Every year, the South Asian Bar Association of New York (SABANY) awards fellowships to law students who will be pursuing unpaid summer internships in the public interest. The fellowship winners are recognized at a reception, where an experienced South Asian public interest attorney speaks about a current social justice issue that he or she is working on.
The event is attended by a broad cross-section of the desi legal community in New York, and non-lawyers as well. My first year at the event, an attorney for whom I had once interned spoke about Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, a case that had wound its way to the Supreme Court and succeeded in challenging the voluntary desegregation policies adopted by school districts in Seattle and Louisville. She talked about that case in relation to the threats to affirmative action that emerged in the two Michigan lawsuits that made it up to the Court in 2003, and against the backdrop -- ever-present in matters of race and education -- of Brown v. Board.
The contemporary history of civil rights, creeping steadily away from separate-is-not-equal, was laid out before us and could have served as a call to action for an emerging generation of South Asian activists and allies. Instead, at the end of the talk, came the coup de grâce. In a room full of very well-educated people of color someone asked the question, "What does all of this have to do with us?"
South Asian Americans have a complicated relationship to the civil rights movement. Many of us are here because, at the same time lunch counters and water fountains were desegregated, so too were our borders. The Immigration and Nationality Act Amendments of 1965 eliminated race as a factor in determining who could enter the country and who could not, resulting in a dramatic rise in the number of immigrants from Asia, Africa and Latin America - a diversification of the United States that arguably contributed to the election of Barack Obama as President. At the same time, South Asian Americans are among the group some have labeled "model minorities," a moniker that undermines the premises of the civil rights movement and serves as little more than catch-all for obnoxious stereotypes. (Commentary in Forbes c. 2009: "Most Americans know only one thing about Indians--they are really good at spelling bees." What?)
The trouble with terms like "model minority" is that they have the power to allure. After all, who doesn't want to believe that they "made it" on merit alone, that they broke away from the pack because they were just that good? Looking back to see the barriers in other people's way is uncomfortable and perhaps unnerving. Terms like "model minority" also have the power to obscure. Many South Asian Americans face tremendous challenges lifting themselves up from the proverbial bootstraps, no matter how hard they try.
As reported by South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), a national advocacy organization, approximately one-quarter of Bangladeshis and Pakistanis in the U.S. survive with incomes below 125 percent of the poverty line.
Also, as previously noted on this blog, Indians make up the sixth largest undocumented immigrant population in the country, a 64 percent in the last ten years. But you wouldn't know any of this by reading the mainstream media, which shapes not only how white America sees "the Other" but also how the brown bourgeoisie see themselves.
So, in a way, I wasn't surprised when someone asked about the relevance of civil rights, even at an event focused on South Asians and social justice. Ours is a community in which racism operates through a process of divide, conceal and conquer. The question is: what to do about it?
At SABANY, we have launched a series of educational workshops entitled "Lawyering for Social Change" in which we discuss topics such as class and work or discrimination and hate crimes with a focus on how these issues play out for the South Asian community. The goal is to move away from myths and stereotypes and create the space for a more realistic conversation about the desi experience in the U.S. This year, we are also going to launch a pro bono clearinghouse to connect low-income South Asians and the community-based organizations that serve them to free legal services. Thumbing our nose at the model minority concept, we aim to create a system through which those of us who enjoy class privilege can deploy our legal skills to benefit those who do not.
Ultimately, through these and other activities, the hope is that we can do our part to change the relationship that South Asians have with the struggle for racial justice in America. Because the question should not be, "what does all of this have to do with us?" Instead, we should ask, "in what ways could it possibly not?"