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March 14, 2004

Acceptance of South Asian immigrants

This should probably be a comment, but since I can't figure out how to make comments, I'll make it an entry.

As a native born wasp living in the South, I have a few observations about the acceptance of south Asians, of which we have a few . . .

First off, though I move and work among working-class whites, I've witnessed absolutely no signs of negative feelings towards South Asians, unless you count parodies of the sing-song English some of them use, which is done in good fun. Racist and anti-Semitic remarks, btw, are almost unheard of nowadays, which was certainly not the case 50 years ago.

As for myself personally, I've really only become aware of the South Indian presence in America during the last 10 to 15 years.

One thing that did it for me was the medical team I had for head-and-neck surgery at Memorial Sloan Kettering seven years ago. I joked to my friends that there were three guys around the operating table -- a Jew, a Muslim, and a Hindu -- though it was definitely the Hindu who was in charge, a guy named Jatin Shah, whom I was fortunate to find, and grateful for finding. So that has definitely colored my views.

Then, in the last few years -- I think I mentioned this to razib -- I've become increasingly aware of the verbal contributions the South Indians are beginning to make to our English speaking culture. (This is in marked contrast to East Asians, btw, if someone would like to explain.) For example, Fareed Zachariah's book on liberalism and democracy was easily the best piece of political writing to come along in years -- so good, in fact, that it seems to have made Robert Kagan (of Paradise and Power) green with envy, to judge by the ridiculously ill-tempered review he penned for The New Republic.

Another eye opener was the film "Monsoon Wedding" by the woman who's name I should know because she is obviously one of the three of four best auteurs in the world right now, and maybe the best woman ever. The thing that impressed me most about that film was how amazingly "like us" the upper-middle class family in Bombay (or was it Delhi?) was. Of course the cultural differences are easy to see, but emotionally, economically, sexually, and technically we're living in the same civilization.

By contrast, when I bummed through that part of the world in 1963, it was the most exotic place I had ever seen -- I thought I was on another planet. (Of course, now we've got nose rings, piercings, and body tatoos too, so the influences move both ways.)

I close with a cautionary note. As some of you may or may not know, I'm worried about what free-trade with China and India is going to do -- is already doing -- to American wages and living standards. Both theory and commonsense predict that it's going to lower them considerably, maybe even drastically. It is potentially an explosive political issue. (We can argue this separately if you don't believe me)

Now back during the Nafta and Gatt debates, I researched a magazine article on the subject, in the course of which I talked to most of the leading trade theorists in this country. One of them was Jagdish Bahgwati. In private conversation, he admitted to me that there was a real problem here, pointing out that it's not enough to say that it is theoretically possible to compensate the losers under free trade (in this case American wage and salary workers) by taxing the winners (American capital holders) if steps are not taken to actually do the compensation.

But in public he remained silent on this controversial issue, as did the other two leading spokesmen for free trade, Paul Krugman and Paul Samuelson. (Samuelson actually made a speech in the East Wing of the White House on the eve of the Nafta vote , in which he made the disengenuous observation that protectionism had never caused real wages to rise. (Disengenuous because he wrote a famous paper showing that protectionism could keep real wages from falling.)

My point is that here we have the three leading trade theorists of their generation -- one South Asian and two Ashkenazie Jews -- who are taking an essentially cosmopolitan view on the issue of free trade, which involves sacrificing the welfare of the overwhelming majority (80%+ minimum )of the American people.

This bothers me a lot. I think it is potentially dangerous for the future of ethnic relations in this country. Or to put it another way: I think it is important that the talented minorities who come to this country, when they decide to become citizens, take seriously the "We" part in the phrase "We the people" that begins the Preamble to the Constitution.

BTW, I don't think it is too late. If guys like Bhagwadi would step forward and take the lead in turning the situation around -- not by coming out in opposition to free trade, but by using their authority to emphasize the importance of the principle of compensation in the theory of free trade -- then I predict that would do wonders towards cementing their acceptance by the white majority. They'd really appreciate it, I'm sure.

Posted by lukelea at 10:01 PM