Caste in America

Growing up in India, I sensed, long before I had words to express it, that caste and its realities were at glaring odds with the secular, liberal democratic society the country seemed on the way to forging. I used to think that if I ignored caste, it would somehow go away. As a society, in my lifetime, we would surely come to see what a terrible thing it was, how unjust, how divisive. We would, I imagined, outgrow it.

How wrong I was.

Now Isabel Wilkerson, author of Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents is nudging me to think of caste, the concept, to use it as a lens for looking at power and privilege, oppression and history, in the country to which I immigrated back on 1979.

In a Throughline podcast interview, Wilkerson says:

“So much of the history that we have received, as Americans, has been from a singular perspective, and we are only now beginning to hear the voices of people who have been in the shadows–not seen, not heard. And that means we have not had the full history. We have not had the full experience of knowing what the complete picture is of our country…”

She looked at India, and at Nazi Germany, trying to understand how institutionalized hierarchy uses the language of oppression. No coincidence that the Nazis studied Jim Crow laws, or that Martin Luther King, Jr., on his famous visit to India in 1959, suddenly found himself thinking that he himself was a kind of untouchable in his own country.

In India, I see that Wilkerson’s book is subtitled The Lies That Divide Us.

Wilkerson says, “This is the house that we have inherited.” I am presuming, then, as a woman who left India for America, to lay claim to more than one house. They are both crumbling structures, and Wilkerson has convinced me that caste has been foundational to them both. She, however, sees “caste” as a more useful term than race, because to her, it’s simply descriptive. It doesn’t come loaded with emotional baggage. Me? I think that long-lasting damage wreaked in the name of caste and caste divisions, the crimes committed–all of it still exists. At this moment, one of my countries is waking up to the existence of this wound upon its being–the other, alas, is leaning into the structure of caste. That structure may, in fact, be more adaptable, and therefore more malleable and capable of manipulation, than Dr. King could have foreseen in 1959.

Racism as a Covid-19 Side-effect, Part II: Paula Yoo on Vincent Chin and the Importance of Speaking Out Against Injustice

In early 2017, the name of a 27-year old Chinese American man in Detroit, Vincent Chin, made headlines. A rash of violent hate crimes aimed at Indian American men had just happened within weeks of each other. In February 2017, two Indian men, Srinivas Kuchibhotla and Alok Madasani, were shot in a bar outside of Kansas City after the shooter reportedly yelled, “Get out of my country.” Srinivas Kuchibhotla died in the hospital soon after he was shot. The suspect was charged with premeditated first-degree murder, and subsequently sentenced to life in prison in 2018. A month after the 2017 attack, Harnish Patel, an Indian man who had lived in the United States with his family for fourteen years, was shot and killed outside of his home in Lancaster, South Carolina.

Paula Yoo (author of Twenty-two Cents: Muhammad Yunus and the Village Bank) sent me an excerpt from her YA nonfiction proposal for a book about Vincent Chin, currently under contract :

[Photo courtesy of Paula Yoo. Button ©InclusiveRandomness]

“Since the February death of Srinivas Kuchibhotla, the first bias fatality of the Trump era, one question has been coursing through South Asian-American circles: was this hate-crime killing in Olathe, Kansas their ‘Vincent Chin moment’?” Arun Venugopal, a race reporter with WNYC and a contributor to NPR. “Chin was a Chinese-American in Detroit who was beaten to death by two white men in 1982. His death is credited with sparking a pan-Asian-American activist movement.”

That book is now due out in 2021 from W.W. Norton & Co.’s new children’s book imprint called Norton Young Readers. Paula writes:

Vincent Chin was beaten to death with a baseball bat by two white autoworkers in Detroit in 1982. Although the two men pled guilty to manslaughter, the judge gave them a fine of about $3000 and a sentence of three years probation. This shockingly lenient sentence angered the Asian American community in Detroit. Their anger led to activism as they joined forces to fight for Vincent’s justice, leading to the first federal civil rights trial for an Asian American. The first trial resulted in a guilty conviction for the killer (the man who held the bat) in 1984. But the killer never spent a day in jail because the conviction was appealed and overturned in 1986 due to a legal technicality.

Still, Vincent’s death was not in vain – he became a symbol of justice for the Asian American community. There have been two documentaries about this case, one of which was nominated for an Academy Award. In the almost 40 years since his death, Vincent Chin’s name is always mentioned whenever anti-Asian racism happens.

His name has been in the news this year ever since Trump insisted on referring to Covid-19 with the racist moniker, “The Chinese Virus,” at press briefings, which has led to a rise in almost 1,500 anti-Asian hate crimes being reported this year according to statistics from the FBI and the “Stop AAPI Hate” crime tracker provided by the Asian Pacific Policy & Planning Council. Although what happened to Vincent was tragic, his killing provided the spark which galvanized the Asian American movement and the #AAPI community. His name and his story remind us never to be complacent whenever we witness anti-Asian racism… that we must always speak out and fight back against injustice.

It’s happening right now. Again. When we talk about getting “back to normal,” after Covid-19 is behind us, we ought to think long and hard about what kind of normal we want.

Power, Agency, and Life’s Big Questions in Hearts Unbroken by Cynthia Leitich Smith

cynthia_leitich_smith_editing-607x400.jpgMy friend and colleague Cynthia Leitich Smith has long been an articulate voice for change in the field of writing for young readers. Cyn is practically a publishing industry all by herself, with picture books, short stories, realistic novels, poetry, and an astonishingly comprehensive online archive of children’s and YA literature resources. Her Tantalize/Feral novels and graphic novels take a Bram Stoker inspired magical world and populate it with ghosts, vampires, were-creatures of all kinds, demon dogs, shapeshifters and fallen angels—in the process, they give power to female characters and reflect back upon the real world, raising questions of trust, betrayal, and community. Her chapter book of interlinked stories, Indian Shoes, presents a warm, funny relationship between the generations, while upending old tropes about Native peoples and Indian artifacts.

As Cynthia puts it: “the industry must move past the tendency to put creatives in genre boxes as well as to underestimate Native authors and authors of color. We are not here to exclusively write books about landmark historical events with obvious social studies tie-ins. We can rock those stories, but we can also do so much more and do it spectacularly.”

Hearts UnbrokenAnd she does. Hearts Unbroken is about Louise Wolfe, suburban Muscogee Creek girl, doing her best to make her way in a largely white high school. Lou has aspirations and talents, a loving family, and, above all, a mind of her own. The prejudice around her, both unthinking and intentional, awakens Lou’s inner activist. At the same time as she’s taking determined steps to achieve her journalistic ambitions, she is forced to question herself, and the answers aren’t always comfortable. Context is offered by a delightful younger brother, cousins and others in the extended family, a lively and contentious school community, and the whole, messy context of the real political world. A diverse array of secondary characters include irascible school paper editor, Karishma Sawkar, neglected best friend Shelby, journalism teacher Ms. Wilson, heedless ex-boyfriend Cam, and Lou’s current love interest, Joey Kairouz. It’s America in microcosm, with all the inherent contradictions you might expect. For an additional treat, readers of Rain is Not My Indian Name will be delighted to see Cassidy Rain Berghoff make a cameo appearance in this book.

Through Lou’s character, Hearts Unbroken articulates questions about representation and voice and the human tendency to pronounce judgment with limited information. Questions about history and privilege, about who has power and why. Questions that push back against the daily indignities, large and small, so often inflicted upon minorities in America, and push back as well on commonly held historical myths and emblems of public nostalgia. This novel left me, to quote Cyn herself, “heartened, optimistically Unbroken, and a believer in the power of Story.”