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Violence and the Unmaking of Asian-American Exceptionalism

As I watched Pat Buchanan address the Republican National Convention three decades ago, I cried. I can still see his doughy face and fixed expression fill the TV screen as he urged his almost all-white audience: “We must take back our cities and take back our culture and take back our country.” Buchanan’s hardline anti-immigrant bid for the Republican nomination had been unsuccessful, but he was still waging his campaign to reclaim America’s Judeo-Christian identity. At the time, I believed that he aimed his “we” and his “our” against me and my family. I felt it viscerally; in that long limbo after immigrating, my body was in a perpetually queasy state. I was seventeen, too young to vote but already made and unmade by the politics of race—by the coded language of candidates as well as by the racism that it enabled, racism as overtly menacing as the graffiti that once defaced our house. “Hindus Go Home,” it directed.

In the late 1980s, in and around our neighborhood in Jersey City, New Jersey, our anonymous terrorizers and others who shared their hate at first used words as weapons. Then they deployed baseball bats, bricks, metal pipes, acid, their fists, their spit. A handwritten letter sent to the local newspaper published in August 1987 stated the goal: “We will go to any extreme to get Indians to move out of Jersey City.” The manifesto’s author revealed that his gang, in search of targets, scanned the phone book for Indian last names. They called themselves the Dotbusters—the name, like the slur “dothead,” a riff on the red dot customarily worn on the forehead by some observant Hindu women. The writer bragged that there would be three “Patel attacks” later that night. A few days later, several blocks from us, a man with the last name Patel was beaten with a metal pipe while he slept in his home. After the newspaper published the Dotbusters letter, the attacks escalated: while walking down the street, a medical resident was beaten with a baseball bat, and a Citicorp employee out for drinks with a friend was pummeled with bricks. The first man emerged from his coma; the second didn’t.

The incidents were among the most tragic in a years-long campaign of everyday intimidation that victimized South Asians of varying religions and nationalities but collapsed all into a “weak race”—to quote the Dotbusters manifesto—of “Hindus,” used interchangeably with “Indians.” The graffiti got my family partly right. We are Hindu but home was Guyana, on the northeastern coast of South America. Our ancestors left India four to five generations ago, as indentured workers contractually bound to labor in sugarcane fields, in a system denounced as a “new form of slavery” by British abolitionists. This history drew us close to Black Americans, opening possibilities for kinship even before we came to the United States. Like them, we are grandchildren of toil on plantations and grandchildren, too, of transoceanic traffic in the cargo holds of ships servicing empire and industry. This wrinkle in identity was lost on the bigots. Had they known, would it even have mattered? They encircled us. We were spat at on the street. Once, my father had to run from white teenagers who pulled knives on him outside the corner shop—but, all things considered, we had been lucky. We escaped unhurt, physically.

In the late summer of 1992, when Buchanan spoke, we had been in the United States for a decade. My parents, new citizens, had done the remarkable. That year through some uncanny frugality, my mother’s frequent overtime as a clerk in New York’s garment district, and my father’s two jobs as a medical technologist at separate hospitals, they had paid off the mortgage on our house. It was a small red clapboard box that sat on the Palisades above the Hudson River, eyeing Manhattan. The house was humble and a little crowded—but it was ours, the first we had ever owned, in any country.

This was a matter of some pride for my parents because we had arrived in the United States with very little money. The regime we had fled allowed emigrants to leave with only the equivalent of $30 per person––and we were four. Nor did we have intergenerational wealth. What we did have was a support network in a large extended family. An aunt who came before us took us into her one-bedroom apartment when we landed, just as we took in relatives who came after us. My childhood taught me that family is figurative wealth. Only later did I realize that kin—who could provide first shelter, sponsor for green cards, and even cosign mortgages—could also, more concretely, be capital. I came to understand this as our privilege.

Growing up, however, I did not imagine us privileged. Instead, my psyche had been shaped by an acute sense that dispossession was our inheritance. We came from a community that had been twice displaced. Our right to belong had been challenged more than once, first by a racist dictatorship in Guyana, then by the Dotbusters in the Jersey City Heights. To buy a house, in the United States no less, was to assert belonging, somewhere special, somewhere safe. Descended from the history we were, becoming homeowners had symbolic, almost existential, weight. But the house was also a material claim to America, and I believe that vandals may have covered it in xenophobic graffiti—and thrown eggs, garbage, bricks, and firebombs at other South Asian homes and businesses in the city––because owning property triggered insecurities about being surpassed. We had left behind the 70 percent of our neighbors who rented, a statistic that eluded me at the time.

My parents had bought the house from a Polish American widow, the most recent in a long line of second- and third-generation Americans who had lived there in the century since it was built. All had been skilled contributors, according to census data, to the city’s recently vanished industrial and manufacturing heyday: an electrician, a railroad clerk, longshoremen, a tool maker in a boiler works, a watchmaker. Mainly Catholic, like Buchanan, their parents and grandparents had migrated from Ireland, Italy, and Eastern Europe. By the 1980s, when we followed in their footsteps to this city behind the Statue of Liberty’s back, historically a blue-collar immigrant gateway, it may have seemed like the pace of the American Dream had accelerated. We may have appeared to be living it, in the first generation.

Read entire article at Boston Review