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.
Academic life in social sciences is supposed to be a lonely pursuit of interpretations. Not often does an academic theory emerge that energizes, also repulses, so many of the people outside of the Ivory Towers. And rarely, if ever, one emerged that managed to do exactly that in such a short span as Critical Race Theory has done. School districts, universities and Fortune 500 corporations are rolling out orientation programs that are “informed by” the theory while many schools retooled their curricula to incorporate the theory in classrooms as young as kindergarteners. On the flip side, some states are passing laws that prohibit the teaching of the same.
In light of all these, it is worth exploring if the theory resonates with a demographic profile celebrated for their success in disciplines that put high emphasis on acquired skills – Indian Americans. As a proud Indian and as a proud American, it is not an overreach for me to claim that we are awed by the sudden proliferation of the doctrine, while simply appalled, disgusted even, by many of its assumptions, observations, corollaries and extensions. All in, we feel that the so-called Critical Race Theory, or CRT, erases the lived experience of Indian Americans.
Janel George, a Georgetown Law professor, summarized tenets behind the CRT in an article published on American Bar Association website in Jan 2021. The first of these tenets – that race is not biological but a social construction – is axiomatic and accepted at face value by all. That said, everything we live by, teach our kids – and we are convinced these are key success factors in our lived experience – runs counter, broadly speaking, to the other tenets. They can roughly be paraphrased with umbrella statements that a. racism is a “normal feature of the society embedded within systems and institutions”, b. white supremacy is primarily a desired outcome of the system and not just of individual prejudice of a few rotten apples, and, c. “racism is codified in law, embedded in structures and woven into public policy”; a quick corollary implies “progress is accommodated only to the extent that it converges with the interests of white people”.
An interesting feature of CRT is its explicit embrace of lived experience, and not raw data, as relevant evidence. This frees CRT from the burden of rigorous analysis as grievance becomes the engine that drives the machine, mostly. That is why it is good to revisit the lived experience of a sizable BIPOC community – the Indian Americans.
At the risk of some oversimplification, I will bucket Indian Americans into three cohorts. One cohort came here with a Green Card as part of family reunification programs, among others. They came with little marketable education but a whole lot of chutzpah. You see them as cab drivers in New York City, as a motel, grocery store, gas station and curry-house operators almost anywhere, as long-distance haulers on the interstates and as farmers in Northern California. The second group came as graduate students, already armed with pedigreed education back home, financed themselves through fellowships and research grants and they stayed back. Many continued as academics and now throng the halls of Ivory Towers. An equally big cohort continued as professionals in businesses, including, lately, as entrepreneurs. The third cohort consists of IT workers who get their start working on projects for, or on behalf of, Indian (and non-Indian) offshoring giants and then convert to residency.
Racism is not unknown to us. Virtually every single person I have spoken to recalls at least one instance during their sojourn that can be termed as a hate incident based on race, even if the scale varies widely, as does the identity of the perpetrator. A motel operator in a remote town is as likely to be afraid of a person of color as they are of a white person, the same goes for convenience store operators in inner cities. Incidents of violence against South Asians go unreported, both in urban centers and in remote towns, because they are such an ordinary everyday occurrence and because the community would rather not draw attention to itself. It is easier to replace a broken glass, notch up a financial loss as cost of doing business, forget an epithet thrown in as a matter of course, clean up a graffiti, even cover up a shallow wound, than to aggravate the community around, or worse, be inconvenienced by police inquiry and follow-ups.
Discrimination is not unknown either. The older generation still remembers Sundown laws that covered them. As often, they bitterly remember being shut out of the financial system. The first cohort slogged, scrimped and saved enough before they could start on their own, and bring family over to help. The second cohort remembers being the only brown face in many corporate settings, things would get worse as they moved up, and how they tried to make themselves understood, at times literally. The third cohort has raw memories of being taken for granted during their long wait for Green Card, how they were routinely passed over, picked on, and underpaid.
While it happens, we keep exhorting our kids to excel in schools and carry on. Our kids are used to standing out – less than a decade back my son was one of only four South Asians in the entire elementary school in a liberal Southern California town. Our kids are used to being picked on – my son was harassed so much in middle school that we had to lodge an official complaint two years back. Through it all, they excel, and if necessary, they move on to better and more prestigious places, often to the chagrin of previous detractors. Our outsized presence in the professional world is well documented, and these days we are making our presence felt in politics, the last bastion of power and privilege. For myself the a big comfort came when I no longer felt the need to feel apologetic for my accent, a legacy of foundational years spent in vernacular schools in India.
No matter which cohort we belong to, routes forward have a lot in common. We learn to depend on the community, within it we build relationships fast. We learn to avoid trouble, especially in the form of unwarranted attention to ourselves. In our respective workplaces, we learn our strengths, and work hard to gain marketable skills. If we did not have a family when we landed, we create one fast and develop a mutual dependency that actually works well in the long run. We learn to ignore small inconveniences – grievance to a “micro-aggression” is a concept as alien to us as anything else. We keep our heads down till we have our prize – a Green Card, the degree, the job, the promotion, the first motel, the first taxi medallion, the first corner store and then the next, so on and so forth.
Through it all, we put our faith in the system, including the Police, at times the very system that may have let us down earlier on. We do not believe any existing system is structurally biased against us, and it is upon us to try our luck enough to find the gap that will open a floodgate later on. We do not take our presence, acceptance and success for granted, and we are willing to work harder to reach the promised land. We are not here to serve the interest of any other community, or any other person even, but ourselves and our families only. Our success nullifies any claim that success happens only if it serves the interest of a certain other ethnicity. Our success working within the system, while being an outsider in every sense at first, is a good example for what can happen if you refuse to give up and if you are willing to walk the extra mile. In all these, we are no different than any other successful person or people, no matter who they are, and no matter how they came to the United States.
A key belief of our community – and that is why a large number came to this country – is that merit works, and works better here than elsewhere, that if you keep your head down and chin up, if you make necessary sacrifices, if you are proactive in making alliances, if you are working to get the skills and resources it is statistically much more likely that you will be successful here. It pains the community, maddens some, when we find that meritocracy is labeled as a “white attribute”. We have no idea what it means and we are convinced that our lived experience is a testament to the non-existence of a system that supports, or promotes racial hierarchy. We did not have to, and we do not, serve a racial master.
In a world where it is still claimed that “slavery was good to Blacks as they lacked the capacity to take care of themselves” – as was told to us during a visit to a Southern plantation house five years back – it is impossible to ignore insults and injustices hurled upon Blacks. I can relate, growing up in India as children of refugees when our compatriots were often told, explicitly, we did not belong except as members of the “servant class”. I have learned early on to ignore small, and large, insults. That said, I could count on not being denied opportunity if I proved capable, e.g., admission into a sought-after college when I scored higher in a blind admission test. My personal lived experience parallels lived experience of Indian American community in the US, or for that matter anybody who persevered, strived and built allies, anywhere. No one is assured of success, we do accept luck plays some role, but statistically, there is a causal link – especially in the US.
The lived experience of Indian Americans runs counter to the gospel according to CRT. If this gospel was built on spoken words of BIPOC community, they must have missed South Asians, one cohort that is as BIPOC as they come. Maybe it was not intentional, but in so doing CRT erased us. It is ironic that the most vocal supporters of CRT in the community come from the same elite schools in India that still refuse to admit students, myself included because school administrators did not like the look of their parents. Even now. These loudmouths are in positions of academia where an unbiased, market-based, assessment of their performance is near impossible. Maybe that is why they need CRT to hold on to their jobs, and other hustles. Maybe they never truly belonged in the community in the first place.
No matter, CRT deserves no support from our community as it deliberately erases our lived experience.