and most ambitious that India had to offer over the last 40 years. But there’s something else that’s critical at work: a pervasive sense in the Indian community that the best way to shut down discrimination against them is to work harder than everyone else, in the classroom, preparing for the spelling bee, on the tennis court (one of the few sports Indians have the size to dominate in), or at the workplace. All this despite the fact that Indians as a whole perform so well that their ability to participate in, say Ivy league colleges, Wall Street banks, or medical schools are informally capped by the establishment. And others resent Indians for it consciously and subconsciously.
Too often among other groups, we find the opposite tendencies. The desire for reparations, affirmative action, quotas, or a heavy dependence on welfare were important tools toward equalizing past injustices against minorities, but I believe these tools need to have an expiration date. They are crippling the minority communities instead of lifting them. The pervasive sense that white Americans owe something to minorities for past and present injustice is understandable. But it’s not how any particular community will advance.
Whites are not exempt from the cult of victimhood. Their fear drives birthers and the KKK. It’s clear that fans of people like Donald Trump, Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly feel incredibly sorry for themselves because of the unstoppable changes in society that are leading towards Caucasians having to share the country with a panoply of other races, religions, and sexual orientations from theirs. These are often changes they do not understand- due to segregation and lack of exposure.
First generation Indians come from a decidedly harsher place, quite separated from the Disney World fantasy reality Americans are used to. Poverty in India is REAL, and I believe Americans who feel bad for themselves need to go see it. Every Indian sees things like this: a starving man with no legs, clearly homeless and alone, dragging himself along on a dirty makeshift skateboard with his skinny arms throughout town and begging for money, most people ignoring him completely, his knuckles caked with the shit and piss of humans and five other animals, like most Indian roads. This man probably doesn’t even know what a wheelchair IS.
As a 9 year old I will never forget an emaciated and starving boy my age, selling lottery tickets on the street in an Indian town. My grandfather bought a ticket off of him for two rupees (about 10 US cents at the time), after what I thought were a long list of unnecessary questions for the poor kid about the lottery drawings (years later I admiringly realized my grandfather was subtly trying to help make the boy better at what he was doing). I watched intently as the boy took the money, ran to a fruit stall, and bought a small banana. He then proceeded to eat the banana- PEEL, STEM AND ALL. He was so hungry that he ate the PEEL, people. Even monkeys take off the peel and throw it away. I was shocked but nobody else even noticed this boy, or a hundred others like him in that neighborhood.
After seeing thousands of people such as these in India, Africa, Asia, and Latin America I find it harder to feel bad for able-bodied people here in America, of any race, especially when the government spends billions of dollars to offer these people food, shelter, job training, mental health assistance, medical assistance, and schooling. Meanwhile I see help wanted signs everywhere I go, for jobs which may be menial and minimum wage, but at least exist. I have done them myself.
To be fair, most Americans are not looking for handouts and would rather work their way up. It is again, a small minority of each group that makes things worse for the rest of the group. Leaders need to focus on making their communities the most educated, most qualified, and quite simply put, the best. The trends are all the opposite: ask what your country can do for you. Feel bad for yourself. Think of your community as better even as it tries to get away with doing the least.
Police Brutality, Criminal Brutality. There is a never ending spiral when it comes to the nexus of white cops and black criminals. On a system wide basis there are too many of each. When a white majority police force patrols a black majority community, as is the case in Ferguson and thousands of other communities, often with ridiculous military grade equipment, things are bound to go wrong even when the white cop is not bigoted and the black man is not a criminal. Add even a small dose of bigotry to the white cop and criminal intent to the black man, and the chances of an encounter going wrong are amplified exponentially.
My assessment is that the vast majority of white police are certainly not bigoted, and the vast majority of blacks are not criminals. However, many in both the white community and black community would not accept both of these assertions. A small minority of both races seem to have poisoned the well for the entire race they represent. Media and pop culture have made matters worse by focusing on the negatives.
There certainly aren’t enough black policemen on police forces proportional to their share of the population. Meanwhile, when one gets into other officers of the court and judicial system, we see an even starker contrast, as prosecutors, judges and their staffs also tend to be white. While this isn’t the fault of any individuals- you can’t force someone to be a cop or a prosecutor or a judge- it’s a problem. On the flip side of the coin, too many blacks are incarcerated, rightly or wrongly- and those incarcerated are far more likely to continue a life of crime. These problems all compound each other.
Meanwhile, in towns such as Ferguson not enough of the black members of the community vote or participate in the town’s affairs in other ways. Again, we can’t force people to do these things, but their absence contributes further to the problems.
Live by the Gun, Die by the Gun. A conflation of factors that nobody talks about is the prevalence of guns in our society, among both whites and blacks. In a country where there are more guns than people, where school and mall shootings happen on a regular basis, and where any hooded sweatshirt could be hiding a hot firearm, policemen are constantly on edge and nervous for their own safety despite the revolver on their own hip. Yes, lax gun laws cause police to be more trigger-happy due to fear. When everyone is potentially armed, encounters are that much more of an adventure with less margin for error. Many other countries do not have this problem.
Culture. I acknowledge being a brazen hypocrite here. I contributed my voice to several characters in the video game Grand Theft Auto IV, a game I have enjoyed playing. Bad reinforcements are everywhere in the United States. Hip-hop music, which I listen to and today belongs to all races, often glorifies misogynistic behavior, racism, criminality, and downright violence. A person who is raised in a nurturing environment and knows the difference between right and wrong, would not be influenced by this type of music or the music videos with dudes pouring champagne on submissive bikini-clad women. However, a nurturing environment is often not available when the family concept has collapsed.
The Breakdown of Family. The family structure has broken down across races in America, but the phenomenon is particularly concerning when it comes to the black family. Too many children are being raised without a father, and in many single mother households the mother is at work for most of the children’s waking hours anyway. The television set, video games, and now mobile devices become the surrogate parents in these cases and would anyone argue that good things would come of that for the majority of these kids from any economic class?
There is a serious dearth of African-Americans who have been raised by two loving parents. The odds are highly stacked against them when it comes to succeeding in school or the workplace, when there is nobody there to provide basic nutrition, care and discipline, when a life of crime is a tempting way to make money and have fun.
I compare this to cultures such as my own. Family is paramount. I am extremely fortunate in this regard, as I am close not only to my nuclear family, but consider first and even second cousins around the world among my best friends. I was the best man at my second cousin’s wedding halfway across the country, and we have never even lived near one another growing up. My network of relatives is around to help each other. This is beyond a sense of physical presence, it is a tonic for the psyche to know you are not alone. I find it sad to not see this among other groups.
Even sadder, children who grow up in an unloving and perhaps violent environment, tend to grow into adults who create their own broken, violent homes for another generation of suffering children with low chances for success.
The incarceration rate is far too high and further adds to the strains on family. What do kids who are five years old think about when their dad goes to jail for the next 15 years? What do they think when he gets out? What if the man was innocent?
Solutions. We are not yet at the point that Martin Luther King, Jr. wanted us to be at. We may not get there for some years. However, it is worth acknowledging the remarkable progress the United States has made when it comes to race since the 1860’s or 1960’s. That’s not to say the road will not be long and hard. But by and large, we have continued moving forward, despite the issues.
Solutions will require all of us as Americans looking hard at ourselves first instead of at other people. We are too quick to assign blame elsewhere on racial issues, myself included. I have deep-seated resentment at the discrimination faced by Indian-Americans who are close to me, but to move on I have to bury it. We all have to let go of our sense of oppression, real and perceived.
The first step is ending the poisonous cult of victimhood, and the drive toward mediocrity that is all around us. This is not a matter just for race relations, but for the United States itself to continue its very role as leader of the free world. Merit and democracy are what made America great and they are what will keep America great.
Other solutions are political in nature. My thoughts on gun control are simple: enforce a tough, nationwide regime on background checks. 90% of Americans support this, and it’s a crime that this legislation cannot pass. Lock up and throw away the key for armed robbers and illegal shooters.
We need stronger representation by blacks in government in general, and policing in particular. I do not advocate affirmative action or quotas for this, but there are other levers that can be pulled, such as recruitment tools that are more democratic. There is much work that can be done to eliminate institutional racism that has kept blacks and other minorities out of some of these jobs.
Meanwhile, the bipartisan practice of gerrymandering is evil in my opinion for many reasons, but at the top of that list is how it encourages segregation along racial fault lines. This keeps kids of different backgrounds from growing up near each other, and adults from working next to each other. It is undemocratic and helps entrench the negative aspects of the status quo. Segregation is alive and well, and those of us who live in places that are less segregated need to appreciate this fact, especially as it relates to areas such as Saint Louis and its suburbs.
I do not know how to incentivize cultural progress when it comes to things like supporting the family and policing the arts. We also cannot control the thoughts that exist in people’s minds. Hate crimes legislation is a potential solution but I am uncomfortable with this concept. One can hope that as the younger generations come of age and become the people in charge, especially the “milennials,” that their record in racial harmony will be better as race means less to them than it did to their parents and grandparents.
Indian-Americans have debated among themselves for several decades whether or not they are a “model minority.” Like any community, it is a diverse one and it has its stories of success and failure. That being said, there can be absolutely no harm for other Americans to study and emulate the Indian-American commitments to family and higher education. Meanwhile, observers would do well to not replicate Indians’ penchant for petty provincial politics, both in the Indian homeland and here in the States, or highly disturbing cases of sexism many of us know all too well.
We should also hope that dialogue continues, that most of it is positive, and that people can agree without being disagreeable. As Coach Jimmy Valvano used to say when he was alive, “Don’t give up, don’t EVER give up.”