Joel Stein's Beef With Indians Hurts Everyone

07/02/2010 02:13 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Last week, TIME set off a viral frenzy with Joel Stein's, "My Own Private India." In what was supposed to be a satirical take on immigration, Stein waxes nostalgic about his hometown of Edison, N.J. - now unrecognizable to him thanks to an influx of Indian immigrants. Resorting to tired stereotypes about "genius" Indians and their less-desirable counterparts who run convenience stores, Stein goes for the laughs only to strain his 'See how clever I am?' muscle.

It's not clear that Stein actually has a larger point, but any meaningful satire gets thrown out the window when he uses model minority stereotypes to pit 'good' immigrants (you know, the engineers and doctors) against the 'useless' (a.k.a. working class) ones. Add in his offensively casual use of racial epithets, and you've got a piece that inadvertently mocks everything that's difficult about being an immigrant of color in America.

To be fair, Stein does make one good point: American communities are constantly changing along ethnic and economic lines. It's not just immigration that should take the blame - it's gentrification, recessions, and simply the passage of time (ahem, Arizona).

Still, with lines like this, you can't blame angry readers for pegging Stein as racist:

"'dot heads' was the best racist insult we could come up with for a group of people whose gods have multiple arms and an elephant nose."

Not so funny if you know that the Dot Busters were a New Jersey-based hate group responsible for attacks on Indians in the 1980s. And it's even less funny when you consider that hate crimes against Indians continue to happen in the state today.

Recently, there seems to be an attitude in the media that Indians are an okay minority to joke about, perhaps because of their model minority status. After all, you can't kick someone while they're down -- but hey, if they're successful, why not? But the truth is, the Indian immigrant community, like virtually all immigrant populations, has a wide range of socio-economic diversity from working class to upper class.

So what does the model minority label say about the worth of Indians, or any immigrants, in America who aren't high-salaried doctors and engineers?

Sadly, despite claiming to be pro-immigration, Stein unwittingly makes a case against all immigrants in his effort to be funny:

"When I was a kid, a few engineers and doctors from Gujarat moved to Edison ... For a while, we assumed all Indians were geniuses. Then, in the 1980s, the doctors and engineers brought over their merchant cousins, and we were no longer so sure about the genius thing. In the 1990s, the not-as-brilliant merchants brought their even-less-bright cousins, and we started to understand why India is so damn poor."

In other words, even the 'good' immigrants will eventually bring in the riff-raff.

And so, the model minority remains an outsider -- accepted and admired, but only to a point. The Indian community is a prime example. Once they change from the doctors and engineers whose kids win spelling bees and take advanced-level math classes, to a Bollywood-blaring, working-class, small business-owning, visible and vocal minority group, the welcome mat gets pulled away.

As Stein points out, the model minority label that's applied to Asian immigrants stems from reforms in 1965, which were designed to encourage new sorts of immigration from Asia in an effort to bump up technical innovation in America and beat the Russians in the space race.

But this idea of equating intelligence with certain races or ethnicities has very real repercussions for all immigrants of color. There's something distasteful about the idea that immigrants are just being brought into the United States to do specific jobs. It raises a provocative question: Is this the best that immigrants of color can hope for today -- being treated as hired help whose families aren't welcome to join them?

It turns out that no matter what ethnic minorities do -- work hard, own their own homes, contribute to civic society -- ultimately skin color, what god you worship, and what you wear still defines how others perceive your 'American-ness.'

This isn't just an issue that immigrants face -- all people of color in the U.S. are saddled with this burden. Even President Obama was forced to put his birth certificate on display, proving once and for all that his 'funny' name and his blackness didn't disqualify him from being American (or President, for that matter).

So, is the depressing reality that minorities in America are still on the outside looking in? And what does this mean for immigrants of color and their children, who are American by birth?

Unfortunately, even if you do follow Stein's idea of assimilation -- dressing American and Westernizing your name (say, from Piyush to Bobby, or Nirmrata to Nikki) -- in today's political climate, it doesn't actually make you American enough to avoid being called a raghead.