According to Newsweek Writer, Immigrants Just Don't Get It

10/27/2011 12:58 pm 12:58:59 | Updated Dec 27, 2011

This week, Newsweek profiled Raj Rajaratnam, the ex-chief of the Galleon Group hedge fund recently convicted of insider trading. One paragraph caught my attention:

The whole story speaks to the South Asian-American community: its pursuit of success and money at any cost; the differences between immigrants and the first generation; and the immigrants' incomplete understanding of the rigor of the law in the U.S.

Not one to shy away from good empiricism, I did a quick test. Like Rajaratnam, my parents are South-Asian American and they are immigrants. I called them for their thoughts on the pursuit of success and on insider trading laws. Turns out, they think heedless ambition is wrong and they think insider trading is illegal. Go figure.

My example illustrates the article's error: In this paragraph, the character of the group is judged by the actions of an individual. That puts other members of the group at risk of being painted with the same broad brush. That's how prejudice operates. When race is involved, it's called racism. It can happen unwittingly, but whenever it happens, it needs to be called out for what it is.

The paragraph hasn't generated much heat. In fact, no one but a few commenters seems to have noticed. But what if the paragraph were rewritten to read:

The whole Bernie Madoff story speaks to the Jewish community: its pursuit of success and money at any cost; the differences between Jewish people and other Americans; and the Jewish people's incomplete understanding of the rigor of the law in the U.S.

The response would be thunderous, and appropriately so. That's because the disease of prejudice doesn't stay easily confined. It spreads and takes alternate forms: discrimination and differential treatment. This isn't a new phenomenon. We've seen this horror movie many times before.

So why the muted reaction in this instance? I can hazard a guess: The negative stereotypes go unnoticed because South-Asians are considered a minority success story. And without deep historical wounds to serve as a gut check, paragraphs like the one above are given a pass. This is the dark side of the "model minority" myth. It's the view that says it's okay to traffic in group judgment if the group is doing alright for itself.

It's a flimsy argument, if one can even call it that. In some cases, those making the claim don't know any better. But this piece ran in Newsweek. The editors there know better. The author is a South-Asian, a Pulitzer finalist, and a professor of journalism at NYU. He knows better, too.

The editors may have used a light touch because the author himself is South-Asian. Surely he couldn't be prejudiced against his own kind? We can't know for certain. What we do know is that he is an accomplished writer. We know he teaches budding journalists the trade. If anyone should be on guard for gross generalizations, it's him.

I'm willing to grant him the benefit of the doubt. In the rush to release a high-profile interview, the author and his editors forgot to dot their i's and cross their t's. Mistakes happen, and if that's what it was, they need only come out and apologize for the error.

But if it's not a mistake, then it should give us all pause. The paragraph's last line -- "the immigrants' incomplete understanding of the rigor of the law in the U.S." -- rang familiar. I had read a line like it recently. Slate's William Saletan dug it up: "Minorities... as a people (though there are always exceptions to the rule) are incapable of maintaining or even comprehending the rule of law and order." The sentence comes from the "law enforcement" section of a chapter website of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.