The hypocrisy of July 4th
“What, to the American slave, is the Fourth of July?” queried acclaimed author, speaker, and abolitionist Frederick Douglass when invited to speak at an anti-slavery conference in 1852. It was the 76th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
In the rest of his speech, Douglass illustrated the hypocrisies brought to light by the Fourth of July. While purporting to ensure liberty and equality, white Americans simultaneously codified captivity and oppression through their continued support of chattel slavery.
To Douglass, the Fourth of July didn’t symbolize the realization of the American Dream and its attendant rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Rather, it served as a stark reminder of the nation’s evils, both past and present, and its failure to guarantee these “unalienable rights” to everyone.
While there isn’t one right answer as to whether one should celebrate or not, the Fourth of July serves as a valuable opportunity to understand what it means to be Desi in America: it allows South Asians to better understand their place in the United States history and to show solidarity with other historically underrepresented groups.
By using the Fourth of July as a time of reflection — a time to examine historic struggles and race relations — we equip ourselves with the skills to confront the issues of the present.
Desi and American Dusky Peril
South Asian immigration to the U.S. only began in earnest during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, though Desis were present in the United States as early as the 1700s. According to the South Asian American Digital Archive, most of these early immigrants were from Punjab and Bengal; Bengalis mainly settled in eastern regions, while Punjabis found themselves on the West Coast, edging into Canada.
While East Asian immigrants were often dubbed the “yellow peril,” Desis were the “dusky peril,” accused of stealing jobs alongside Chinese and Japanese immigrants. The anti-Asian sentiment (and action — including several riots) grew, and in 1917, Congress passed an act barring migrants from a large swath of Asia, including India.
The 1923 Supreme Court case United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind further restricted South Asians’ rights to citizenship: the court ruled that Bhagat Singh Thind, as a person of color, was ineligible for naturalization. Thind had argued that, by virtue of his belonging to the “Caucasian” race and the Aryan linguistic connections between Europe and India, he was white; the court said that though he might have Caucasian ancestry, the common definition of “white” didn’t include Hindus (a catch-all for many Indians in the U.S., even if, like Thind, they weren’t actually Hindu).
Justice George Sutherland used an interesting comparison to reject Thind’s point on linguistics: “Our own history has witnessed the adoption of the English tongue by millions of negroes, whose descendants can never be classified racially with the descendants of white persons, notwithstanding both may speak a common root language,” he wrote.
What strikes me about this case is its fundamental potential to divide rather than uplift. As others have mentioned, Thind’s argument isn’t one to be proud of. Yes, it’s clever that he forced the judges to clearly define the eternally amorphous “whiteness,” something that at times does encompass culture and linguistics.
However, he based his plea upon the fact that he was a high-caste Indian whose blood had yet to be “polluted”: his lawyers stated that “[t]he high-class Hindu regards the aboriginal Indian Mongoloid in the same manner as the American regards the negro, speaking from a matrimonial standpoint.”
This statement first pits South Asians against one another: the goal was not to create paths for citizenship for all South Asians but to elevate those whose “blood” was closest to white. It also further cemented anti-Black racism, accepting and building upon — rather than challenging — white supremacist assumptions about race and miscegenation.
Reflecting on July 4th
The events like this decision make it even more imperative that we reflect on South Asian American history when facing the Fourth of July. South Asians in America have never lived and died, failed, or succeeded in a vacuum. Our narrative is not separate from the U.S. narrative as a whole. American chattel slavery grounded ways of thinking and understanding race that informed white attitudes towards Asian Americans; similarly, the ways in which Black Americans — and other historically underrepresented groups — have fought against racism, also have informed South Asian Americans’ struggles for equality.
Equally interesting is the interplay between South Asian and American politics in these immigrant histories: South Asian Americans were shaped by events in the U.S. and in India. From the early 1900s, notions of democracy and self-rule traveled from the U.S. to India and back via freedom fighters like Lala Lajpat Rai, who founded the Indian Home Rule League of America in New York City in 1917.
The Ghadar Party
In 1913, expatriate anticolonialists formed the Ghadar Party in San Francisco, which advocated for Indian freedom from British rule. (Action by groups like these underscores the importance of the “American” ideals the Fourth of July celebrates and allows for a sort of reclamation for South Asian Americans: if I do choose to celebrate the Fourth of July, I choose to celebrate the Ghadar Party instead of the revolutionaries of 1776.)
South Asians found themselves summarily excluded from the United States in the increasingly ethnocentric Roaring Twenties. A year after United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind, Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1924, barring all Asian immigration to the United States and placing quotas on European groups. It was only after the Immigration Act of 1965 reversed the earlier legislation that most Desis were once again allowed to come to the United States.
The Civil Rights movement helped South Asians
South Asian Americans benefited greatly from the civil rights movements of the 1960s which solidified their citizenship and voting rights alongside those of Black Americans. Indeed, it was this movement that resulted in the signing of the aforementioned Immigration Act of 1965.
This isn’t a one-off incident: South Asian American history is intertwined with Black history and thus informs how we should view the Fourth of July. The reference to Black Americans in U.S. v. Bhagat Singh Thind is telling: white racism against Black people has informed racism against — and within — South Asian groups, just as Black people’s activism informed Desi activism.
Third World Liberation Front, for example, was formed in 1969 by UC Berkeley students of various ethnic backgrounds — Black, Asian, Chicano, and Native American alike — who fought for the inclusion of historically underrepresented groups’ histories.
Model minority no more
At the same time, the myth of the model minority crystallized in these late-twentieth-century decades. The “divide and conquer” strategy has been employed on South Asians more than once — British rule generated division between Muslims and Hindus to quell united resistance, and American white supremacy contributed to the division between the South Asian and Black communities.
This kind of insidious racism is very visible in the Bay Area, where a veritable mine of immigrant success stories is made. South Asians who have “pulled themselves up from their bootstraps” to become wealthy computer scientists or CEOs are perhaps more inclined to embrace the Horatio Alger brand of the American dream: Work hard, and you’ll rise to the top.
It’s much easier to dismiss systemic racism if you chalk its effects up to laziness or lack of talent if you brand Black people as dangerous and angry. Unfortunately, this happens much too often; the comments are often small, but they have a real impact.
A common one I’ve heard: “Yes, I understand that Black Lives Matter protests are important, but what about the lootings?”)
It’s only more easily facilitated by the dissemination of misinformation through technology like WhatsApp, but that’s a discussion for another time.
SCOTUS decision on Affirmative Action
The elephant in the room, perhaps, is the Supreme Court’s recent ruling on affirmative action—part of the case was based upon the (false) premise that Black and Hispanic students were unjustly taking spots that would rightfully go to Asian students on the basis of merit. Indeed, following the decision, I saw a variety of posts and messages from South Asians lauding the court for its return to “merit-based” admissions.
What these people — parents and students alike — fail to understand is that colorblindness will not fix systemic racism; and that, in the absence of racial quotas in admissions (they’re unconstitutional), no one is “stealing” spots from anyone else.
Moreover, why not go after legacy admits, many of whom are white and wealthy? Why does South Asian American success entail stepping on other historically underrepresented groups? By contributing to counteractive efforts like these, South Asian Americans become complicit in perpetuating the inequities compounded over centuries of discrimination against other historically underrepresented groups.
What does being American mean on July 4th?
On the Fourth of July, then, the question isn’t necessarily “Am I American?” but “What does being American mean?” Like Bhagat Singh Thind, are we pressing ourselves to fit the “white” mold, embracing our “American” identity and privilege at the expense of other minority groups? Or are we using our social, economic, and political power to guarantee everyone’s “unalienable rights”?
Given the concerns delineated above, as I’ve grown older, I’ve felt more and more ambivalent about the Fourth of July. Am I a cynic if I don’t want to celebrate? Am I selling out if I do celebrate? Should I even care in the first place?
This year, I’ll be fresh off of a flight to Mumbai on July 4, struggling to think through the haze of jet lag, and it’s more than likely that no one will really mention the holiday (barring a couple of celebratory messages from family members via WhatsApp). The solution, for me, is a compromise between boycott and celebration: reflection.
Contemplating July 4th
As we face an increasingly politically polarized United States, the Fourth of July allows Desis to simultaneously appreciate progress and those who have created it — Black, Asian, Hispanic, or white — and examine the faults of present-day systems.
I’ll reiterate that, as with most American holidays bringing to light uncomfortable hypocrisies and darker histories, there’s no correct answer when it comes to whether to celebrate or not.
However, if they do choose to celebrate, South Asians can take the holiday as an opportunity to reflect on their embodiments of these American ideals throughout history. At what points have they advocated for autonomy and rights? At what points have other historically underrepresented groups fought for a voice? How can they show solidarity with other groups, be it through political coalitions or small talk?
Whose stories aren’t we telling?
Different groups have made the Fourth of July their own, even through such simple acts as eating daal and roti instead of hot dogs. Reclamation can be a powerful thing, especially for immigrants who have consistently been “othered,” told that they’re not American or to go back to where they came from.
The Fourth of July is, at the end of the day, an opportunity for storytelling. What narratives have been erased? Whose stories aren’t we telling?
Perhaps it’s here that we move beyond Washington, Adams, and Franklin to talk about heroes of all kinds: those who have pointed out hypocrisies and tried to set them right.
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