Monday, June 28, 2010

An Open Letter to Joel Stein


Your recent article (Time magazine: My Own Private India) is inflammatory and bigoted. Your article is peppered with racist and ethnocentric generalizations: "for a while we assumed all Indians were genuises," "I question just how good our schools were if 'dot heads' was the best racist insult we could come up with for a group of people whose gods have multiple arms and an elephant nose," and "disbelief that anyone can eat food that spicy."

It is less a musing or remembrance of some small town lost to history and more of a targeted attack vilifying a minority (though visible) community. Some quick facts:
  1. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Edison (Census Designated Place) NJ had a population of 88,680 in 1990. Of that 70,492 (79.5%) claimed to be of the "White" race. 12,166 (13.7%) claimed to be of the "Asian" race. Of these Asians, 6,076 (6.8%) claimed to be "Asian Indian." In the 1990 Census there were more persons claiming to be "Asian Indian" than persons claiming to be "Black." In fact, "Indians" were the largest minority in Edison, NJ in the 1980s. (1990 Decennial Census)
  2. Fast forward a decade. The population of Edison CDP is now 97,687. Persons claiming to be "White" are now 58,116 (but still the majority, 59.5%). "Asians" now number 28,425 persons (29.1%). Persons claiming to be "Asian Indian" have more than doubled to 16,898 (17.3%). Of note, persons claiming to be "Black" numbered 6,728 and "Chinese" numbered 5,589 (up from 2,561 in 1990). (2000 Decennial Census)
  3. Now, into the present, or at least 2006 through 2008. According to the American Community Survey's 3-year estimates there are 105,050 persons in Edison CDP (give or take about 4,000). The population claiming to be "White" has continued to fall 50,960 (but still the most prevalent, 48.5%). Those claiming to be "Asian" number 38,004 (36.2%). Of those, 26,954 persons (25.7%) claim to be "Asian Indian," 10,959 claim to be "Black," and 6,093 claim to be "Chinese." (2006-2008 Decennial Census)
The point is that the "mostly white suburban town" that you left is still mostly "White." The Indian and Indian-American community is less than half of the township's total population. Presenting the story as only one of "immigration" is only a half-truth. Yes, "Asians" have immigrated, but "Whites" have also left, in large numbers. Nonetheless, the Indian and Indian-American communities are visible.

And they community should be visible. The story of the Indian and Indian-American communities does not start in 1965. It starts a century earlier in 1865, when the "Hawaiian Board of Immigration sends labor agent William Hillebrand to China to recruit laborers, instructing him to proceed from China to the East Indies... twenty years later, Asian Indians suddenly began appearing in the lumber towns of Washington and the agricultural fields of California. By 1920, some sixty-four hundred had entered the United States." (Takaki, Strangers from a Different Shore, 294)

Perhaps, Joel, you would find a friend in Samuel Gompers whose statues mocks me on my way to work "Sixty years' contact with the Chinese, and twenty-five years' experience with the Japanese and two or three years' acquaintance with Hindus should be sufficient to convince any ordinarily intelligent person that they have no standards... by which a Caucasian may judge them" he said, in 1908. (Takaki, 296)

Perhaps, Joel, your inspiration came from a 1910 Forum magazine article by Herman Scheffauer who wrote "this time the chimera is not the saturnine, almond-eyed mask, the shaven head, the snaky pig-tail of the multitudinous Chinese, nor the close-cropped bullet-heads of the suave and smiling Japanese, but a face of finer features, rising, turbaned out of the Pacific and bringing a new and anxious question... [a] Hindoo invasion [of this] dark and mystic race." (Takaki, 297)

Finally, Joel, your xenophobic and reactionary rambling has no place in the immigration debate, much less in a serious discussion of integration and citizenship. Your last paragraph is most perplexing of all, in one fell swoop, you denigrate and marginalize two distinct communities. Your immutable view of "culture" belongs to an earlier century, what you fail to see is that Edison has changed - but you have not. You acknowledge that Chelsea has changed, yet you seem unable to cope with the demographic and geographic change of your hometown.

The worst part, Joel, is that you do not acknowledge the duality, the hyphenation, of this community. It is not simply "Indian," although many will claim it to be as such, it is something new (yes, more new than 1885). It is an Indian-American community with links to India and roots in the U.S. Our sons, daughters, brothers, and sisters fight, and have probably died, in the military that allows you to publish such articles.


Mark said...

Sorry, but I COMPLETELY disagree with this.

First, just who is xenophobic? There's entire villages of Indians coming in setting up shop with businesses that cater to their homeland culture, not American suburbia, who thrives off of groceries from ShopRite and movies in English. Now, it's Patel's Cash and Carry and a theatre projecting films in their mother tongue. So, if it's anyone that refuses to accept culture, it's not the township that let happily let them do it, but the generation of Indians that came over and refused to assimilate.

I personally think it's ridiculous the way that Oak Tree Road has become a haven of Indian restaurants and stores, and how they all seemingly vanish into thin air once the tax break period runs out. Secondly, I see all over town five to ten Indian families cramming themselves into one tiny house so they can send 16,000 kids to school on one set of property taxes (which, by the way, are not the cheapest), but the point of the matter is that Edison schools are overcrowded and underfunded enough.

So, if anyone should get angry with Joel Stein's article, it's not the Indian populace of Edison and the surrounding townships. It's the people who sat around and watched their town turn to a wasteland that it is today. I personally cannot believe the sense of entitlement these Indians have when they are outraged at our outrage. As a born American, I would never move to, let's say, Greece and start up a Johnny Rockets and post signs in English and refuse to learn English or expect taxpayers to fund school programs to teach my kids to speak Greek.

So, maybe understand how your population is ruining Edison instead of working with it, and you won't cry "racist" anymore. We see it as a slap in the face of the opportunities we offer here. I wouldn't give a damn if someone in the population decided to open up a bar or a Subway restaurant or a movie theatre that didn't cater to a specific race, but the fact of the matter is that everything that opens now uses up limited available rental space and is a Xerox copy of the place next to it, so it only serves the so-called "small"--as you claim with your statistics--portion of the population.

Robbie S said...


Thanks for your comment.

First, as I pointed out in the letter, Joel Stein is xenophobic. Moreover, those of us (yes, us Americans) who subscribe to his views could also be called xenophobic. But I won't get caught up in semantics. You say that the township would "happily let them" accept "American" culture. If I get your meaning, your take on "American" culture is shopping at ShopRite and watching movies in English. I'm fairly certain a large number of Indian immigrants and Indian-Americans shop at ShopRite, watch English-language movies, and speak English.

You also assume that the township would "happily" let them do it. Would they? Perhaps not judging by your, and Stein's, reaction. Your view of the Indian and Indian-American community seems to be very monolithic. They're all aliens, strangers, foreigners. The problem with this view is there is no room for a continuum. Sure, there are Indian-Americans who prefer to converse at home in a Subcontinental language. But there's also plenty of Indian-Americans who, as I pointed out, are in the U.S. military.

Thanks also for your stereotypes in the second paragraph. I don't quite see how this helps your argument about the Indian and Indian-American community being xenophobic? I would venture that these communities suffer just as much from overcrowding and underfunding in schools as other communities. And thanks for that tidbit, perhaps this is one reason for the "White" flight from Edison? Persons claiming to be "White" moving out to areas with better opportunities for their children. Depressed land prices facilitate immigrants and communities with less resources moving in.

As for your third paragraph. The Indian and Indian-American community absolutely have reason to get angry over the article. If you meant wasteland in the sense of overcrowded, underfunded schools then yes, we don't need to look farther than ourselves- Black, White, Asian. You seem flabbergasted by a sense of entitlement, yet you think that anyone stepping on these shores should abandon their cuisine, movies, and groceries just because it doesn't please you? Just because you were born here?

As a born American, I would definitely move to Greece and start up a Johnny Rockets, especially if there was a large enough American ex-patriot community there clamoring for one. As a born American, I think you can put a sign up in whatever language you want, serve whatever food you want, and speak whatever language you want.

As for your final paragraph. What exactly is being "ruined" in Edison? Thus far you've provided me a list of cosmetic changes in your neighborhood. Your demand that someone open up a Subway restaurant is interesting for other reasons. In DC there's quite a few Subways around that are primarily staffed by, and owned perhaps, by Bangladeshis (get out your map). Anyways, I think you can go to any "Indian" restaurant and order up some food, in English, from an English menu, from a server who speaks English and be fine.

And those aren't my statistics. They are the Census Bureau's, which is run by the Federal government.

As a closing note, I'm unsurprised (sadly) that you ignored the whole point of my post (I'm guessing you didn't read it and simply commented). The point of this post is that there's much more than an "other-ed" "Indian" community. There's an "Indian" and "Indian-American" community (hell, there's probably a "British Indian-American community").

The point is that this is America. Edison is not India in America. Edison is an interesting meeting place, where some imprint of India has been made onto America. You're right, it's not your old Edison and it's certainly not Baroda... it's something new.

Srini Venkat said...

It is amazing how racial and racist people are still in the 21st century! Mark - Sorry to shock you but there are other places where people of non-white races and culture congregate in almost every metropolis - such as Japantown, Chinatown, etc. Even people of white cultures have historically, at the peak of immigration boom periods, inclined to live in neighborhoods with a higher density of people of their own background. If this is news to you, there are more people left for you to spew your hateful venom on.

Indians have a long history and heritage of their proud culture ... they will not change their names to Bob and Jim and Kim and Amy in one generation (perhaps not in many) ... since the names are coined by complex sanskrit phonemes. Read up on some of them ... you might even learn something.

Your ignorance of the contribution of Indians to property, income, sales, FICA and other forms of taxes is laughable. If you are even marginally intelligent, you shouldn't have any trouble in Googling the raw numbers on these ... I'd probably not be lying if I said that Indians perhaps contribute to these tax buckets manifold more than they consume.

Americans or Europeans also tend to impose their flavor of culture in other countries they go to ... don't know about Greece ... but in Afganistan, I remember reading that the Green Zone has bars and food incompatible with local culture but to cater to the American tastes. The province of Helmand was once called as Helmandshire due to the british influence on it. Read up on History further on the british and other european empires and missionaries ... the spread of Christianity in the east and the English language in countries including India would not have occurred if even a sizable minority in those countries were as racist and xenophobic in their thoughts as you.

From Yoga to the Venture Capitalists in Silicon Valley, Indians do not just coexist but have only benefited the American culture in a very positive and enriching manner. I hope you'd open your eyes, leave your shell and be more understanding of other cultures ... or at least be more measured in your comments. But racism is a hard trait to grow out of ... so I hope, in the tradition of hinduism that you'd learn your lessons in one of your future births if not in the present 'cos Karma is a bitch.