The model minority myth

On October 24, Judge Jed Rakoff sentenced Rajat Gupta to two years in prison. He was indicted by federal prosecutors for giving confidential information and insider trading tips. Gupta was raised in Kolkata and educated at top universities like the Indian Institute of Technology and Harvard Business School. He was one of the first Indians to achieve unprecedented success at the highest levels in the investment banking and private equity world. He served as the chief executive of the internationally known consulting company, McKinsey and then became one of the directors of Goldman Sachs.

On October 15, Vikram Pandit, the chief executive of Citibank, was fired from his position. A native of Nagpur, Pandit had a degree from another elite university, Columbia. Neha Thirani, in a New York Times blog, wrote that Pandit "was one of India's shining overseas corporate success stories, part of a growing group of executives of Indian birth or ancestry who have led American institutions in recent years".

While there are considerable differences between Gupta and Pandit, they had one thing in common. Both had relentlessly pursued the so-called American dream by aspiring to be "model minority" immigrants. Since 1965, there have been waves of upper-and middle-class Indian immigrants who believe that the best way to be assimilated into American society is to adopt the narrative of the model minority. So what does it mean to be one?

In my book, American Karma: Race, Culture, and Identity in the Indian Diaspora, I outline four important facets of the model minority myth. First, Indian immigrants believe that they are talented, that they work hard and have made it in America solely on merit. The idea here is that through hard work and cultural values, model or "good" minority communities can rise above their difficult circumstances. Consequently, minority communities that may not have a plethora of success stories are seen as lazy, lacking in the right cultural values, not naturally bright, and enjoying the benefits of welfare. Many Indians in America neglect to acknowledge that back home they were part of an educated middle class, that they were cherry-picked by the state to gain entry in the US. They furthered their advantages by acquiring a world-class education subsidised by scholarships. This propelled them into well-paying white collar jobs, which brought other symbols of success, such as fancy cars and palatial houses. Educated, professional Indian immigrants have a different economic and educational starting point than many other low-income minorities in the US. It is unfair to compare the achievements of a small group of elite professionals with the educational and economic attainments of other underrepresented minority groups who have been oppressed and marginalised for centuries.

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