By PETER MONAGHAN
The Karma of Brown Folk
by Vijay Prashad
(University of Minnesota Press)
The karma of "brown folk" -- of Americans of South Asian descent and of South
Asians in America -- is to face the question "How does it feel to be a
solution?" So writes Vijay Prashad, an assistant professor of international studies
at Trinity College, in Connecticut. His title alludes to the 1903 classic by W.E.B. Du
Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, which asked black Americans, "How does it feel
to be a problem?" Mr. Prashad's Untouchable Freedom: A Social History of a Dalit
Community (Oxford University Press) also appeared last month. It focuses on Delhi
sanitation workers' struggles for rights.
Q. How pervasive is discrimination in the United States against South Asians?
A. It happens on many fronts. Those who work on the front lines of service -- for
instance, people who work in kiosks in New York, and taxi drivers -- face a great deal of
physical violence. That has been well-documented.
Then, people generally thought of as technocrats -- your doctors, your engineers, etc.
-- face a discrimination of stereotypes: "These are mainly technocrats, they cannot
think on their feet, they're not good managers." So, there is a kind of glass ceiling
of technocracy. You can rise only so far. . . .
The sharpest form of negative stereotype falls on young South Asians raised in the
United States, who are almost like performing animals. They face a great deal of pressure
from their parents, from schoolteachers, and you could even say from the atmosphere of
America, to succeed.
Q. Do South Asian achievements in this country result from natural and cultural
A. Bill Gates went so far as to say that we are the second smartest people on the planet.
It's ludicrous. South Asians do extremely well in America. This is not because they're
inherently brilliant; it's because the I.N.S. is extremely brilliant. The 1965 immigration
act brought in only certain kinds of Asians. After 1977, when the law changed slightly,
you started to see different kinds of South Asians enter. Hence, for instance, the
taxi-cab issue. But even many cab drivers are not working-class and peasants from South
Asia. Many have degrees.
Q. You say "Radicalism is as South Asian as Gandhi."
A. When the Quakers, the Unitarians, and other pacifists introduced Gandhi into the U.S.,
as a figure, they brought him as an essentially passive character, as a saintly man. They
took his teeth out. It's different when you read the black press. There, Gandhi is a
figure of great anti-imperialist passion. People know that India fought for its freedom --
the word is fought -- and yet we think, "Well, they just sort of stood there
passively, and got beaten and the British got fed up with beating them, so they
left." Gandhi wrote of active nonviolence. There's nothing passive about it.
Radicalism of South Asians overseas has been integral both to the history of South Asia
and to the history of South Asians overseas.
Q. Why do you pick on Deepak Chopra in your book?
A. He appears, just when the medical crisis becomes relatively acute, with some useful
information on how to deal with problems in the world. It is true that allopathic medicine
does not give an answer to everything. But if there's less and less health insurance for
the population, and then you start saying, "Look, the reason you're ill is because
you don't take care of yourself," that wraps itself into a conservative
personal-responsibility argument. I think that Chopra and Newt Gingrich share way too much
for one to be silent about them.