Kai Wright: This is The United States of Anxiety - a show about the unfinished business of our history and its grip on our future.
Valarie Kaur: I'm raising a brown boy who may someday wear a turban is part of his faith, in a country that is more dangerous than the one that I was given.
Frank Wu: It's a moral dilemma. Are you going to declare that you're a person of color, or do you aspire to be an honorary white, or do you just get excluded as a perpetual form?
Protester: I'm proud to be a Chinese man, I'm proud to stand with my Black sisters and brothers as we stand up for their lives. (crowd cheers) We cannot have all lives matter until Black lives matter.
Varun Nikore: We are the taxi drivers. We are the 7-Eleven workers. We are the doctors, the engineers, the lawyers. We are everything and everywhere.
Kendra Okereke: This idea of the model minority in this wedge is a myth. It has nothing to do with the fact that we're both minorities, but it does have everything to do with the fact that we are not white.
Kai: Welcome to the show. I'm Kai Wright and I'm joined this week by my colleague, Arun Venugopal. Hi, Arun.
Arun Venugopal: Hi, Kai. Good to be here.
Kai: Arun is a senior reporter in WNYC's race and justice unit, and longtime listeners of this program will recognize Arun as one of our founders. He was the lead reporter in the first season of our podcast back when we were babies, Arun.
Arun: Yes, the days of innocence.
Kai: The not so innocent days before Donald Trump was elected president. Anyway, back then, back in early 2017, right after Trump was elected on this xenophobic platform, Arun, you started thinking a lot about where South Asian communities fit in to, I guess, just really the racial caste of the United States. The idea that you have been tracked as so-called model minorities, and you reported a story that we're going to revisit and update in this show because it feels just really relevant right now. First off, Arun, can you take us back to that moment right after the election, Trump is inaugurated, and soon thereafter, what happens?
Arun: I think it was just a few weeks after he was inaugurated when a lot of us began to hear about this incident in suburban Kansas City. Not a place I'd necessarily been thinking much about, certainly not in terms of Indian people. Never been there myself, but we heard the reports of a young man, an immigrant, an engineer from South India who worked in Kansas City. His name is Srinivas Kuchibhotla.
He was having a drink with a friend, another Indian American man, and a third man comes into the bar, starts talking in a threatening manner to the two men, and he's told to leave the bar by the proprietor bartender and comes back with the gun. Somewhere in there, he says, "Go back to your own country." He shoots Srinivas Kuchibhotla, and he kills him, and he runs off, and he's later apprehended.
Certainly, not the first time you'd heard about one of our own getting killed, but I think in this era against this new backdrop, it really did I think jolt us all. We really felt like we'd entered a whole new reality, and it was scary.
Kai: You started reporting on how this attack landed in your community, and we're going to play that story here. Then a little later, we're going to come back and talk about what's happened since then. We'll start with what you said to me when I asked you about the crime at the time. Take a listen.
Arun: I've never seen the level of alarm around the death of any single member of my community as happened in this case. The way that it reverberated throughout this country and back in India.
Kai: I imagine it rocked you personally.
Arun: It takes me back to my youth and some incidents that happened. I was thinking about this incident in my first week of college. I lived with a guy from rural Texas. He was this big, beefy, white guy, and he's telling me about the Indian doctor in his small town and how smart Indians are and how hard-working we are, and then he leans in and he whispers, "Not like those spics."
Arun: At that time, I'm like 17, I had no idea how one had anything to do with the other - why praising my people required insulting Hispanic people. It didn't surprise me that he knew an Indian doctor. Because if you're Indian American, you kind of get used to people saying, "Hey, you know Dr. Patel."
Kai: I do know a Dr. Patel.
Arun: I know a Dr. Patel, too. I know many Dr. Patels. There are certainly benefits to this kind of success by association, for sure. Indians and other South Asians, we occupied this really strange, seemingly contradictory space in the American cultural imagination. On one hand, we're perceived as smart, successful, well-behaved. On the other hand, we are the presumed threat.
Or to put it another way, when American jingoism gets stirred up, when it really goes into overdrive, it often goes looking for people who look like me. It happened in 1980. I was seven years old during the Iran hostage crisis and a bunch of bigger kids surrounding me on the streets and demanded to know if I was from Iran, and a backlash happened again in 2001.
Reporter 1: I'm at a Mesa gas station near 80th Street and University. An employee was shot and killed. You can see behind me--
Arun: The first victim of a hate crime killing after 9/11 was Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh man originally from India, who'd saved enough money to buy a gas station in Arizona. He was outside planting flowers around the edge of the gas station when a guy came by in his pickup. The man had told his friends he was going to go out and shoot some towel-heads. He shot Sodhi five times. That was September 15th, just four days after the World Trade Center had fallen.
15 years later, in a suburb of Kansas City, Srinivas Kuchibhotla was the first victim of a hate crime killing after the 2016 election. His wife Sunayana stood before camera crews, not long after the shooting.
Sunayana Dumala: I don't know what to say. We've read many times in newspapers of some kind of shooting happening everywhere. We always wondered, "Are we doing the right thing of staying in the United States of America?" but he always assured me that only good things happen to good people.
Arun: I'd never been to Kansas. I didn't even realize there were a lot of Indians there, so I made a trip, and I found myself spending an afternoon with a couple of locals at the Woodside Health & Tennis Club.
Raj Tan Bhala: It's been a very good place to raise our family and it's been marvelous professionally for me. It's logistically a very easy and straightforward and simplified life. We've been blessed with a number of good friends.
Arun: This is Raj Bhala. He's a law professor at the University of Kansas. He's written 13 books. His wife, Kara Tan Bhala, runs the Seven Pillars Institute.
Kara Tan Bhala: We are a think tank focused on the education research and promotion of financial ethics.
Arun: They're both members of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Royal Society for Asian affairs in England. Not impressed? He also recently ran the marathon in 3 hours and 42 minutes, and she was just named one of 50 Kansans you should know. We sat outside, like civilized folk do, drinking juice as people played tennis nearby.
Kara: The main reason we came here was to raise our daughter in a healthy environment and I wanted to run a farm. We bought a farm, and we kept chickens and have fruit trees. All the neighbors were very welcoming farmers too, people who lived in the country, and we were very happy.
Arun: Raj is half Indian, half Scottish. Kara is Malaysian Chinese. They met at Oxford, got married at the United Nations Chapel in New York, and moved to Kansas City in 2003. They pretty much epitomize what we think of as cosmopolitan, except that they live in Kansas instead of Manhattan.
Raj: This is not the Kansas that we moved to in 2003, it has changed.
Arun: One of the ways it's changed, he says, concerns its relationship with violence. The state has become more permissive when it comes to the rights of gun owners. On July 1st, this summer, a concealed carry law goes into effect on campuses across the state.
Raj: Meaning that concealed weapons can now come into the classroom. They can even come into my office. Many of us on the faculties around the region's institutions, including myself, didn't like that and we still don't like that and we're worried. We never would have anticipated in 2003 the concealed carry coming on.
Arun: There's another thing. One of Raj's areas of specialty is Islamic law, Sharia law. He's written a textbook about it and his expertise is such that he also teaches a subject to US special ops forces at Fort Leavenworth. He's that good. Among the general population, and especially among some conservatives, it doesn't go over too well. People have started rumors about him that he tries to convert his students to Islam, which is silly, not least because he's Catholic, but all of these things have built up his concerns. His wife has worried too, especially after Srinivas Kuchibhotla was killed.
Kara: I did write to my congresswoman, my senators, after the shooting, and I said, "I really don't feel safe anymore for my husband." I used to feel safe. I never worried about it, but now I worry. I got a reply back from the congresswoman defending the Second Amendment and I never got a reply back from the senators.
Arun: Now, after years of living here, raising their daughter here, and generally thriving, they are seriously considering leaving Kansas and the country.
Kara: It just made me feel as if my voice wasn't being heard in a very conservative state. That perhaps it was time to just take a break from the country and come back when things get better. I know things go in cycles. The pendulum has swung really one way quite extreme and we're waiting for it to swing slowly back.
Arun: When I mentioned to a mutual acquaintance that Raj was having second thoughts about staying in Kansas, he was shocked. Raj bled KU, he told me. He's that committed to the University of Kansas. It's not just Raj. It's the students, too. The ones who are graduating and now need reference letters. Over the last few years, he said many more of them have been asking for letters for companies based outside of Kansas and outside the region, in general.
These are employers based for the most part on the coasts. Add to all of this the reports that the number of international students who apply to local colleges plummeted this spring and you have what appears to be a serious problem. Now, Raj Bhala thinks it's too early to say definitively, but he worries about where this is headed. Whether the state is witnessing the early signs of what he called a brain drain. Now, this is a curious term, but he knew I'd recognize it.
It's the term that people in India, among other places, use to describe the thousands of doctors, engineers, and others, the best minds if you will, who left the country because there just weren't enough opportunities at home. Which isn't to say that everyone's packing up and leaving. In the wake of the shooting, some Kansans waver between fear and a feeling that maybe they're overreacting and that this too will pass. At least this was the case with the software engineer I met, Venkat Manda.
Venkat Manda: [laughs] Oh, that was pretty funny. I think it was a week or week and a half ago, one of the weekends. Basically, we--
Arun: I sat with Venkat in the living room of a home owned by his friend, Richard Gallard, a native Kansan who's married to Pamina, originally from India.
How long have you all lived here?
Pamina: In this house, about 17 years, and in Kansas, about 30 years.
Richard: Well, I was born here.
Arun: Richard and Venkat have a percussion troop with some of their friends, and they usually practice here, and Venkat somewhat sheepishly recounted a recent incident at the local Costco.
Venkat: We generally tend to go to Costco and Sam's, all these major clubs, during the weekends. That's the time we are generally free. Guess what? A lot of Indians there.
Richard: I noticed that.
Venkat: Right? A lot of Indians there, but this time we were there, and two of us, we were talking to each other and obviously we are in the Island, the cards are taking up much of the space. I think what we felt was somebody pointedly looking at us and saying, "You are blocking the aisle here, move." That was sort of new for me in the sense we have always been pretty nice in our manners. When we go out, we actually try to look at people and say, "Hello." The basic norms of what I would call as the American society norm. In India, we would probably not look at anyone.
The norm here is you look at them, at least shake your head, nod your head, "What's up," kind of thing, and I have learned to do that. This particular Costco visit, I was scared of doing it. I think we normally would have gone around each aisle. Every time I go there, I try to go around and try to find new products. This time, I think we were in and out pretty quickly. We felt, oh, there is some palpable change in how people are looking at us, maybe how we are looking at people.
Arun: This happened soon after the shootings. Venkat was still turning over the moment when he'd become racially self-aware and he still can't decide whether it's all in his head. He pointed out that there was a rally right after the shootings and that a good 60% of the crowd was not Indian, which made him feel good. Not long after that, his neighbors who are white organized a get-together and called a lot of the other neighbors over. One by one, each of the white neighbors came up to Venkat and his wife and told them how much they cared for them, that, "We're all in this together." It was Richard who noted that for all the locals who are good and supportive of immigrants, there are others who've been caught off guard.
Richard: In the suburbs here, there's lots of different subdivisions all around. When I grew up as a young boy, everybody was white. There was no Blacks. Some of us were Jews, but very few. Everybody was basically a Christian and white. Now you go to these subdivisions, like here, my next-door neighbors from Vietnam, there's all kinds of different ethnicities in the neighborhood. In some of these subdivisions, would you say at least half or more than half are Indian families?
Venkat: Not exactly half, but yes, close to half, I would say.
Richard: I'm thinking maybe the average white guy doesn't get it. He doesn't understand, "Why are there so many-
Richard: -non-whites here, and why are they--" Maybe he thinks maybe they're doing so well. "What's happening?" He doesn't get it.
Arun: You think there's a perception or possible perception that their success is at our expense?
Arun: Pamina, Richard's wife suggested that immigrants from India have a work ethic that, for better or worse, sets them apart.
Pamina: Whatever work you give to Indians, they really work and do it. Sometimes the white people will say, "No, I don't want to do it."
Richard: I don't have any factual-- I don't know that as a fact. This is just hearsay.
Pamina: Yes, I don't know.
Venkat: I think the difference that I probably see if I think about it, a regular American would use the phrase "work-life balance" a lot more, whereas an Indian would say, "Work is worship." They'll say, "Hey, we are here to work. Let us do the best we can, and work-life matters, who cares?" Maybe that is the perception. That probably could be a problem. Yes.
Arun: "Perceptions." That word keeps coming up. Up next, how Indians have been perceived throughout American history.
Kai: This is The United States of Anxiety, I'm Kai Wright, we'll be right back. Welcome back. This is The United States of Anxiety, I'm Kai Wright. This week, we're revisiting a story that reporter Arun Venugopal told us right after Donald Trump took office. It's a story about an Indian American community in Kansas City that had begun to reconsider their place in this country. Actually, Indian Americans have held a few different places in the bizarre racial categorizations of American culture.
Arun: The perception of Indians in America has changed dramatically over the years. Just over a hundred years ago, a poet and playwright in California, Herman George Scheffauer, wrote an extremely influential essay about Indian immigrants in a journal called The Forum.
Voice-over: It is nothing more or less than a threatening inundation of Hindoos over the Pacific coast.
Arun: The essay was titled "A Tide of Turbans."
Voice-over: The American finds it difficult to accept the Hindoo as a brother of the blood. Between him and this dark, mystic race lies a pit almost as profound as that which he has dug between himself and the Negro. The racial equality of the East Indian he acknowledges, but a closer affinity he unconsciously denies. The two civilizations will not mix.
Arun: This is in 1910. Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims from India, they were all lumped together as Hindus, and they were all regarded as dirty, as carriers of disease, and incapable of assimilating. All of this hostility helped the US put an end to immigration from India. The so-called tide turned into a tiny trickle, and it was only in 1965, in the wake of the civil rights movement, that America decided to change course. This time, instead of loggers and farmers, the immigrants were mostly doctors and engineers, people with advanced degrees. There are a couple of reasons for this, one of which had to do with the Cold War.
Reporter 2: The first artificial earth satellite in the world has now been created. This first satellite was today successfully launched in the USSR.
Vijay Prashad: In the 1950s into the 1960s, the Soviet Union actually had some breakthroughs.
Arun: Vijay Prashad is a historian at Trinity College and author of the Karma of Brown Folk.
Vijay: It sent the first living creature into space, that was the dog Laika. Then Yuri Gagarin, in 1961, orbited the earth. These were some major breakthroughs and it set off a panic in the United States. How is it possible that the main adversary of the United States was able to have these very spectacular breakthroughs?
Arun: It was in April of 1961 that a Russian cosmonaut orbited the earth. The very next month, President John F Kennedy declared that the Americans will put a man on the moon.
Vijay: This space race competition was about prestige, but it was also about a fear that, within the United States, there were insufficient numbers of scientists and engineers to basically push the American space program and weapons program to the next level.
Arun: Then just a few years later, President Johnson signed Medicaid into law, as well as Medicare. This is a huge expansion of the American healthcare system, and the country simply did not have enough healthcare professionals to deliver on this promise. It's not that other countries weren't turning out doctors or nurses, but a newly independent India simply had more than most, and importantly, these were people who spoke English.
Vijay: It's striking. Between 1965 and about 1980, 85% of the Indians who entered the United States had advanced degrees in engineering or in applied sciences of some kind or pure sciences. So physics, chemistry, et cetera. It's extraordinary things. It's unheard of in terms of migration policy that the government would allow in people of such high skills and then create this very strange community inside the United States. It was tough to be a child of that community. Everybody, all your uncles and aunts seem to have PhDs and they seem to be engineers.
Arun: In other words, a very unusual and intense form of social engineering was taking place. At around the same time that these immigration laws were relaxed, in 1966, actually, a new term was coined "model minority." This was in a 1966 New York Times magazine article by sociologist William Peterson about Japanese Americans. How, despite decades of discrimination, they flourished in this country. The article employed another term in quotation marks "problem minorities" to describe the prevailing view of African Americans, among others. Over time, this distinction between model minorities and problem minorities was magnified. The US media has spent years asking variations of this.
Reporter 3: Those high scores beg the politically incorrect question, are Asians naturally more intelligent?
Arun: Think of all those spelling bee finals, one Indian American winner after another. These are the scenes that have helped define the image of Indians as special, elevated, and they fit into a broader conversation about how some groups do better than others.
Kai: Arun, this brings me to a conversation that Isabel Wilkerson has really opened up with her new book Caste, right?
Arun: Yes. I think she's really reframed this idea in a way that a lot of us didn't necessarily think about. This idea which we might associate with back in the homeland, but here in America, especially for those of us who've had it pretty good in certain ways, I think these recent years have kind of made us wonder, are we really at the top of the pecking order, if you will, or somewhere in between?
Kai: Well, and so in the story we've just heard earlier in the show, you posit that maybe there's been a change in that group of folks in the course of the Trump administration or, well, this was at the beginning of the Trump administration and you posited, maybe there was about to be a change. Raj told you that maybe he and his family were prepared to just leave, that they felt like the United States wasn't for them anymore. I wonder what happened? Have you been in touch with them?
Arun: I have. I called them up recently and we chatted.
Raj: I'm Raj Bhala.
Kara: I'm Kara Tan Bhala.
Arun: Great to be in touch again. Thanks for making time. Just tell me where you are, what's it like, where are you right now?
Kara: We're in Kansas City, Missouri. Actually, this year, we just sold our farm in Lawrence, Kansas. We moved from a small college town to a midsize city in Missouri.
Raj: We're also in the process of applying for Kara's permanent residency in Canada. I'm a dual US Canadian citizen, having been born in Toronto, and through me, our daughter is also a dual US Canadian citizen. She was born in the States and then she gets Canadian citizenship through me.
Kai: Let's talk about where things were when you all graciously had me over to the club and we talked in 2017. I know we captured that at the time, but I'm kind of like, with some reflection, just place me there.
Kara: Well, I felt very negative at that time because it seemed like there was a lot of racism and it didn't progress well after that, because it continued to have instances of racism and white supremacy under the Trump administration. I continued to feel bad because of what they called the China flu and it made me feel so excluded because, for me, it was attacking the Chinese.
I felt that there was a lot of racism against the Chinese because of what they kept calling it, and so I felt very uncomfortable here and I felt like I wanted to go back to Asia, but of course, with the pandemic, travel was impossible. It didn't improve after meeting you. In fact, it got worse. Only recently, after the elections, did I begin to feel a little bit less tense about the racial situation.
Raj: Yes. When we sat together back in 2017, I think I was uncertain but hopeful. Of course, we were there in the context of the killing of Srinivas Kuchibhotla and we were all worried about the gun violence in this country, but I was hopeful that his example would be one that we would learn from. Then I had the most negative professional experience in my life, which caused me to really feel far less hope and even depressed. It came up in the context of the selection of distinguished professors at the University of Kansas law school.
I was the last distinguished professor hired by the University of Kansas law school from outside. That selection process occurred in 2002, and I was hired in 2003. I think I'm still the only Asian American in the history of the law school, which opened its doors back in 1878. Basically, for the 17th, 18th straight year, we went only internally. I'm less hopeful. I have less faith in the idea that we in the Academy are going to look globally for the best and brightest talent and bring it to America and put it in service of our students.
Arun: At the time, you were talking about leaving the country. I met you in Kansas City, but where did your pads take you?
Kara: Everything's incremental in our lives. We do things in a very considerate way. Also, we have to consider where income comes from, the education of our daughter, and how we're settled. We moved to a bigger city. We live in a blue area in the city, very blue. We haven't encountered, so far, blatant racism, but we do worry about the country and where it's headed. Most indicators of human development in this country have been declining. There's a lot of inequality. There are a lot of division.
Because of this decline in Human Development Index metrics, I think a lot of it leads to the state of our polity now, which is divided, and a lot of people are angry. Because we are getting older, we are looking, where do we want to be in the next few years? As Raj has said, we are thinking about spending some time in Canada and seeing how that is for us in terms of treating us. We also would like to spend some time in Asia because that's where our identity is. I guess you could say we have insurance.
Arun: How do you understand the society now that you may not have 5 or 10 or 20 years ago? What is it about America that you feel is not worth sticking around for?
Raj: I think that's a great question about sticking around. I say this as a Catholic, John Paul II said that the dramatic tension in every person's life is between the person that they are and the person that they want to be. If I am in an environment where I'm not the person that I want to be, then it's not worth sticking around in that environment.
The person I want to be is not selfish, not divisive, not judgmental, but I fear that over the last few years, I've been more worried about asset preservation, or I've been more judgmental about people, more quick to judge, and as I reflect on that, I also reflect on how much time I have left. I've been fortunate, I've run 100 marathons, and I know as an endurance runner, there is less road ahead of me than there is behind me.
If I can find a place, and maybe it's still this place, maybe it still is, right here where we are in the American Heartland. If I can find a place where I can be the best expression of myself to help my students, that's where I want to be. If it's not this place, then that goes to your question, why we would look around. If the last four years has taught us nothing else, it's taught us at least my wife and me and our daughter, that it's good to have a backup plan. It's good to have a plan B.
Kai: This is The United States of Anxiety. I'm Kai Wright. We'll be right back with more conversation about the history of a so-called model minority.
Hey, this Kai. Just a quick program note here, when we started making this show back in 2016, we were just trying to bring context to that wild campaign season, and particularly the history that we all carried into it. Initially, we figured we'd stop after that election, but obviously, there was a lot more to chew on, which is just to say, if you're new to the show, there are tons of episodes here that I hope you'll check out. We've taken snapshots of the political culture.
Speaker 5: It's not right, I'm sorry. I feel bad for people that are oppressed, and I mean oppressed, but if we can't take care of our own, too.
Kai: We've asked how power is really built in a democracy.
Speaker 6: I don't believe that demography is destiny. I think demography is a pathway, but it takes work. We are the first campaign in the deep south to put in the work.
Kai: We've just mined all history in an effort to put America on the couch, to understand how we got here as a country, and where we're going. I urge you to dig around in the archives, it is all still relevant. If you hear something that raises new questions for you, and you want us to follow up on that, hit me up, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and maybe we'll take you upon it. Thanks so much.
This is The United States of Anxiety. I'm Kai Wright. We've been revisiting a story that reporter Arun Venugopal told us back at the start of the Trump administration, about how Indian Americans as so-called model minorities, were pushed into a reckoning with their place in the country's racial reckoning order. Now Arun is back with me to think about this story four years later, as we leave the Trump presidency and what has or has not changed.
Arun, we heard you talk about the unique world of Indian Americans who migrated to the United States in the '60s and '70s, that there was this intensely professional upper-caste group of people, and you've just published an essay in the Atlantic that digs into that history a little more. You read about your own family in that essay, and your parents were part of that immigration. I love this section where you describe how your mom and dad start to get all bougie once they make some money in Houston.
Arun: They bougie it up.
Kai: You say your dad got tickets to the Houston Opera, but would promptly fall asleep in each concert?
Arun: Yes, and my mom would jab him in the ribs, their elbow, and say in Malayalam, a native language be like, "Is this why you pay all this money, so you can come here and take a nap?"
Kai: Oh, wow. You tell the story. I guess I asked, "Why does he pay all this money?" On some level, it seems like it's not so much about claiming class or even Americanness, it seems like claiming whiteness. The way you describe it, that's what I'm hearing is literally performing whiteness, even though he isn't interested in it. Is that fair? How would you--?
Arun: I think a lot about this phrase because certainly something that rings through a lot of our communities, whether you're Black, or you're desi like myself, this whole idea of, what does it mean to be acting white? My dad and my mom are super proud of their heritage and their culture, but you move into a fancy neighborhood, as they did in the '70s, and there are certain trappings, I think, that you think are like, "Well, this is what you do."
They're very religious in terms of their embrace of Hinduism and all, but they went through a phase, a long, extended phase, where they dress the part and they went to all the galas and evening balls and all that stuff, got the tuxes and whatnot, as if they were supposed to, and at some point, I think they realized it was just-- They just felt silly. It's just like, "Why are we doing this?"
I'm still making sense of all of that. I think assimilation is such a weird thing. It's almost like this demand that's made of you. Obviously, it's very different for somebody who's putting on a tux and going to the symphony, it hardly feels like an onerous task, but there's something about the suburbanization of Indians, which I think is very much a thing. This idea of like, "You're going to live next to us, we're gonna let you in, to our little club in the suburbs."
Not everybody is let into the suburbs, at least not without a lot of resistance. We didn't really get that. We were lucky in that way. We didn't realize how lucky we were or how unlucky others were to be denied those opportunities. It's only now, I think, that I've realized how everything is been gamed for some of us and not for others.
Kai: Well, and speaking of how long, one of the other things you mentioned is that you as a kid, at least, I'm not sure about your parents-- the history before Indian Americans became model minorities in the United States, well, they were here, but before they were tracked as model minorities, that history just didn't exist for you. I really was moved by the way you described it, as that 1965 was Year Zero.
Arun: Yes. The history that precedes 1965, which is very, in some ways, an undignified history if you're Indian or South Asian American, it's humiliating in a ways to have been deprived of your citizenship, to be called names. That whole thing of the "tide of turbans" as it was called in the early or probably the 20th century. I think it does not fit with the much neater narrative of this elite rarefied class of immigrants who came here, educated, smart, talented, and they were accepted, and they were called model minorities. Your models for other people, who wouldn't want to be called a model? There's something just intrinsic about them. We have done what it takes, and other people can get this too if they just put in the work.
Kai: Well, let's talk about some of that history then. Can we start with 1920? There was a case you write about in Oregon, a Supreme Court case that began in Oregon. What happened there? What was that case about?
Arun: Bhagat Singh Thind was an Indian immigrant. He had enlisted in the US military, had served during the First World War. He was a Sikh American man, and he applied for citizenship. Initially, it was granted to him, but then someone in an office, in the US government office noted his application and realized that it didn't make sense according to the laws of that time, that you had to be of Caucasian ancestry, and this gets into the whole thicket of racial taxonomy. Are people of Indian descent Caucasian?
Bhagat Singh Thind contended that he was in fact Caucasian and he pointed to some very labyrinthine, racial logic. Then the Supreme Court got involved, it went all the way to the Supreme Court, and they said, "Well, no, of course, you're not. Not in the common sense of the word." This is where they obviously have to start splitting hairs on racial logic and deciding that--
Kai: Because it's a fiction in the first place.
Arun: It's a fiction in the first place. It's whatever fiction we decided is, and today, we're going to decide, "Yes, you're not part of the club." They stripped him of his citizenship, along with other people who'd also been like him, immigrants from India, and had been granted citizenship. He was just one of many people who were, essentially, deprived of their livelihood. If you had land, you were deprived of your land, because you no longer had the right to own land.
There were people who committed suicide because it was so devastating. This was really the 1920s at this time of very intense xenophobia. KKK was at its most powerful. At the same time, the country passed all these sweeping immigration laws banning people like Bhagat Singh Thind from entering the country and we entered into this very dark period of American history.
Kai: It's funny, so many people don't know this history. It's so stark that there were these brown people in the country who were citizens, and then the next day they weren't. It was literally taken away from them.
Arun: Yes. I think that what was funny to me, as I got older and started hearing this is, I was like, "Why would we not be elevating these stories? They're such dramatic stories." By my logic, at the time, when I started hearing these stories, I thought, "Doesn't this connect us even more to this place that we call our country?" I think what I've come to understand is that there's an overriding logic, which is, we'd rather have this relatively newer story, but one that is more pure and doesn't get into the humiliation of being considered a second class citizen.
Kai: That helps build towards the 1965 immigration reform, that you've written about and we talked about earlier in the show, and this crop of hyper-professional, upper-caste folks like your parents who immigrated. I wonder about whether or not their inability to connect with that previous history, I wonder sometimes how much that has to do with the fact that they were so upper-caste when they got here. They didn't have any relationship to the idea of oppression in the first place.
Arun: I think it's absolutely true. There is apparently something like 90% of Indians who migrated to the US, in those first couple of decades, were coming from upper-caste. This is not something that was necessarily seen explicitly in India, like, "Oh, if you're upper-caste, you can go," but we're really talking about people who, even in a relatively poor country, had the means. They had the social capital, the intellectual capital. They had friends, cousins, who were moving abroad, and they were getting letters back, these aerograms saying, like, "Hey, you should check it out. Come over to England, or maybe come over to America."
What happened is, these are a lot of people who were either born into or came of age in independent India, and then they arrive here after this 1965 Immigration Act. They arrive here after the Civil Rights Movement. They didn't really know what it was prior to that. I have one late uncle who understood what it was like to be on the receiving end of discrimination. He came early. Most of us, our uncles and aunties had no stories like that. They moved here at a very particular moment and they benefited in so many ways that they didn't quite appreciate. They really were all too happy to take on this title that was handed to them in the popular media.
Kai: You also write the xenophobia and bigotry behind those thoughts that started with that 1920 or that were materialized in that 1920 case and that carried us through '65. That that, nonetheless, was distinct from anti-Blackness. Can you explain how so and why those were distinct ideas?
Arun: Despite the history I've talked about in terms of the subjugation and marginalization of Indians and others of Asian descent in this country, that discrimination is real, it never quite approached the scale or the brutality of what has happened to Black Americans. Another difference is that the population of Asian Americans, certainly of Indian Americans within that, was much smaller.
Except in small locations here and there, where we're talking about jobs, maybe in a few townships or parts of California at the turn of the century, we were never a political threat to the white racial order. There were not millions of us, who kept white people awake at night wondering if they would be overtaken. The level of violence that was enacted just to keep that fear at bay, it's nothing that Indians or Asian Americans, in general, can really-- it's just a whole different order, Kai.
Kai: Or couldn’t until 9/11, perhaps in the way that you described in this story.
Arun: Yes. I think when we talk about 9/11, we talk about even to a different degree, what's happened with the pandemic. These are these reminders of the conditionality, if you will, of model minority status. That, no matter how many decades you're here or no matter how successful you are, that switch can be flipped at any moment and drawing the full force of American society, the American government against you. No matter how American you are, you're still, in some sense, seen as provisionally so. I think that's less than we have from these recent episodes.
Kai: Arun, before we wrap up here, we have to talk about the future of American politics and this community within it because if you look at both major political parties, the rising stars of them are from Indian American families, are from South Asian American families. Kamala Harris is our vice president-elect and everybody is looking at Nikki Haley as the future of the Republican Party, probably.
Arun: Yes, they are.
Kai: Let's start with Kamala. What do you think she means to the community, if anything?
Arun: It's interesting, Kamala Harris's mom, she grew up in a neighborhood in South India in Madras or Chennai, where I actually went to school as a kid. For many people, regardless of where you live in India, you know that this name, Alwarpet, signifies Tamilian-Brahmin stronghold.
Kai: That means what? Tell us what that means to people who [crosstalk]-
Arun: Certainly. Basically, Tambrahms, they're called, Tamil Brahmins are a community of uppermost caste, high degree, I guess you could say, of privilege. She comes from that community. She came on her own terms. She came in the early '60s. She was very highly educated, just many other Indian immigrants who would follow her. As we know, she married a Black man. I think she's set out her own path.
I think her story and the story of Kamala, as her daughter, is interpreted in different ways by different people. I think if you're a progressive, South Asian American, you see this and it gives you a certain idealistic vision for what can be. That we're not in our own little box as indeed Americans. That we're not cut off from people of other communities as the system has tried to engineer for us. That there was something that very deeply moving about her own involvement in the civil rights movement and the struggles.
The fact that Kamala was the product of their marriage is, I think, inspiring for a lot of young people. I think that's not necessarily a case for a lot of other people in the Indian community, they simply see that one of their own has made it and it is an affirmation of their place in the political order. We're still a relatively small community. We're talking like 1% of the American population. I think this is a sign of just relatively how fast we are signaling our political arrival.
Kai: What about Nikki Haley? What does her story mean to you?
Arun: Nikki Haley and Kamala Harris, two very different embodiments of the Indian American story. First of all, let's look at her first name, Nikki Randhawa Haley. She's born into a Punjabi Sikh family. I remember seeing her parents on stage once and I remember them talking about the racism that they experienced when they first moved to South Carolina in the '70s and really wondering, "Gosh, I really wonder how Nikki would feel hearing her parents talk about this," if this is not quite the narrative she would like to convey about South Carolina.
Like Bobby Jindal, she's someone who changed her name. He was Piyush Jindal, became Bobby. He converted, she converted and they were both embraced as relatively young politicians by the Republican Party, who I think either saw past their skin tone or very much saw it as an asset in this story of the New South perhaps or a newer, slightly more benevolent Republican Party, one that needed some level of cover, to not be seen as an all-white club. I think as both like converted Christians and people who had assimilated in various ways, they were very successful.
Kai: We'll spare everybody going too far down the road of 2024 and 2028 quite yet. Arun Venugopal is the senior reporter for the race and justice unit of WNYC's newsroom, and so you know, Arun also is going to be here in the chair for me when I'm not around. He's now our official second host, guest host, I don't know. What do we call you, Arun?
Arun: Let's just call it chief host.
Kai: Chief host, there we go. Get used to hearing from Arun, he's going to be part of the show. As I said, he was here when we started. Arun, thanks so much.
Arun: Looking forward. Thanks so much, Kai.
Kai: The United States of Anxiety is a production of WNYC Studios. The original version of Arun's Story from Kansas was mixed by Casey Means. Jared Paul mixed the podcast version this week. Our team also includes Carolyn Adams, Emily Botein, Jenny Casas, Marianne McCune, Christopher Werth, and Veralyn Williams. Our theme music was written by Hannis Brown and performed by the Outer Borough Brass Band. Karen Frillman is our executive producer. You can keep in touch with me as always on Twitter @kai_wright, and my email inbox is open. Just hit me up at email@example.com. Thanks for listening and take care of yourselves.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.