“Coalition Karma: On Vijay Prashad’s Uncle Swami”
“Coalition Karma: On Vijay Prashad’s Uncle Swami”
Tamara K. Nopper, PhD
November 3, 2013
In a 2005 issue of South Atlantic Quarterly, Vijay Prashad recounts attending the second annual South Asian Literary Festival in Washington, D.C. in November of 2001. There he was asked a “pointed question”: ‘‘‘Last year you had come here to promote your book, Karma of Brown Folk, and spent quite a long time being critical of the concept of the model minority. Now, with all these desis being harassed after 9/11, what do you think of our being a model minority?’’’ Prashad’s book Uncle Swami: South Asians in America Today takes up this question about the status of Desis–a diasporic term for South Asians–in a post-September 11 world.
The “America today” covered in Uncle Swami reportedly differs a bit from that covered in Karma. In a relatively recent interview with Brown Town Magazine reflecting on the tenth anniversary of Karma’s publication, Prashad identifies three dynamics of the current context. The first is “how after 9/11 and really after 1993,” South Asian Americans are associated with “the idea of ‘terrorist;’” the second is the unacceptability of attempting “to separate some of us from others, whether by saying we are not Muslims, they are, or by saying we are not terrorists;” and the third is South Asian Americans needing to acknowledge that “domestic racism is integrally related to imperialism.” Uncle Swami addresses these points while also remaining committed to the goals of Karma, which Prashad informs Brown Town Magazine include encouraging South Asian Americans “to be much more aware of Black struggles” so as to “not take a casually racist attitude toward the social dilemmas of African Americans” and to “shun the culture of cruelty proposed by the rise of Hindu fundamentalism, and equally all forms of social suffocation.” And like with Karma, Prashad hopes Uncle Swami will inspire “intellectual” and “praxis-oriented” solidarity and participation in “struggles alongside other communities as a part of our own experience in the US.”
This last goal of Prashad’s, to inspire coalition “from below” between Blacks and Asian Americans, is a common theme of the historian’s work and has helped make him a popular figure among progressives both in and outside of academia. Yet what, exactly, are the terms of solidarity Prashad advances in Uncle Swami and how does a particular reading of third world coalition, as well as of United States racial history, scaffold his call to arms?
The answer is partly found in a brief reference to nonalignment in his discussion of the “India lobby,” a topic which a good portion of Uncle Swami examines. The “India lobby” is comprised of Desis interested in “boosting India and the agenda of its government in the hallways of D.C.” The third chapter begins with the story of Gopal Raju, the founder of the Indian American Center for Political Action (IACPA). Raju’s goal, as reported by Prashad, was to create a lobby that mirrored the Israel lobby, a vision that led him to hire Ralph Nurnberger, “who had played a very significant role in the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).” While “young Indian Americans flooded the antechambers of congressional leaders,” the Indian government “decided it too needed to have a closer, even special, relationship with Washington, D.C.” In the early 1990s the Indian government “decided to abandon any pretense of nonalignment and to seek Washington’s favor.”
Prashad’s quick reference to nonalignment is a nod to the zeitgeist of the 1950s and 60s in which recently decolonized countries in Africa and Asia established a nonaligned movement (NAM) to chart a way forward as the “third world.” NAM was the result of the 1955 Afro-Asian Conference in which 29 “free and independent nations of Asia and Africa” met in Indonesia to map a path of cooperation amidst the Cold War conflict between the East and the West. More affectionately known as “Bandung” after the Indonesian city in which it was held, the historic gathering figures prominently in Prashad’s body of work as an event as well as a point of departure for (re)imagining radical coalition among people of color and “the darker nations.”
For example, in his foreword in the 2006 anthology AfroAsian Encounters: Culture, History, Politics, Prashad’s title declares that “Bandung is Done.” According to Prashad, Bandung is “done” due to the “cannibalization of the state under dictates from the International Monetary Fund (IMF),” which insured “these countries would always be indebted to their former colonial and now current imperial overlords.” Whereas the Bandung project was the “national liberation state,” a “major consequence of the disembowelment of the state was that ‘nationalism’ itself became transformed. The secular anticolonial Bandung era nationalism fell before the rise of a cruel cultural nationalism that drew on forms of social solidarity provided by either religion, reconstructed racism, or undiluted class power.”
Sketching how “domestic racism is integrally related to imperialism,” Prashad describes in Uncle Swami how the “India lobby” engages in the “cruel cultural nationalism” he laments in his eulogy for Bandung. In the fourth chapter, which shares the title of his aforementioned South Atlantic Quarterly article “How the Hindus became Jews,” Prashad posits that concerns about anti-Indian racism, particularly in the post-911 era, encouraged a “set of influential Indian Americans” to look to Jewish Americans as “a model for their own attempt not simply to gain respectability in mainstream America, but to gain power in Washington.” Thus the “Hindus became Jews” by creating “an image of the Indian as a victim of Muslim terrorism in South Asia,” which posed “the Indian American’s dilemma as akin to the Jewish American’s distress over ‘Muslim’ terrorism in Israel.” According to Prashad, “what allowed ‘Hindus’ and ‘Jews’ to become kin relied principally on the reduction of Palestinians and Kashmiris and Gujaratis to ‘Muslim.’” Thus, the “Hindu” is constructed in a way that conflates a particular ideology with “being Indian”: “conservative activists of the Hindu Right…claim that regardless of one’s religion or politics, any Indian is culturally a Hindu.” This construction of “Indianness” not only exemplifies the “cruel cultural nationalism” Prashad is rightly opposed to, but how “events and processes that appear to be fundamentally outside the story of the United States, at least after 9/11, are a fundamental component of domestic race and racism.”
Another target of Uncle Swami is the “compulsions of ethnicity.” The title of the book’s fifth chapter and a demand interrogated in other works by Prashad, the “compulsions of ethnicity” is related to the rise of “cruel cultural nationalism.” “Compulsions of ethnicity” is the expectation that solidarity must be maintained among the ethnic group despite ideological differences or the indifference some members have for others. Rejecting this expectation, Prashad assesses the careers of Indian American GOP governors Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley and is rightfully critical of their austerity agendas as well as the expectation that South Asian Americans should politically support the two.
Uncle Swami is not the first time Jindal has appeared in Prashad’s writing. In the first chapter of Karma, he is referred to as “Piyush Jindal” (which the politician later changed to “Bobby,” as in The Brady Bunch). There Jindal is “a smart-aleck,” who, when asked by his elementary school teacher, “‘Why is it that all Indians are so smart and well-behaved?” tells her, “it was the food.” Prashad draws this anecdote from a 1998 issue of Brown University’s alumni magazine, which reported on a speech that Jindal, a 1992 graduate, delivered at his alma mater for Asian American History Month. The magazine relays Jindal’s remarks about growing up as a South Asian American and his reflections on where Asian Americans are situated in race politics. As the magazine reports, “The patchwork of anecdotes…coalesced in a serious point: ‘I can’t tell you how to be Asian American,’ Jindal said. ‘No longer are we [clustered] in certain professions or geographies.’ Looking out into the audience of future Asian-American leaders, Jindal smiled. ‘I hope you’re excited about the diversity, too.’”
In Uncle Swami, Bobby Jindal is all grown up. He is no longer the young “smart-aleck;” now he’s the governor of Louisiana, elected in 2007 shortly after Hurricane Katrina and several years after Karma was published. In that book Prashad introduces Jindal as an Asian child subjected to a racializing query meant to remind the future first Indian American governor of his outsider status. By Uncle Swami, Jindal is the political prodigal son, exemplifying a point Prashad made in his Brown Town Magazine interview: “there is a great deal of dynamism in how one is political.” Prashad’s critical discussion of Jindal’s political career in Uncle Swami demonstrates how internal diversity–often concealed and repressed in the formation of the “Indian as Hindu”–can be strategically championed to advance the interests of global capitalists and represses political dissent among co-ethnics.
Like other conservative and neoliberal people of color, Jindal is what Prashad described in his preface to AfroAsian Encounters as “the comprador figure for global capital.” This set of “managers of color” represents “bureaucratic multiculturalism,” which perverts the Bandung ethos by reinterpreting antiracism as “the promotion of diversity,” a process involving “radical traditions within the world of color” being “cast out in favor of traditional social forms that appealed to authority and order.” Put more bluntly: “Multiculturalism embraced bourgeois cultural diversity as long as white supremacy and corporate power could be set aside and generally left out of any discussion.” As shown in Uncle Swami, compulsions of ethnicity serve to muffle critiques of white supremacy and corporate power vis-à-vis a crude ethnic solidarity.
Given what Fred Moten describes as “the constant deputization of academic laborers into the apparatuses of police power” and as Prashad discusses elsewhere, “The global war against teachers,” reading a book penned by an academic that is openly critical of racism, neoliberalism, and foreign policy can be simultaneously informative and inspiring. And Prashad’s effort to unearth past, and envision new “radical traditions within the world of color” as a counter to both “cruel cultural nationalism” and South Asian Americans’ indifference to the “social dilemmas of African Americans” makes Uncle Swami a rather seductive read. Despite Prashad having proclaimed “Bandung is done,” and despite not being emphasized in the book, Bandung as a model of “intellectual” and “praxis-oriented” solidarity lives on in Uncle Swami.
But what does it mean to resuscitate a Bandung ethos, to reclaim that seemingly special moment between Blacks and Asians as a point of departure? And what do we have to ignore about the historic gathering to proceed?
First, we would have to ignore that only Asian countries (Indonesia, Pakistan, India, Burma (now Myanmar), and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka)) organized the conference. Second, we would have to ignore that African Americans were not invited as a class of people. Though some attended and recalled in memoirs and interviews of being treated well, they did so as journalists and observers. African Americans’ circumscribed presence was partly due to the organizers of Bandung boldly not inviting Western countries (including the United States) to attend, a move that rankled President Dwight Eisenhower, who, at the counsel of U.S. diplomats publicly feigned support.
Yet we must also consider the relative absence of African Americans at Bandung to be indicative of a lack of insight (or perhaps concern) on behalf of the organizing Asian countries to grapple with the racial status of African Americans. The parameters of the conference, which emphasized sovereignty and nation building in a decolonizing world, did not adequately address what Saidiya Hartman terms the afterlife of slavery as a post-emancipation feature of the world economy. While—on paper—citizens of the United States, African Americans as the descendants of slaves are what Hartman describes as “strangers” to the world: they experience a global devaluation and civic homelessness based on a “racial calculus and a political arithmetic that were entrenched centuries ago.”
Some may think my reading of Bandung as unfair given that Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru remarked at the gathering on the tragedy of the Middle Passage and as he put it, the burden of the world to deal with its impact. They may point out that the final communiqué, while condemning “racialism” and “segregation,” does not directly address African Americans or slavery because Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. (who attended without much support from the U.S. government) worked to counter-act Chinese delegate Zhou En-lai’s resolution to connect the colonialism of Africa with the status of African Americans. While Powell went so far as to hold a press conference to promote the image of the United States as moving towards racial equality (even citing his own status as an elected official), his actions were reportedly motivated by a concern about Black fungibility, in this case that the Soviet Union and communist Asian countries would exploit the African American experience in order to promote their own agendas against the United States vis-à-vis moral posturing.
Whatever the case, given the emphasis on sovereignty and cooperation between independent nations, Bandung could have easily proceeded regardless if African Americans were present or in support because ultimately it was colonialism, not (the afterlife of) slavery, that was the preoccupation of organizers. Indeed, as an “Afro-Asian” gathering, Bandung barely involved Blacks from the continent of Africa. Only six out of the twenty-nine countries formally participating were African nations (and most were Arab African countries). While this was partially due to African nations still waging battles against decolonization, the absence of African nations among the twenty-nine countries should give us pause about what, exactly, constitutes an “Afro-Asian” project to be celebrated and memorialized. Whatever is concluded, the absence of Africans at Bandung did not go unnoticed at the time. As ex-pat and Bandung attendee Richard Wright wrote in his book about the conference, The Color Curtain, “Africa was barely represented.”
Thus, glorifying Bandung as a point of departure for reconstituting progressive coalition and a “national liberation” ethos requires a sentimental reading of the affair. There is some cause for sentimentality, given the realpolitik of world affairs and the effort of almost thirty African and Asian countries to build international and interracial coalitions under unenviable circumstances, in this case the violent realities of the Cold War and racist and deadly opposition from above against decolonization movements. Indeed, a strength of Prashad’s discussion of Bandung is his breadth of knowledge about the major figures involved in the Afro-Asian conference and their country’s nationalist movements. Nevertheless, the sentimental reading of Bandung and third world coalition promotes a particular understanding of Black/non-Black coalition.
Like numerous other works calling for non-Blacks to “resist” the pull of whiteness and instead align ourselves with African Americans, Prashad’s Uncle Swami relies on a mythical shared moment–Bandung–between Blacks and Asians that was disrupted and must now be pieced back together against the emergence of “bureaucratic multiculturalism.” According to Prashad, to resist whiteness and “bureaucratic multiculturalism,” South Asian Americans should build coalitions with non-comprador Blacks and other oppressed groups. We are to assume, then, that gestures of solidarity from non-Blacks toward African Americans are never animated by anti-Black aggression as interracial coalition “from below” can only be read, per Uncle Swami, as the rejection of white supremacy.
Yet in the last decade since The Karma of Brown Folk was published, a body of work that could loosely be termed Afro-pessimism has been produced, most notably by African American Studies scholars Frank B. Wilderson, III (who developed the concept) and Jared Sexton. A complex approach, Afro-pessimism seeks to demonstrate the “singularity of racial slavery” as the basis of a globalized racial antagonism (as opposed to conflict) between Blacks and non-Blacks. Relevant to Uncle Swami, Afro-pessimist writers have interrogated the non-Black demand for interracial coalition as a possible disciplinary gesture against African Americans and Black radicalism. In the process, topics that are common areas of inquiry for Prashad (globalization, incarceration, the war on terror, progressive movements, Black/non-Black coalition, and popular culture) have been addressed. Yet Prashad noticeably does not engage this work in Uncle Swami. If anything, the book could have only been written by ignoring it.
Consider, for instance, how racism and Black-Asian relations in the United States are historicized in Uncle Swami. Like many scholars concerned with the continuity of racism in the post-civil rights era, Prashad suggests that the present period is marked by “new racism” in which explicit references to biology are often replaced with coded language regarding culture, behavior, and temperament and the state seeks to prevent “enfranchised” African Americans from fully accessing its more progressive social welfare programs. An example of coded language used to promote an austerity state is the model minority myth discourse, which posits certain minority groups provide for other minority groups a model for assimilation by rejecting outside forms of support and instead relying on a combination of human capital and ethnic social capital (families, ethnic networks, ethnic pride, and culture) to mediate their outsider status.
The model minority myth has been a deserved target of Prashad’s scholarship, most notably in Karma where he famously states that it positions Asian Americans as “the perpetual solution to what is seen as the crisis of black America…a weapon in the war against black America.” Prashad rightfully deconstructs the model minority myth as anti-Black and concealing of the state’s involvement in social inequality. To this end, he argues in Uncle Swami (as he did in Karma) that what many perceive to be “natural” model minority characteristics predisposing Asian Americans to social mobility are actually the result of “state selection, whereby the United States, through the special skills provision in the 1965 Immigration Act, fundamentally configured the demography of Indian America…Those who hold power in the United States use the anomalous demographic of professional desis to show that we succeed while other minorities fail.”
By emphasizing the model minority myth as an example of the “new racism,” Prashad neglect its deployment before the publication of what he describes as “one of the first positive articles about Asians”: the oft cited (in Asian American Studies) 1966 U.S. News & World Report commentary titled “Success Story of One Minority Group in U.S.” While this article (as well as others appearing the same year) championed different Asian American ethnic groups for reportedly being self-reliant and rejecting government intervention so as to condemn African Americans and the Civil Rights Movement, the logic of the model minority myth preceded its publication. Specifically, the claim that Asian Americans’ retention of ethnic cultures brought from elsewhere was key to our “not ending up like Blacks” has appeared in sociological research since at least the 1930s. In short, even during periods of civic ostracism of Asian Americans through racist immigration and citizenship policies (which Uncle Swami discusses), we were nevertheless regarded by some as more assimilable than African Americans due to our presumed cultural retention as immigrants or as the descendants of immigrants—and the belief that we had “good culture” to retain in the first place.
My point is not to quibble about when the model minority myth first appeared in discourse. Rather, I am questioning how Uncle Swami conceptualizes the status of Blacks in comparison to Asians as it traces the rise of “cruel cultural nationalism” and “bureaucratic multiculturalism” among people of color and encourages progressive interracial solidarity. Whatever his intentions, Prashad’s consideration of Blacks and Asian Americans involves what Sexton refers to as a “refusal to admit to significant differences of structural position born of discrepant histories between blacks and their political allies, actual or potential.”
Case in point: Prashad states in Uncle Swami that before the 1965 Immigration Act and other such policies, Indians in the United States “were regarded as blacks, but after them we could aspire to whiteness.” But one cannot conclude that Asian Americans were “regarded as blacks” before the 1965 Immigration Act unless selectively mining some court decisions and ignoring the “singularity of racial slavery” as an experience specific to African descendants. Further, the aforementioned selectivity of the 1965 Immigration Act is overstated in Prashad’s account. While there were specific provisions that favored particular immigrants, his over-emphasis on this specific act and on this time period neglects that immigration policy has always been and is inherently selective and that immigrants enter the United States positioned above African Americans due to not entering the country as slaves—as the property of someone else—but rather as representatives of another nation.
Here we see some of the limitations of Prashad’s mapping of the relationship between domestic racism and imperialism in Uncle Swami. Like many other scholars intent on reclaiming the “hidden history” of solidarity among non-whites, Prashad relies to an extent on the colonial analogy in his references to nonalignment and Black-Asian American relations. Popularized in the 1960s and 1970s by scholars and radical activists and artists, the colonial analogy posits that non-whites in the United States constitute a “third world within.” This colonial analogy is a version of the white/non-white model of race relations, which has been called into question by Afro-pessimists as well as other scholars who conclude that the U.S. racial hierarchy is structured by a Black/non-Black divide (another point ignored in Uncle Swami). By (quietly) emphasizing the rupture of the Bandung moment and the rise of “cruel cultural nationalism,” Uncle Swami echoes a version of the colonial analogy that minimizes the “singularity of racial slavery” by subsuming it under a general oppressed status, i.e., colonized. In doing so, Prashad ignores a caveat of Kwame Ture and Charles V. Hamilton’s 1967 (1992) book Black Power, in which they applied the colonial model to African Americans in U.S. ghettos. As they stated, “When some people compare the black American to ‘other immigrant’ groups in this country, they overlook the fact that slavery was peculiar to the blacks. No other minority group in this country was treated as legal property.” While Sexton has rightfully addressed the limitations of the colonial analogy for dealing with the afterlife of slavery, it is telling that Uncle Swami draws from a colonial analogy approach employing a white/non-white framework than that of Ture and Hamilton’s.
Although Prashad acknowledges in Uncle Swami that African Americans are “the descendants of enslaved people,” his analysis nevertheless fails to recognize that immigrants or their offspring, no matter how despised they may be, are inherently valorized compared to African Americans because they are not associated with the material realities or social stigma of slavery. Unlike immigrants who represent sovereign nations or even those coming from occupied territories, African Americans as the descendants of slaves are, again, what Hartman describes as global “strangers.” Or, as James Baldwin put it in 1967, the African American “has, effectively, no recourse and no place to go, either within the country or without. He is a pariah in his own country and a stranger in the world.” If Prashad had taken such points into account, he would have had to consider how immigrant–as opposed to slave–origins serve as a condition of possibility for Desis in the United States to establish and participate in the “India lobby” of which he is critical.
Overall, despite his best effort to encourage readers “to be much more aware of Black struggles” and to “not take a casually racist attitude toward the social dilemmas of African Americans,” Prashad actually obscures, through the colonial analogy, Black suffering. By doing so he engages in what Sexton terms “people of color blindness”: a “form of colorblindness inherent to the concept of ‘people of color’” that “misunderstands the specificity of antiblackness and presumes or insists upon the monolithic character of victimization under white supremacy–thinking (the afterlife of) slavery as a form of exploitation or colonization or a species of racial oppression among others.” In trying to demonstrate how domestic racism and imperialism are intertwined and to trace the breakdown of Black-Asian solidarity so as to revive it, Uncle Swami ultimately misses what Sexton notes “is essential about the situation”: “Black existence does not represent the total reality of the racial formation—it is not the beginning and the end of the story—but it does relate to the totality; it indicates the (repressed) truth of the political and economic system. That is to say, the whole range of positions within the racial formation is most fully understood from this vantage point.” Simply put, regardless of which group is written about, analysis of racism that resists dealing with the “singularity of racial slavery” is doomed to be, at best, extremely limited in its usefulness for understanding white supremacy. Future work exploring contemporary racism, Black-Asian American relations, and progressive politics will greatly benefit from taking up this point, raised by Sexton and other Afro-pessimist scholars, so as to avoid this coalition karma.