Thursday, March 9, 2017

Intolerance Rising

“First they came for the Socialists…”, began a famous quote from the late pastor Martin Niemoller, a one-time supporter of Hitler who became a concentration camp survivor. By the time Niemoller was carted off by the Nazis, “there was no one left to speak for me.” In recent weeks, at gatherings of immigrants of color, including those in my Indian-American community, many are asking: “Can it happen to me? Will it?” No, there are no jackboots at the door; at least not for legal immigrants. But an odor of intolerance wafts in the air.

At every social gathering over the past few weeks my wife and I have engaged in worried conversations: What do you think is happening? Some say, oh, don’t be alarmed, this country is great, it has laws, checks and balances, we’ll have to be patient. Others aren’t so sure. Can the checks and balances bottle and seal bubbling hatred?

Take that incident in Kansas. Two young men are winding down with beer in a bar when another man says “Get out of my country” before shooting one dead and wounding the other. Or hear what happened to the Sikh man shot in his own yard. Remember the massacre in the Sikh temple? And, do you know what happened in…? The tales roll out.

Indian-Americans are by and large jolly folk, happy to be called a ‘model immigrant community.’ They may not exactly reflect India’s diverse economic and social reality, because most are lucky to come from chosen classes and castes, but they are from all major Indian linguistic and religious groups, the latter including Hindus, Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, Zoroastrians. Going by exit polls, a few, not a majority, voted for Donald Trump, some hoping for low taxes, others out of a held-over attitude of intolerance toward Muslims.

Few came to this country as refugees, economic or political. True, some escaped Idi Amin’s Uganda in the 1970s to settle here via the United Kingdom. They now own a majority of motels and hotels in the U.S. Most others came out of choice. They could enter this country because they were among those fortunate Indians who got a reasonably good education while growing up and came to the United States for higher studies. Many moved through a complicated visa and green card process to become highly productive American citizens.

For the first time, many [Indian Americans] are waking up to smell an air polluted by intolerance that other minorities have long had to live with.

Indian Americans never thought they would have conversations like the kind so many are having now. Suddenly, they fear they may be just another bunch of not-quite-real Americans, and no longer a model minority. For the first time, many are waking up to smell an air polluted by intolerance that other minorities have long had to live with.

Most of them didn’t have to encounter the travails of belonging to a minority back in India. They knew there was intolerance there. Many Muslims, low-caste people and women not from privileged classes, still face discrimination or worse in India.

But, here in the land of the free? Here, where in its Declaration of Independence the nation announces “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal.”? Where, even though the word ‘democracy’ doesn’t appear in the Constitution, that revered document served as a prefab model for other democratic constitutions the world over, including India’s?

I suspect such questions buzz at gatherings of most colored, i.e.non-European origin, immigrants. At my neighborhood coffee shop, some of us regulars drift to one another’s table to chat about the weather and life. Some of us are from other parts of the world, others are white-Christian Americans. In that coffee shop, all are, or believe we are, open-minded and tolerant. That’s why we were shocked the other day when we heard about an incident that some in our group had witnessed.

Here in Chevy Chase, in a coffee shop on the border of the nation’s capital, two young, white women were having a serious conversation about what to do in the Trumpian age. A tough looking, middle-aged man at a nearby table decided to interfere by objecting to the women’s criticism of President Trump.

But they were having a private conversation, the women said. Would he mind staying out?

No, said the man. They were criticizing Mr Trump and he, as a strong supporter, had to object. Back and forth it went for a while until the women decided to leave.

My coffee buddy Greg, a tall, strong bicyclist and a white Christian, chatted with me about the incident a few days later. “Don’t worry,” he said, “they think they can take this country back to an age they imagine was theirs. No way, they won’t succeed.”

Greg teaches tolerance through community-building at his local church. I hope he’s right.

Gautam Adhikari, a former newspaper editor in India, is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. His books include ‘The Intolerant Indian’ (HarperCollins, 2011)

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