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.