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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Trinity professor talks about 9/11, racism

Published: March 4, 2011
Section: News

Professor Vijay Prashad, the George and Martha Kellner Chair in South Asian History and Professor of International Relations at Trinity College in Connecticut, delivered a lecture In Rapaporte Treasure Hall Thursday on the racism faced by those of “olive skin” as he described them, following the attacks of Sept. 11’ entitled “The Day Our Probation Ended,” he also touched on the overall development of South Asian communities within the United States, and the changes associated with different generations of migrant groups.

Towards the beginning of his speech Prashad told, in the same booming and confident voice which characterized his entire speech, a story to encapsulate the sentiments towards anyone who looked potentially like a terrorist following Sept. 11. The story was of an experience on a train in New York City eleven days after the attacks.

“Along the way—I can’t remember when—a troop of policemen came onto the train. The train was at a station. They asked various people to follow them onto the platform. I was among them. We were asked some basic questions, and then told to get back on the train … There was fear, and there was anxiety. Would I, like so many others, be then sent off to a deportation detention center?”

He then extrapolated his own experience into the broader picture of a movement that had started.

“News reports of such removals had begun to sneak around … A Sikh man had already been killed in Arizona. Mistaken identity was the order of the day.”

He also mentioned briefly and somewhat comically that none of the hijackers from the Sept. 11 attacks were in fact from South Asia.

Prashad described some of the feelings of those of specifically Indian descent living in America during this time.

“The general sentiment among Indian Americans was dismay. Racism against the olive skin had begun to rise…By 1998 thirty-two percent of all assaults on Asian Americans took place against South Asians compared to about four and a half percent in 1995…”

He summed up a few major responses of the community. One response was to try to place all of the blame on Muslims, and concurrently de-secularize their communities in an effort to be more Hindu. Another response by some was to essentially wait it out, and hope that eventually things would settle down while others attempted to create more of an open dialogue about racial profiling, relating their plight to the plight of racial profiling against other minority groups in the US. However, Prashad states that “the majority tried to camouflage their outward signs in patriotism” expressing love for America and support of the government.

While this strand of racism against olive-skinned people was a major point throughout the speech, he also focused on the evolution of the South Asian community in the United States. He explained how from 1924 to 1965 Indian immigrants were barred from the United States, but that they were then allowed in, provided they would take up positions helping to develop technology which would help the United States in competition with the Soviet Union.

Despite the initial attitude of immigrants to generally look back home to their own individual country of origin, by the nineties South Asian Americans began to crystallize as a group in the US. He described the active nature of students on college campuses who brought South Asians together in South Asian Student Associations across the country, and also the influx of politically active South Asians.

“By the 1990s as these young people left college it was hard to walk into a non-profit organization anywhere in the United States and not find a South Asian American on the staff. It was equally difficult to find a civil rights legal office without a South Asian American. Making the best of their advantages and unlike many of their parents they threw themselves into the wider political world…Unlike their parents they had lived with the contradiction of coming of age in the United States. No privilege, without recognition for most of them. But the children of 1965 had antecedents for this category South Asian American.” He then went on to describe various movements of the previous generation which preceded the wide-reaching youth movement. Later he mentioned the political change since the nineties and the quest for South Asians to become part of the country through struggling with the country.

Overall, Prashad came to the conclusion that while racism has declined because of post-9/11 responses to these attitudes, those responses did not go at the core problem, which he feels is essentially imperialism.

During the question period, Professor Rosenberger of the International and Global Studies Department asked about this theory, wanting Prashad to give a definition of imperialism with the thought in mind that India has a vast growth rate in its economy versus the United States. Prashad claimed that in the globalized world, imperialism has taken on a new form through outsourcing jobs and removing the products and profit from the majority of the people of those countries.

“What is imperialism? Imperialism is now not the same as imperialism before 1973, but it’s imperialism nonetheless. It’s never the case that the central country of an empire benefits everybody in the empire. It’s always been the case that certain classes inside the core benefit. Now those classes are mobile…and they’re unfettered from social commitments, and that’s the genius of 21st century imperialism.”

Overall, Professor Prashad presented an interesting viewpoint of the problems faced by South Asian Americans and the roles of racism and imperialism in recent history.