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What Indian Americans Can Learn During Black History Month

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February is celebrated as America’s Black History Month, making it an opportune time to examine some important relationships between the Indian and black communities in this country. For one, there are longstanding ties between the two peoples that ought to be unearthed and rekindled. Mahatma Gandhi started his civil disobedience movement in South Africa where he spent 21 years honing his political philosophy and leadership skills. The event that became the turning point in his life was when he was thrown off a train, because as a person of color he was not allowed to sit in first-class even though he had a first-class ticket. The indignity of this event, similar to that experienced by all people of color in South Africa at that time, launched him into a life of social and political activism. His movement culminated in the eventual overthrow of the British Empire and colonialism in general.

Gandhi’s non-violent struggle later inspired the young Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who studied Gandhi’s civil disobedience approach known as satyagraha, and visited India in 1959 for a month. The details of this trip are memorably recounted in his essay, “My trip to the land of Gandhi”, published in Ebony magazine in 1959. Martin Luther King Jr. had this to say about the reception he received:

“Since our pictures were in the newspapers very often it was not unusual for us to be recognized by crowds in public places and on public conveyances […] Virtually every door was open to us. We had hundreds of invitations that limited time did not allow us to accept. We were looked upon as brothers with the color of our skins as something of an asset. But the strongest bond of fraternity was the common cause of minority and colonial peoples in America, Africa and Asia struggling to throw off racialism and imperialism”.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr., too, has had recurring contact with India in all the years of his active career. In one trip he spent six months in India prior to the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S.

Recently, in 2008, on the occasion of Gandhi’s 60th death anniversary, he delivered the memorial lecture in New Delhi where he remarked, “One can argue that Mahatma Gandhi, known as Bapu (father) to his compatriots, was the spiritual godfather of these world-class figures (Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela) who changed the world.”

Today, as Indian Americans have become established successfully in their newly adopted country, it is easy to forget the importance of these bonds. We must remember that the 1965 Immigration & Nationality Act which opened the door for large numbers of Asians, Africans and Latin Americans, was enacted against the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement and the changes in attitude that it created. This reversed the previous system that was designed to maintain the European racial composition of the United States.

Immigrants from India tended to be well-educated, middle-class professionals seeking prosperity, and they hit the ground running to seize the opportunities. Because most Indian Americans arrived after the Civil Rights Act, they did not experience the indignities suffered by African Americans, and because they belonged to the post-Independence generation of India, they hadn’t experienced life under colonial rule either. Professional success came relatively quickly to many Indians and this dulled the impetus to appreciate the benefits of a strong collective identity.

The long list of successful Indian Americans is impressive indeed, but it has made many too self-centered and single-minded in economic pursuits. Success has led to the myth that “becoming American” makes a collective identity irrelevant. Few Indian leaders have studied the history of immigration and identity formation of other minorities in America. They are confused about what the hyphenated identity as “Indian-Americans” means, and what their unique American journey and cultural background could contribute to the fabric of this country.

The recent unceremonious dismissal of Citigroup CEO, Vikram Pandit, despite his stellar record, should cause Indian Americans to do some soul searching. Sadly, Pandit found himself without allies on his own board of directors to defend him as one of their own. In fact, none of the board members was close enough to him to even give a hint that he was about to get fired. When he arrived at the fateful board meeting, he had no clue of what was in store for him.

Moreover, this shocking episode went un-scrutinized by our community that feels uncomfortable addressing its vulnerability for being “different.” Individual success, based solely on merit, has surely taken us a long way in America. The playing field is level enough to advance up to a point, but without the anchor and security of a collective voice, high-achieving Indians will remain the solitary outsiders, easy to bring down.

What does all this have to do with African Americans, one might wonder? My response is that they have deep memory and understanding of building community organizations in America. Black churches have historically played a strategic role in building a positive selfhood and collective consciousness, and today there are numerous African-American civic organizations with depth and maturity to secure their position. Unlike the case of Indian immigrants, theirs has not been a quick-success journey, but a long, hard one with many valuable lessons learned along the way.

The Reconstruction era after the emancipation of slaves had offered many lessons to African Americans. Ostensibly, it was to be a period when blacks and whites would together rebuild the South, share political power and rehabilitate the former slaves. Indeed, many blacks attained prominent positions, and two blacks were elected as senators. So they felt little need to build separate institutions, imagining that the American melting pot would suffice. The advances made during the Reconstruction, however, proved to be short lived. Soon there was a backlash against blacks and the nation entered the era of Jim Crow laws and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. Freedom from slavery did not mean that whites accepted blacks as true equals in jobs and power. Equality had its limits, especially at times when whites faced economic distress.

It was after this experience that a new kind of African-American leadership emerged with a focus on building a resilient, independent identity with its own institutions. Unified action was encouraged. This groundwork ultimately led to the American Civil Rights Act in the 1960s, just as Gandhi’s struggle took nearly half a century of strenuous work before culminating in India’s independence. The African-American experience shows us that there is no substitute for grassroots community building and activism, an endeavor that Indian Americans have barely begun. Whether African Americans, Jewish Americans, Hispanic Americans or Muslim Americans, the importance of investing in robust civic organizations based on a solid definition of one’s distinct identity has been indispensable in America.

Without such bottom-up community building, we can expect to see more Vikram Pandits, easily booted out. Or, as I wrote in my blog last week, there will be more Bobby Jindals willing to whitewash their ethnicity in order to get ahead. African Americans provide the experience we need for building a distinct identity in this country. Dr. King said it best: “The way of acquiescence leads to moral and spiritual suicide. The way of violence leads to bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers. But, the way of non-violence leads to redemption and the creation of the beloved community.”

Published: February 8, 2013