Out of the Shadows

Prashad traces the Cold War origins of the 1965 immigration reform, which, while also intended to reunite European immigrant families, targeted professional workers. The result of this "state selection" was an "artificial community" of South Asian technicians and doctors whose success was then attributed by propagandists like Dinesh D'Souza to natural attributes of Asian immigrant culture.

Subsequent waves of working-class immigrants have altered the makeup of South Asian America, but what exercises Prashad is not simply the persistence of the stereotype but its political use. Like the idea of Asian America, the model minority myth was hatched in response to the Civil Rights movement (an urtext would be a 1966 U.S. News & World Report story that raved about how Chinese Americans believe "in the old idea that people should depend on their own efforts—not a welfare check."). But where the Asian American movement sought to emulate the Civil Rights movement, the model minority myth offers Asians, says Prashad, a "social contract" to be "seen as superior to blacks, a social location not unattractive to a migrant in search of some accommodation in a racist polity."

Indeed, laments Prashad, for all too many desis "the stereotype is a godsend." The Karma of Brown Folk is remarkable not only for its radical analysis of U.S. racism but of desi "bad faith." Prashad deconstructs the logic of Asian American chauvinists like D'Souza, as well as the "New Age Orientalism" of Deepak Chopra. He provides an extended meditation on the paradoxes of "reverse assimilation," in which all too often young desis counter persistent racism with a static, fetishised version of "homeland" culture.

Demonstrators at the Broadway opening of Miss Saigon in 1991
photo: Corky Lee
Demonstrators at the Broadway opening of Miss Saigon in 1991


Asian American Dreams
By Helen Zia
Farrar, Straus & Giroux,
356 pp., $26
Buy this book

The Karma of Brown Folk
By Vijay Prashad
University of Minnesota Press,
253 pp., $24.95
Buy this book

Most instructively, in a sharp analysis of the rise of what he calls Yankee Hindutva, Prashad offers an object lesson in how Asian American community-building—in this case U.S. cultural outposts of India's Hindu Right—can also build American racism: "Rather than join what should be a collective battle to reconstruct society along the lines of compassion and fellowship, Yankee Hindutva asks desi children to withdraw into Hindu enclaves to learn the ways they are greater than others."

Zia includes no similar examination of D'Souza and Chopra—nor, for example, types like GOP stalwart Susan Au Allen or anti-immigrant immigrant Yeh Ling-Ling. It's hard to suppress the feeling that Zia's steadfast focus on Asian American emergence, and her memory of isolation, has led to an important elision—not to mention a book pitched to non-Asians. Prashad, who arrived here well after the ascendancy of the model minority myth, is more discomfited by community arrogance than marginalization—just as he takes for granted that we will want to read over his shoulder as he writes to his fellow desis.

In a concluding chapter, Prashad tells the story of New York's Taxi Workers Alliance, the group that united the city's cabbies—South Asian, Haitian, West African—for an extraordinary strike in 1998. Organizers included middle-class desis—an example of cross-class, multiracial solidarity. Since then, of course, years of hopeful organizing were overwhelmed by the furor over Danny Glover's complaints about cabbie racism, leaving the TWA's campaign against the city in the dust. Clearly, many complaints have merit, but just as clearly, longstanding African American resentment of model minority privileges, real and imagined, boiled over in the dispute—which somehow allowed even Mayor Giuliani to pose as an anti-racist. Here, as preeminently in the sa-i-gu, the model minority myth has become an impediment to Asian America's own empowerment—one more reason, as if we needed it, for its death.

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