It is time we acknowledge the debt we owe African Americans
I came to the US in 1964 from India to attend graduate school at Northwestern University. When I disembarked in Chicago off a Greyhound bus from New York in 1965 the first person I encountered was an African American who asked me for a qurter to help a brother. The entire area near the bus station was the African American part of the city. I did not know the significance of the term “brother” at that time. He saw I was not white and therefore a brother. Over the past 56 years I have lived in different parts of the country from the Midwest to the West Coast as the “other”, neither black nor white.
Our daily lives are suffused with racial stereotyping and biases. During my student years at Northwestern many Indian students referred to African Americans by a derogatory term in Hindi. They quickly accepted the notion that white is the norm and is more “American” than black. This troubled me immensely and I would try in vain to explain the history of this country and the fact that African Americans had been here longer than millions of their white countrymen whose ancestors had arrived after the Civil War and that they had built the economic foundations of this country with enforced free labor. Perhaps many Indian students lacked basic history knowledge about slavery.
In increasing numbers Indian Americans have started to consider themselves more American than Indian. However a majority of white Americans see them as “other”, not quite American. Friendly American tourists on overseas trips often ask other tourists where they are from. An American usually responds to another American with the name of the city and state. When asked we now say we are from the SF Bay Area versus saying we are from India and we detect a puzzled look. They expect me to say the name of a foreign land. Until a few years ago most would clarify by asking where we are from originally. However, that follow up question is never asked of a white or black American.
I have lived in other countries including India, Egypt and Singapore. I have not felt this sense of “otherness” anywhere else. I opine that the social fabric of the US operates within a rigid racial framework. There is a palpably higher level of awareness of racial differences and most people make immediate and often unconscious judgements of strangers solely based on their skin color. Racial biases and prejudices exist in every society and country but the entire social fabric is not defined racially in a rigid framework.
Indian society is extremely racially biased and being “fair” or light skinned is highly valued. “Fair and lovely” is a best selling facial cream in India that claims to lighten your skin permanently. The most common requirement for brides in matrimonial advertising columns is to be “fair” while most men describe themselves as “wheatish”. Despite such a deep bias in favor of the light skinned, people do not automatically judge others in a social setting based on the color of their skin. They do not conflate between innate intelligence, education or other social indicators and skin color. They do not jump to the conclusion that a dark skinned person is a danger. Skin color is just skin color and not linked to other areas like intelligence and abilities or character. Dark skinned people may be socially shunned but are not immediately viewed as dangerous or lacking intelligence or character.
For the avoidance of doubt I want to assert that I abhor the racist attitudes and beliefs of Indian society. I am not minimizing the awful racism prevalent in India in any way but only pointing out that it operates differently than the rigid racially defined social framework in the US. A majority of Indians in the US who have been extremely successful economically and believe they are largely accepted in American society have largely conformed to this rigid racial framework and are comfortable in their place. There is a widespread belief that they occupy the № 2 slot behind white Americans on the social ladder and ahead of Asians, Latinos and blacks in that order. This belief is bolstered by the number of Indian CEOs of Fortune 500 companies and by the presence of Indian political appointees to prominent positions.
The majority of Indian Americans would be horrified if the daughter wants to marry a black guy but will accept a white, Asian or Latino guy in that strict order. The horror expressed is automatic and immediate before they even meet the person or see his character or attributes. “Yeh shaadi kabhi nahi hogi” is a common refrain in Bollywood movies meaning “this marriage will never happen” said by the parents in a dramatic fashion with much hand wringing and cursing of one’s fate for having such an ungrateful child. The majority of Indians will view a black stranger walking in their neighboorhood as being a potential burglar or petty criminal but will ignore the stranger if he is white or Indian. Although most have never had any contact with blacks their reaction is visceral and immediate and is the result of having fully embraced the rigid racially defined social fabric of America that has institutionalized discrimination against black Americans.
It is baffling to me that the majority of Indian Americans are either unaware or do not acknowledge the debt owed to African Americans for their struggles and sacrifices to achieve landmark civil right legislation in the mid 1960s. When four African American college students from North Carolina’s A&T University sat down at a segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro 60 years ago they ignited a movement that brought down Jim Crow and led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But the movement did not end there. It also played a key role in ending the race-based immigration quota system in place since 1924. The Immigration of Act of 1924 was also known as the Asian Exclusion Act. That law created a quota system that prioritized immigrants from Northern and Western Europe, drastically restricted immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe and Africa, and completely banned Arabs, Asians and Indians. The law’s stated purpose was to “preserve the idea of American homogeneity.”
Several technology companies headed by Indian Americans have a responsibility to reduce inequality by implementing affirmative action programs starting at the high school level to bring more African Americans into the high technology universe. Sunder Pichai CEO of Alphabet ( Google), , Satya Naddela of Microsoft, Arvind Krishna of IBM, Shantanu Narayen of Adobe, Vasant Narasimhan of Novartis have all benefited from the civil rights movement and the century long struggle of African Americans. These leaders of technology companies bear a special responsibility to step up and set an agressive goal to provide equal opportunities. It is also high time for all Indian Americans to acknowledge the debt owed to our black “brothers and sisters” and to strive for equality in all aspects of society.