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excerpted from: Tayyab Mahmud, Genealogy of a State-engineered "Model Minority": "Not Quite/ Not White" South Asian Americans, 78 Denver University Law Review 657-686, 673-677 (2001) REVIEW ESSAY: VIJAY PRASHAD, THE KARMA OF BROWN FOLK (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press 2000. Pp. xv, 253)(148 Footnotes) (Full Document)


Tayyab MahmudIn the U.S., reinforcement of the composite "Indian" identity issued through interpellation by the primary American structure of recognition, racial difference assigned on grounds of visible physiological (phenotype) features. This suturing of bodies with their place of origin was further accomplished by American immigration regimes, operating as "one of the central disciplinary arms of the U.S. state." Prashad picks up the story at the turn of the nineteenth century when South Asians started coming to the U.S. in any appreciable numbers. During the hay day of Indian indentured presence in the Caribbean, between late 1800s and early 1900s, a few thousand Indians, mostly Sikhs from the Punjab, came to the West Coast and were engaged as farm labor. Confronted with anti-miscegenational legal frameworks and social conventions aimed at "protecting" white women from nonwhites, many married Mexican women, adding another hue to the mosaic of South Asian presence in the U.S. Their attempts to normalize this presence were thwarted by a racist social milieu and legal regimes aimed at stemming the perceived "tide of Asiatics." In response to the arrival of the Punjabi immigrants, the Japanese and Korean Exclusion League changed its name to the Asiatic Exclusion League. The rise of Asian exclusionary forces fostered the first anti South Asian riots, first in Washington (1907) and then in California (1910). The victims of these riots were overwhelmingly those immigrants who had the entered the agricultural labor force or were engaged in lumberyards and railroad construction. The few South Asian professionals and businessmen did not confront similar hostility. This was an early example of the intersection of race and class in the lives of South Asians in the U.S., which was to have profound implications for the fashioning of the "model minority" discourse in the twentieth century. Far from being a model for anything, at this point, as Prashad reports, California Bureau of Labor Statistics concluded that "the Hindu has no morals. . . . (H)e is the most undesirable immigrant in the state. His lack of personal cleanliness, his low morals and his blind adherence to theories and teachings, so entirely repugnant to American principles, make him unfit for association with American people."

Public policy mirrored the racist and nativist tenor of the society. The Alien Land Act of 1913, the National Origin Act of 1914, and the "Pacific Barred Zone" of the 1917 Immigration Act combined to effectively shut the door on immigration from South Asia. In response to the Ozawa Case, where the U.S. Supreme Court decided that a Japanese native was not eligible for citizenship because he was not "Caucasian" and therefore not "white," some South Asians claimed eligibility on account of being Caucasians; a claim resting on pronouncements of Arian race theorists. The Supreme Court, speaking through Justice Sutherland, held in United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind, that "in accordance with the understanding of the common man from whose vocabulary they were taken," the words "white persons" meant Caucasians from Northwestern Europe. Consequently, immigration from South Asia was reduced to a trickle, and, until the mid-1960s, the very small South Asian presence in America remained marginal and largely invisible.

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, ushered in the second phase of South Asian immigration to the U.S. Prashad shows how this new immigration regime formed part of the American response to Soviet launch of the Sputnik space rockets and a perceived "science gap." Besides, this regime sought to meet the demand for medical personnel to staff the Medicaid and Medicare programs recently put in place. Over the next twenty-five years, the new regime, designed primarily to attract skilled labor from around the world, resulted in a substantial migration of highly skilled South Asians, particularly in the fields of science, engineering, and medicine. For example, between 1966 and 1977, 20,000 scientists with Ph.D.s, 40,000 engineers, and 25,000 doctors came from India alone.

Prashad shows how broader global developments informed immigration to the U.S. during this phase. American need for skilled workers was met, on the one hand, by Indian investment in scientific education and, on the other hand, by Britain's increasing restrictions on immigration for South Asia. This contributed significantly in making highly skilled South Asian labor available for the American economy. The progeny of the marriage between American "state engineering through immigration controls and . . . the beneficence of more socialized systems of education in South Asia" was a substantial influx of highly educated, highly paid, professionals from South Asia. They became increasingly visible within their professional and class milieus. This phase came to an end by the late 1980s, as a combination of prolonged recessions and rising anti-immigrant sentiment resulted in restrictive immigration policies.

The Immigrations and Nationality Act Amendments of 1976, the Health Professionals Education Assistance Act of 1976, and the Immigration Act of 1990, erected stringent barriers to immigrants' entry into the labor pool. The immigration of highly educated professionals continued but at a greatly reduced rate. Recently, rising demand for skilled labor in the information technology sector has prompted some temporary modifications in the immigration control regime. By virtue of these modifications, a sizable number of information technology professionals from South Asia came to the U.S. But, by virtue of their mode of immigration and positioning in the economy, they are best seen as part of the second phase migration.

The third, and current, phase found its opening in the family reunification provisions of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. As the skilled immigrants of the second phase secured a footing, the family reunification regime facilitated immigration of their extended families. Just as the immigration of highly skilled labor steadily decreased, immigration of less educated and economically vulnerable South Asians increased. For example, in 1996, of the 65,599 immigrants from South Asia, only 12,315 entered under employer preference provisions, while 47,091 entered under family preference provisions. The third phase also witnessed an influx of political and economic refugees. Expulsion of South Asians from East Asia and dwindling demand for labor in the oil-producing region around the Persian Gulf combined with increased economic transformations and political instability in South Asia to furnish the push factor of this migration. Other than professionals, the third-phase South Asian immigrants, at best, occupied working class jobs. Running cheap motels, small neighborhood stores, marginal gas stations, and taxi-driving came to define their existence. Their socio-economic vulnerabilities started to become visible. For example, among the immigrants from India between 1987 and 1990, eighty percent only had a high school education, nine percent were unemployed, and twenty percent lived below the poverty line. Adding to the South Asian presence is a new generation, mostly children of the second-phase immigrants who are born and raised in America. They have become an increasingly visible presence in schools and colleges across the land.

Professor of Law, Cleveland-Marshall College of Law, Cleveland State University. I want to thank the dynamic and ever-expanding LatCrit community for creating a space where critical legal scholarship can flourish and friends at South Asian Network (SAN) in Los Angeles, who are fighting the good fight, for providing sustaining inspiration.