Partha Chakraborty is an Indian-born immigrant; a naturalized US Citizen since 2018. Educated in India and at Cornell University, Partha is currently an entrepreneur in water technologies, Blockchain, and wealth management in the US and in India. The views expressed are his own.
It is fashionable these days to pine over lack of equity at every turn. Concerns about actions taken ostensibly to further the cause of equity, especially when that means muzzling opinion on the hallowed grounds of higher learning, abound. A bigger question is relevant – is equity a goal august enough so we sacrifice foundational bedrocks of the American experience, viz., of equality and prosperity?
The answer is a resounding no as I see it.
I should know what it is to be on the wrong side of the tracks. I grew up in India, literally on the side of railroad tracks, in a household where both parents were refugees from Bangladesh; and, both were raised effectively as orphans. The house I grew up in for the first sixteen years had no plumbing nor water supply, no television, telephone or fridge either. Electricity would go out for hours on end, the house was badly flooded almost every monsoon. Drinking water supply was from a shared tube-well outside that risked being inundated during the worst flooding. My mother was sick from cancer for over thirty-seven years, and also from a laundry list of mental ailments she steadfastly refused to recognize. At school I was harassed and bullied every single day for a number of reasons, real and invented, beaten up almost once a week, till I was recognized as a good student and beating stopped. Fear of harassment, and being chronically sick, meant that I rarely ever went out of home as a child or a teenager, forget about having a circle of friends. My choice of college was driven by affordability first and foremost. I chose to the only national-level institute of higher learning, outside of the military, where they give a reasonable stipend that covers room and board to every student, plus free tuition – and I chose it solely because of that reason. I came to Cornell University for my graduate studies because that was the only Ivy League that offered me a full ride. After a reasonable decade in financial services, I had a life-changing medical event – two heart surgeries, including one open heart – twelve years back. In my ‘second life’ I chose to be an entrepreneur where the ride has been rocky but thrilling if unsettling at times.
Always I dreamt. One vivid memory I have is that of an air-conditioner on the side of a factory by the train tracks. I jostled for space inside the unventilated compartment of a standing-room-only commuter train every time I came from Kolkata so I would be on the right side and by the window to catch a glimpse of the gleaming contraption. Later on, I used to count air-conditioners in homes, not ours, when my parents moved to a better neighborhood. During college, I used to travel to city center in Kolkata just to walk around tall office buildings and imagine how it was inside. I was turned away at the gates of swanky apartment complexes, more than once, when I visited people acquaintances through college or elsewhere; but I never stopped imagining living there. I was no different from the kids I grew up with, not a single one I can remember who did not aspire to just ‘get out’ one way or the other.
The world I grew up in did not have equity, and we knew that, but it had level playing field where it counted. That summarizes any progress I ever made.
The playing field was never level for me how many want it to be these days. I fondly remember the time ‘authorities’ decided to replace our leaking tin roof with a shiny new Asbestos one. Even in mid-80’s India, we knew of the dangers of asbestos as my mom was a life-long survivor of cancer. We also knew that new roof meant a better quality of life. Did it exacerbate mom’s health conditions? Possibly. Was she, and were we, absolutely thrilled to have new leak-proof roof? Absolutely. We knew where we stood, in the snaking queues at “Fair Price Ration Shops” for our weekly quota of rice, sugar, wheat, kerosene and cooking oil. We stood in line for medicine every time mom was admitted into hospital, even if the hospital could just arrange for its delivery but did not. We stood in the queue for public buses, forget about a cab or even a more expensive minibus. We stood in line for milk, watery from rehydrated milk power donated by other countries. I grew up in a world where trade-offs were known, visible and in your face every single day.
Even when we knew our spot in a world without equity, we never, repeat never, accepted it as a given forever. That is defeatism and my parents would never let me suffer from such an abomination.
No matter what provocations, beatings, harassments and demeaning overtures happened at school or outside, inside the home the same routine around hours of study, every single day. We, as a family, were so indifferent to being butt of jokes that at some point local pranksters got tired and left us be. Inside the home was no easier sometimes, especially when untreated demons got better of mom’s head. Even then, after all the storm ended, and through the gale, we were required to make sure all school work was done and we remained competitive with the best of the lot.
I fought a good fight, but one thing I always counted on was the referee and the opponent playing by the same rules as I did. Not every time it happened, but it did, had to, in every fight I came out with thumbs up. It did not happen when I was refused admission into many ‘prestigious’ elementary/secondary schools because somebody somewhere took a look at my parents and deemed me unworthy even if I passed whatever tests required. Playing by the rules happened when the most selective undergraduate college in India accepted me, and offered full tuition, room and board just like every other student there. Playing by the rules does not happen to millions of kids in India every year, even now, who are denied the opportunity to prosper, and at times just to live or love freely, because of caste or religion or a smorgasbord of issues. Only in exception do they thrive, and their circle of oppression continues – not because the world iniquitous, but because it was unequal in the disbursement of existing laws.
I have experienced, first-hand, a false sense of equity that degrades you. In the ghetto-like surroundings of my childhood, almost every adult had a very similar job and most grown-ups had an eerie acceptance of the status quo. Wizened and gaunt, they would look down upon on youngsters who’d dream of something else, and scoff that being something else meant being a henchman of a political functionary till your limbs got blown off in a brawl. Or something worse. Contrived realization of equity left no room for normal dreams. Why would somebody put in effort, differentiate, innovate and bootstrap if not for the better outcome? Majority did not dream of choosing to continue a cycle of dependency and deprivation. Some dreamt but did not choose the right path, they had their limbs blow off, metaphorically at least. Chance certainly did play a role but I honestly do not think anybody could credibly blame the ‘system’, or, blame lack of equity.
In the US, I have been told by immigrants the same story over and over in many versions. “Just because I sit outside Home Depot looking for work in 110-degree temperature does not mean that my child has to do the same thing. I know I get no better work because I do not know English. My child knows English and when she finishes college and learns to design houses people will pay big money. I know she will design and build one for me when time comes”. I have heard it in Dim-Sum places, corner bodegas, curry houses, gas stations, kabob counters, taco stands, auto mechanic shops, construction sites,…, and at Home Depot. Every single one dreams of the next generation having a better life, just as they are working (almost) every waking hour to make their own life better than what left behind.
I have repeatedly maintained that you need to ask a new immigrant to know what it means to be an American. The reason is very simple – they are the ones who self-selected themselves to pursue the American Dream. They chose, as opposed to being here by the accident of birth, to be Americans. The distinction between inequity and inequality is known to them instinctively. For example, they are not resentful when they work manicured gardens in a privileged home; they will, however, will be very resentful if are not offered the job when they are competitively priced for same level of service, or if their daughter is denied admission into Harvard even if she has better scores and grades.
Many on the left are at war with foundational elements of the American Dream, including, well-functioning (not perfect, they never are) markets, competition, meritocracy and, equality. Languages often originating from faculty lounges inside leafy college campuses make it appear that these are archaic, even antithetical to American ideals, at least subservient to the Higher God of equity. Loathsome as these demagogs are, they dominate academia – at times even outside of social sciences, languages and ‘studies’ that are purposefully obscure, vacuous and irrelevant to the harmonious well-being of the society. In the process, and more alarmingly, they are making this land inhospitable, eventually, to the very idea of America that brought millions here who built this country.
The Gospel of equity that sacrifices equality exalts a false prophet and you’ll never find on a pedestal in Ellis island. Let’s keep it that way.