Two decades after the publication of ‘The Karma of Brown Folk,’ Vijay Prashad revisits his seminal book and advocates for concrete change today.The Juggernaut Editorial Team
As the protests and conversations about race in America continue, The Juggernaut spoke with historian and journalist Vijay Prashad, author of The Karma of Brown Folk (2000), which traces the rise of the model minority myth and how black-Asian solidarity faded to give way to anti-blackness.
The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
What were your motivations behind writing The Karma of Brown Folk 20 years ago?
Through the 1990s, when I was living in Providence, Rhode Island, and then in Hartford, Connecticut, and New York, I got involved in South Asian American politics. The involvement initially came through things happening in India — the rise of the Hindu right, that very much disturbed me. I’d seen riots in India, and I was frustrated that the Indian right was making inroads into the Indian American community, raising money, and so on.
I also met young South Asian Americans, and I found that they had a very interesting story to tell: they understood their place in the world, but found themselves caught between having grown up in white suburbs and having an uneasy relationship with having mainly white “home friends” and other South Asian friends from their parents’ circle. There was a kind of “adolescent schizophrenia”: you had this world of India and then you had this world of America and it was hard to reconcile the two.
Some of them had parents who seemed to be quite liberal but then they were supporting the right — and they couldn’t understand that and couldn’t come to grips with it.
I helped create a project that ran a summer school for South Asians in New York. We had hundreds of South Asian young people come for a week. We introduced them to the radical history of South Asian Americans, going back to the freedom struggles in New York City and San Francisco — how the first left-wing political Indian party was created in Stockton, California, in 1913 [the Ghadar Party]. It made a huge impact: they began to have a richer understanding of themselves, of the adolescent schizophrenia, and more of a sense that their lives were authentic.
All of that came together for me — I sat down one summer and I began to write about that story.
Many years before that, I had read W. E. B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk, in which he asks a fundamental question: how does it feel to be the problem? He isn’t saying that African Americans are the problem. He’s saying, how does it feel for you to be looked at by a white supremacist society as the problem? You are the criminal, not because you are a criminal, but because they see you as a criminal. He comes up with this idea of double consciousness — you see yourself through your eyes, but you also see yourself through the eyes of the white supremacist and that diminishes you. I found that to be a very powerful book.
And so I decided for this book to use the structure, but reverse the question. Instead of asking, ‘how does it feel to be a problem?’ the question for young South Asians is ‘how does it feel to be the solution?’
Why is the model minority a myth?
Most white supremacy, the liberal variant, doesn’t want to accept that it is, in fact, racist. It says, look at the Asians, they do so well. They don’t need welfare. They don’t need this. They don’t need that.
One of the core points of ‘how does it feel to be the solution’ was to look at the immigration history.
When I looked at the data, in a 15-year period after 1965, something close to 80% of Indians coming into the United States had advanced degrees, which is a much higher percentage than any other population in the United States. This creates an extraordinarily unusual, sociological outlier. And so you have children raised in this environment, where everybody seems to have a Ph.D. or M.D. or something, and then other people turn to them and say, ‘Look, how great.’ Obviously, they’re doing well because they come from families with immense cultural capital, with immense authority over learning, and so on.
I’ve asked the question ‘how does it feel to be a solution?’ but in fact, you’re not really a solution to anything. This is a fraudulent narrative and you’ve accepted it and you need to reject it. You should not be satisfied when somebody says to you, ‘You are a solution, you are doing great.’ You should not be satisfied with that...you should think twice about that.
The fate of brown folk was to deny your real history and accept the white supremacist history and live by it.
How might South Asian Americans think about solidarity with the black community? How might these protests translate into societal change?
People are on the street. I see [things like] ‘South Asians for Black Lives Matter’ signs.
Concrete solidarity is important.
The conditions of George Floyd’s life also needed to be transformed. You don’t just want “no police brutality.” That’s not a concrete statement. The concrete statement is: why does George Floyd have to struggle to make a living? Why was Eric Garner accused of selling loose cigarettes on the street? First, you shouldn’t be killed for something like that, but what are the conditions that make the police so brutal? What are the conditions that create this terrible, terrible class conflict in the heart of American cities?
I would like to see more acts of concrete solidarity. We shouldn’t have police officers being the frontline when somebody is having a schizophrenic episode on the street and gets shot by the police, when public health officials should have been there to comfort that person. You need a universal public health system to take care of people, particularly the urban poor, who suffer from many, many elements because they’re not getting treated at all.
Is it different now than it was 20 years ago? I don’t think so.
We need more social workers. We need less police, certainly less militarized police roaming around the street, beating people. Do you really need to incarcerate people, treat people who are not violent as criminals? There’s just too much criminalization of everything. Shoplifting is against property, but it’s often rooted in poverty. It’s rooted in desperation. You have large numbers of people living in acute poverty and then they are assaulted with advertisements, assaulted with TikTok videos of influencers around nice things. It’s an assault on human personality — utter deprivation. You need healing for a population. You have to really think about what it is that makes people desperate.
Putting a knee on a human being for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. That’s an abomination. I’m happy the person is arrested and is going to be charged, but it’s not just him. It’s the whole civilization — the civilization is sick.
When are the professionals who are now in their 40s and in some seniority in their hospitals just going to say, ‘I worked for private healthcare and it sucks, and this is a disaster?’ Unless we somehow tend to the needs of the poor in this country, nothing is going to improve.
That’s what I mean by concrete solidarity. We need to have people at some point, say: ‘I am fed up with being the model minority. I’m fed up with saying that I’ve succeeded, I’ve built a nice family life, and my kids are happy and they’re going to good private schools.’
When do you stand up and say, ‘what’s the point of my success if my civilization is in decay?’
What are the barriers to this concrete solidarity in the South Asian American community — including across generations?
From the end of Indian immigration into the United States in the 1920s, you just got a trickle of intellectuals and so on in the 1950s. In the 1960s, immigration restarted slowly. That’s a huge gap — that’s one-and-a-half generations effectively. Also in this period, India gets independence.
So what you get is the people who come [to the United States] in the 1960s are often people born just near Indian independence. So they miss two important, historical processes: the freedom struggle in India, because they’re born [or young], and then they come to the United States when the civil rights struggle is over because the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act was in 1964, 1965, respectively, and the Immigration and Nationality Act was in 1965.
The bulk of Indian migrants come from the late 1960s onwards...They don’t have any idea of the history of the Indian participation of the freedom struggles in America. Nobody ever tells them.
These migrants...are actually beneficiaries of both. They studied in higher education in India, which was largely paid for by the state, by taxation because of the freedom struggle. Then they arrive in the United States, and because of the civil rights struggle, they have legal equality and can use the same bathrooms and can buy houses next to white families — and so on.
They have benefited from the fruits of both the freedom struggle in India and the civil rights struggle. And they never paid homage to either. They’ve just taken advantage of what other people have given them.
They’ve never turned around and said, ‘You know, we acknowledge what you’ve done for us. And therefore we are going to turn back and we’re going to be in solidarity with you in your continuing struggles.’ Never — it just didn’t come up.
Instead, they went into a kind of bunker mentality and said, ‘We're so great because we have advanced degrees.’ And I find that just to be such a shallow way to live your life in the world — you're a beneficiary of something you don't even know. You're not great.
Tell us about the history of South Asian and black alliances.
They were very powerful alliances. If you go back to the freedom struggle in the 1910s and 1920s, the Indians who were there in California and New York City and so on, they took their solidarity with the Irish Fenian movement, they took the solidarity with black activists. They took solidarity across the board with people fighting for freedom, because they were fighting for their freedom. That’s a fact that there were these alliances. If you go forward, it’s likely by the 1950s, there were Indians in America, who were very close to the black radical tradition. A number were writing in the black press, participating in struggles.
I would say to anybody who’s so far successful in the world to just spend a day meditating on how did you get successful? Bertolt Brecht has a poem. Who built the pyramids? It wasn’t a pharaoh. Who built the skyscrapers? It wasn’t Rockefeller. Who made your lunch? Who walked you to school? Who did these things? Who gave you an education that your parents didn’t have to go into debt for? And if you ask those questions, it gives you a sense of humility.
How did anti-blackness emerge across the South Asian American community?
It’s not about skin color. It’s about consciousness.
Caste is a wretched thing, and it has wretched consequences for the way people deal with other people — particularly those on top of the tree have a predisposition to look down at people who are seen as lower, and you entered the United States, you assume who’s the lowest, well, then they must be low. But then there’s also the fact that anti-black racism and sentiment is a global effect, whether it gets imported to India from the British or not, that’s a separate issue.
It's quite easy to enter a place like the United States with this graded inequality, and say, ‘well, obviously I'm better than somebody who's black.’
Some of it did get imported through the British, but there are also older lineages of anti-black sentiment in our society. I don’t think we should hide from that. Anti-black sentiment isn’t merely invented in Europe.
The literature on Indian history, of colonial history in India, almost doesn’t refer to the racism of the British in India. It’s as if the British ruled India, but the racist quality of the British Imperial state is minimizing the scholarship, even radical scholarship on India. We don’t really talk about racism much. The apartheid structure is precisely how the colonials ruled in India.
It’s hard because if you don’t see yourself as a racialized subject, you don’t understand what it is to be in solidarity with somebody who is so deeply racialized.
What echoes of the topics you discussed 20 years ago do you see in the situation today?
People also have to live in their skin. They live in their lives, they have to make accommodations with reality. I would caution people not to, but I understand it. Toni Morrison around that time wrote something quite powerful. She asked, which immigrant coming into the United States wants to be treated the way African Americans are treated, who wants to go and live inside essentially an open concentration camp, where police officers routinely kill people? Who wants that life? Who wants that life of poverty, in this very rich country? Nobody wants that — everybody runs away from it.
There’s a difference between wanting that sociological life and being in solidarity with people who are trying to exit it. That’s the complexity, because so much American politics for such a long time has been disarmed, broken up, fragmented, made less viable for people. There is a tendency to conflate solidarity with sociology — to conflate wanting to change the conditions of somebody’s life with one seemingly becoming them.
This is a wretched society because after Michael Brown was killed in 2015, there was all kinds of noise about reform. But between the death of Michael Brown and the death of George Floyd, more than 5,000 were killed by the police. Let’s be frank. I mean, that’s why I use the word wretched. It’s a decadent society. There are all kinds of noises about reform. The police thing, we won't do it again. And then it happens. When are these people — the generation that I wrote about 20 years ago — when are they going to stand up?
Vijay Prashad is a director of the Tricontinental Institute for Social Research, chief editor of LeftWord Books publishing house, and the author of about 30 books.
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