THE BLOG

The Unbearable Brown-ness of Raj Rajaratnam

05/13/2011 12:51 am ET | Updated Jul 12, 2011

Move over spelling bee champions, Raj Rajaratnam is here.

Desis in North America are finally making news for something other than Pulitzers, spelling bees or plum positions in the White House. Hedge fund billionaire Raj Rajaratnam's trial, the biggest insider trading trial in years, ended with a guilty verdict for the Galleon funds founder on 14 counts of securities fraud and conspiracy. It's shaken up Wall Street not just because of the scale of trial but also because of its color.

Gary Weiss in The Daily Beast has cottoned on to the fact that the trial is not just shining a light on the murky dealings in the world of high finance. It's also a symbol of a changing Wall Street. "Wall Street is no longer a white man's preserve," he writes.

So far so good. But then the article goes on to talk about the "insularity" of Indians, Pakistanis, Bengalis and Sri Lankans. Rajaratnam's college buddy Anil Kumar, a former McKinsey executive pleaded guilty to getting $2 million from Rajaratnam for inside information. Rajiv Goel, Rengan Rajaratnam, Rajat Gupta are all desis involved in the scandal. (Even the prosecutor Preet Bharara is Indian-born!)

Weiss says outsiders can't help but note this "ethnic clubbiness" although he writes for South Asians "it's merely an extension of a style of business -- working a network of friends and acquaintances -- that's played out for centuries on the subcontinent, only applied, in this case, for allegedly criminal ends."

Hmmm. That sounds like exactly the way everyone does business. Presidents of the United States go back to their college buddies and early work days when they appoint staff members. When WASPs do it it's just called networking, not a strange exotic ethnic-specific hawala style of business. In a recent New York Times piece about Rajaratnam's friends it sounds like the newspaper just stumbled on some exotic hitherto unknown Amazon tribe: "Many of Mr. Rajaratnam's tipsters came from the South Asian immigrant community, a relatively small group of Indians, Pakistanis and Sri Lankans who over the past several decades have made their mark in finance and technology." Contrast that to Columbia University professor Arvind Panagariya's comments of firstpost.com:

"Call it the law of large numbers or probability. When there are so many South Asians on Wall Street some will inevitably get enmeshed in these incidents. There is embarrassment involved but why should every South Asian feel defensive?"

Weiss admits that Wall Street for its first 200 years remained a WASP preserve. The old boys club shut everyone else out but no one talks about its "ethnic clubbiness." White is always regarded as the absence of ethnicity.

In fact while Rajaratnam was tried for his alleged financial shenanigans by the courts, he should be congratulated on one count. Desis can be insular but not in the way Weiss imagines. In the U.S., the proliferation of Telegu Associations and Bengali Associations suggests that Indians abroad cling to caste and clan with even greater fervor than they did in India. The grand gathering of Bengalis every year in the Banga Sammelan is all about the glory of the Bengali language. But even amidst the dulcet tones of Rabindrasangeet the Bangladeshis complain they are being sidelined by the West Bengalis and the West Bengalis complain about how demanding the Bangladeshis are.

That Sri Lankan-born Rajaratnam spread his largesse among all his South Asian brothers is in itself noteworthy. He didn't just benefit the Sri Lankan Tamils. Perhaps the organizers of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation should give him an award.

An earlier version of this blog first appeared on firstpost.com