As I watched Pat Buchanan address the Republican National Convention three decades ago, I cried. I can still see his doughy face and fixed expression fill the TV screen as he urged his almost all-white audience: “We must take back our cities and take back our culture and take back our country.” Buchanan’s hardline anti-immigrant bid for the Republican nomination had been unsuccessful, but he was still waging his campaign to reclaim America’s Judeo-Christian identity. At the time, I believed that he aimed his “we” and his “our” against me and my family. I felt it viscerally; in that long limbo after immigrating, my body was in a perpetually queasy state. I was seventeen, too young to vote but already made and unmade by the politics of race—by the coded language of candidates as well as by the racism that it enabled, racism as overtly menacing as the graffiti that once defaced our house. “Hindus Go Home,” it directed.
In the late 1980s, in and around our neighborhood in Jersey City, New Jersey, our anonymous terrorizers and others who shared their hate at first used words as weapons. Then they deployed baseball bats, bricks, metal pipes, acid, their fists, their spit. A handwritten letter sent to the local newspaper published in August 1987 stated the goal: “We will go to any extreme to get Indians to move out of Jersey City.” The manifesto’s author revealed that his gang, in search of targets, scanned the phone book for Indian last names. They called themselves the Dotbusters—the name, like the slur “dothead,” a riff on the red dot customarily worn on the forehead by some observant Hindu women. The writer bragged that there would be three “Patel attacks” later that night. A few days later, several blocks from us, a man with the last name Patel was beaten with a metal pipe while he slept in his home. After the newspaper published the Dotbusters letter, the attacks escalated: while walking down the street, a medical resident was beaten with a baseball bat, and a Citicorp employee out for drinks with a friend was pummeled with bricks. The first man emerged from his coma; the second didn’t.
The incidents were among the most tragic in a years-long campaign of everyday intimidation that victimized South Asians of varying religions and nationalities but collapsed all into a “weak race”—to quote the Dotbusters manifesto—of “Hindus,” used interchangeably with “Indians.” The graffiti got my family partly right. We are Hindu but home was Guyana, on the northeastern coast of South America. Our ancestors left India four to five generations ago, as indentured workers contractually bound to labor in sugarcane fields, in a system denounced as a “new form of slavery” by British abolitionists. This history drew us close to Black Americans, opening possibilities for kinship even before we came to the United States. Like them, we are grandchildren of toil on plantations and grandchildren, too, of transoceanic traffic in the cargo holds of ships servicing empire and industry. This wrinkle in identity was lost on the bigots. Had they known, would it even have mattered? They encircled us. We were spat at on the street. Once, my father had to run from white teenagers who pulled knives on him outside the corner shop—but, all things considered, we had been lucky. We escaped unhurt, physically.
In the late summer of 1992, when Buchanan spoke, we had been in the United States for a decade. My parents, new citizens, had done the remarkable. That year through some uncanny frugality, my mother’s frequent overtime as a clerk in New York’s garment district, and my father’s two jobs as a medical technologist at separate hospitals, they had paid off the mortgage on our house. It was a small red clapboard box that sat on the Palisades above the Hudson River, eyeing Manhattan. The house was humble and a little crowded—but it was ours, the first we had ever owned, in any country.
This was a matter of some pride for my parents because we had arrived in the United States with very little money. The regime we had fled allowed emigrants to leave with only the equivalent of $30 per person––and we were four. Nor did we have intergenerational wealth. What we did have was a support network in a large extended family. An aunt who came before us took us into her one-bedroom apartment when we landed, just as we took in relatives who came after us. My childhood taught me that family is figurative wealth. Only later did I realize that kin—who could provide first shelter, sponsor for green cards, and even cosign mortgages—could also, more concretely, be capital. I came to understand this as our privilege.
Growing up, however, I did not imagine us privileged. Instead, my psyche had been shaped by an acute sense that dispossession was our inheritance. We came from a community that had been twice displaced. Our right to belong had been challenged more than once, first by a racist dictatorship in Guyana, then by the Dotbusters in the Jersey City Heights. To buy a house, in the United States no less, was to assert belonging, somewhere special, somewhere safe. Descended from the history we were, becoming homeowners had symbolic, almost existential, weight. But the house was also a material claim to America, and I believe that vandals may have covered it in xenophobic graffiti—and thrown eggs, garbage, bricks, and firebombs at other South Asian homes and businesses in the city––because owning property triggered insecurities about being surpassed. We had left behind the 70 percent of our neighbors who rented, a statistic that eluded me at the time.
My parents had bought the house from a Polish American widow, the most recent in a long line of second- and third-generation Americans who had lived there in the century since it was built. All had been skilled contributors, according to census data, to the city’s recently vanished industrial and manufacturing heyday: an electrician, a railroad clerk, longshoremen, a tool maker in a boiler works, a watchmaker. Mainly Catholic, like Buchanan, their parents and grandparents had migrated from Ireland, Italy, and Eastern Europe. By the 1980s, when we followed in their footsteps to this city behind the Statue of Liberty’s back, historically a blue-collar immigrant gateway, it may have seemed like the pace of the American Dream had accelerated. We may have appeared to be living it, in the first generation.
Get our latest essays, archival selections, reading lists, and exclusive editorial content in your inbox.
A few weeks after Buchanan’s convention speech, I went off to my freshman year at Yale, and this too was a piece of that accelerated Dream. That fall in New Haven, the Clintons visited campus on the campaign trail, and I felt an imposter’s awe that the couple’s alma mater might one day also, somehow, be mine. I was the first in my mother’s line to attend college. On my father’s side, he was the first and only one to get higher education. The Guyanese government had paid for college in exchange for his service in a volunteer paramilitary unit, and afterwards, he went to work for the country in the field laboratory of a nationalized sugar estate. In the United States, his foreign degree in the natural sciences did not pass muster with potential employers, and he had to earn a second bachelor’s degree while working full time as an assistant warehouse manager. He had made his first Yankee dollars as a day laborer with a masonry crew run by an uncle. My father’s own parents had been manual laborers, cutting cane and weeding, on the sugar plantation that had dictated our lives for generations. At the time, it must have unnerved him to think that immigrating might obliterate his hard-earned progress. It’s clear, in retrospect, that we were on an upwardly mobile trajectory. I now teach journalism and literature as a professor on the very campus, Rutgers–Newark, that gave my father his second chance and gave our family our socioeconomic momentum. The summer I left for college, however, despite the house, despite the imminence of the Ivy League, our own class position still felt refutable.
At Yale I was misfit and often unsettled by my uphill bid to belong in a place whiter, richer, and more entitled than any I’d ever known. So overwhelmed was I that I didn’t pay close attention to two significant events that also made 1992 a consequential year in my cosmos. One concerned my hometown; the other, my home country. Both revealed the “war” for “the soul of America” that Buchanan said we were fighting: a struggle, in his words, for “who we are . . . what we believe and what we stand for as Americans.”
That September, thirty years ago, federal prosecutors in New Jersey took three men, all white, to trial on hate crime charges for attacking the medical resident. Testimony placed the alleged perpetrators, our close neighbors, in a delinquent social world of drug users and dropouts who might easily have resented upstart rivals to the American Dream. The Heights, our shared neighborhood, was a white ethnic stronghold of lower-middle-class respectability but its underbelly was shot through with contradiction. The young men in the Dotbusters’ orbit seemed frequently in trouble with the law, but some were also close to it. One of the defendants was a county police officer, and the other was the son of a high-ranking police official once in line to become the city’s police chief. Despite eyewitness testimony and a confession, an all-white jury acquitted the men, thirty years ago this May. The case nonetheless made history as the first federal civil rights suit brought on behalf of a South Asian person in the United States.
For me the suit represents what we owe African Americans: the hope of equal protection under the law and a concrete tool for it. It goes without saying that we also owe them our very existence in America, since it was their movement for civil rights that laid the political groundwork for the 1965 immigration law that removed restrictions against people of Asian origin entering the United States. The Black struggle for justice also led to passage of the first federal hate crimes legislation in 1968. Crucially, these laws created the mechanism for federal prosecutors to step in when local law enforcement minimized the wide-scale attacks against South Asians, dismissed bias as a motive, and failed to pursue relevant leads. From the bench, the federal judge reprimanded local investigators for their inaction, saying he was “very disappointed” and comparing their failures to Nazi Germany’s sanction of pogroms against Jews. With support from national Asian American organizations, South Asians in Jersey City had persisted in pushing for justice, taking to the streets to demand change, engaging in a tradition of nonviolent protest inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr., who in turn had been inspired by Mahatma Gandhi.
This postscript to the Dotbusters attacks sets an example for how African American and Asian American civil rights movements can gain ideas, energy, and spiritual momentum from each other. The full lesson, however, is more sobering and complicated.
By the 1980s Jersey City’s foreign-born made up a third of its population, and most of its newcomers were from Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America. Its racial and ethnic makeup had been transformed in just a decade or two. There’s evidence, such as handwritten membership cards found on some high school students and the manifesto published in the newspaper, that the Dotbusters—minimized by local officials as amorphous, more a rumor based on a set of uncoordinated attacks than an organized group––might have been a somewhat formalized underground association. Reacting to rapid demographic change, this gang of young white men foreshadowed the white supremacist groups now openly proclaiming themselves in our society, fulfilling my fear that our American Dream was revocable. But a few of the attacks against South Asians appeared to be copycat, unaffiliated, and carried out by other people of color. According to a 1987 News India-Times article, African American teenagers using anti-Indian slurs sprayed acid at the owner of a South Asian grocery store, burning him and his two-year-old daughter. The teenagers sentenced to a youth rehab center on assault charges for killing the Citicorp employee, as they reportedly, and mistakenly, taunted “Hindu, Hindu,” (the victim was in fact Parsi, not Hindu) are Latino.
Those attacks point to an unnerving truth that has served the politics of divide and rule across centuries and borders. White supremacy can be so deeply embedded in the skin of societies that white skin itself is no prerequisite. People of color have committed violence against each other. Brown and Black solidarities are far from given. In the case of hate crimes against Asian Americans, an analysis of nationwide statistics from 1992 to 2014 shows that 26 percent were committed by other people of color, compared to 19 percent for Latinos and 1 percent for African Americans.
The use of the epithet “Hindu” by the Dotbusters and their copycats suggests one possible motive for violence that crossed ethnic lines: South Asians may have brought strange gods into their midst, in a context with an overwhelming Christian majority. At the height of the attacks, about a tenth of Jersey City’s population had roots in Asia. Filipinos, predominantly Catholic, made up the largest subgroup, at 45 percent, and South Asians accounted for the second largest, at 28.5 percent. It’s possible that, whether Hindu or Muslim or Parsi or Jain, we became the target at least partly due to our conspicuous religious difference.
The will to maintain power, if it’s perceived to be under threat, and the pressure to protest the lack of it can both drive acts of hate. Both the presence and the absence of power can provoke violence, but power comes in many forms, operating at levels from the state to the street and intersecting in incongruous ways. In Jersey City in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the context was blue collar as well as Christian, and the configurations of power by virtue of religion, nativity, citizenship, racialization, and class were complicated and sometimes paradoxical.
The 1990 census depicts a city in pain, its unemployment and poverty rates high and its rates of educational attainment strikingly low. 8 in 10 Jersey City residents lacked a college degree; 34 percent didn’t even have a high school degree. A disadvantaged class identity, like the dominant religious one, cut across several ethnic lines. Strictly by the numbers, Asian people in the city appeared to be faring better economically than African American, Latino, and white people, as classified by the U.S. Census Bureau. But the disparities were greater for other people of color: 12 percent of Asian residents lived in poverty compared to 15 percent of white residents, 25 percent of Black residents, and 27 percent of Latino residents, while 6 percent of Asian people were unemployed compared to 9 percent of white people, 15 percent of Black people, and 14 percent of Latino people. My family arrived in a city where the prospect of owning a home was tauntingly remote for most and clearly out of sync with the national picture. In 1970, a decade before we landed, only 31 percent of white residents in the city owned their own homes, and only 21 percent of Black residents did. Both groups owned homes at less than half the national rate of 65 percent. (The census gave no figures for home ownership among Latino or Asian residents that year.) Is it any wonder that the Dotbusters targeted property as well as people, or that some other people of color, struggling disproportionately, also participated?
“Asian,” like other census-given identities, is too broad a category. It collapses into one a wide diversity of individual migration histories, as if the path of a Filipino recruited as a nurse on a work visa matches the path of a Vietnamese who landed as a refugee. The state and the street both do this reductive work. Society, through the model minority myth, in a sense flattens the identity Asian into a class. And yet the category also includes my very large West Indian immigrant family. Among the many dozens of us who resettled in Jersey City were nurses, construction workers, security guards, garment factory workers, delivery men, part-time college students, nannies, and office clerks. Still, we were probably targeted, at least in part, because we were grouped with a community perceived to have economic power and aspirational reach, through education.
When the attacks were at their height, I was in junior high, in a magnet program drawing the highest achievers from gifted and talented programs in public schools across the entire city, spanning its white neighborhoods, its Black ones, and all the ones in between. That was where I found my sense of belonging—not in owning a house, but with this band of twenty-eight super-nerd misfits, almost all immigrants or the children of immigrants. Although the city was then roughly a third white, only two of my classmates were. Two were Latino. And three were African American. That’s how a census taker would have clocked us, but I didn’t measure identity the way the census did. For me our bond as outsiders connected us, whether our parents had come from Colombia or China, India or Vietnam, Korea or the Ukraine, Pakistan or the Philippines (all points of origin for my classmates).
Looking at a photograph of our graduating class now, I register what I didn’t then: we were overwhelmingly Asian, and fully a third of us had roots, recent or century-old, in South Asia. What seemed then like a meritocracy of strivers pixelates now into something far less clear: a disproportion that reflected structural inequalities in U.S. society, an exceptionalism that was probably at least partly produced by stereotyped expectations of a model minority, and one that no doubt further reinforced the stereotype, activating the Dotbusters and other perpetrators of hate crime.
The story of our coming to America begins in 1965. That year the Hart-Cellar Act ended half a century of racist exclusion in immigration law, overturning quotas and restrictions intended to keep the United States white, including bans on people of Asian origin. While lawmakers in D.C. were aligning immigration policy with the anti-racist gains of the African American civil rights movement, with a law that would radically diversify the United States in the decades to come, an aunt in Guyana chanced on her own momentous and transformative opportunity. Reading the pulp crime magazine True Detective, a racy bit of Americana that she and her girlfriends regularly devoured, circulating each well-thumbed copy among themselves, she saw an ad from the Jersey City Medical Center. The hospital was looking for nurse trainees, and my aunt, at the time a midwife on a sugar plantation near our village, tore out the ad, defacing the communal copy. A year later, when Guyana became a free country, she left her husband and children behind to take the position she had succeeded in securing at the hospital. She landed in a city that was more than 85 percent white, where she lived with other foreign nurse trainees (mainly from the Philippines, South India, and the West Indies) in a dormitory in the hospital’s complex of Depression-era, art deco stone high rises.
My aunt, the avid reader of True Detective, was the matriarch of our migration. The first to come, she forged the path for many dozens of Bahadurs to resettle in Jersey City. By the time my parents, my baby sister and I arrived in 1981, about half of the city’s white population had fled, and the Asian population had more than tripled. The Black and Latino (mostly Puerto Rican) populations, which were numerically much larger, had grown, too, but not at such a dramatic rate. By the time the Dotbusters emerged, the Hart-Cellar Act had contributed to swift demographic changes that made my hometown a majority-minority city.
The influx of skill was another legacy of the Hart-Cellar Act. In addition to allowing Asians into the country in significant numbers for the first time, it shaped U.S. immigration policy in two other profound ways. First, it prioritized immigrants coming for higher education and high-skilled and professional work, giving birth to the stereotype of the successful Asian immigrant by admitting those already prepped and primed to achieve. And second, it also made family reunification a core principle, so much so that it was informally known as the “Brothers and Sisters” Act. It allowed the first wave to sponsor family members, who were not always as well set up for economic success, complicating the stereotype through richly diverse class identities and American experiences and highlighting just how much of a myth it is.
Like anti-Blackness, the model minority myth is easily exploited when power, at the level of the state, is at stake. In the history of the United States, both racializing ideas have sparked hostility and violence at the street level. The rhetoric of politicians who seek to divide has lit the fire. I wept at Buchanan’s speech all those years ago because I felt targeted as a recent immigrant raised in the eye of anti-Indian violence. Listening to the speech again after decades, I realize that while Buchanan mobilized both anti-Blackness and anti-immigrant sentiment, it was mostly directed at African Americans. This forces me to see the story of my skin in a new light: our color had given us privilege even as it made us targets for the Dotbusters. Was it possible that I too had been seduced by the myth, tying up my identity with striving to do well, to prove my worth against the odds when the odds were already in some ways in our favor? The epiphany messes with my sense of self, but it expands it as well as destabilizes it.
At the close of his speech, Buchanan referred to the “riots” in Los Angeles, which had engulfed Korean-owned stores earlier that year, after a jury acquitted the police officers who had brutally beaten an African American man. Cameras panned to a pair of Asian American delegates in the convention hall as Buchanan called for “force rooted in justice,” putting to work racialized stereotypes of the rules-abiding model immigrant versus the lawbreaking “mob.” In an already charged context, his rhetoric further pit people of color against each other.
A similar strategy worked in our home country as well. My family came to the United States pursuing economic mobility, but we were also fleeing racism rooted in imperial tactics of divide and rule. The dictatorship that we escaped had been installed by the United States, as it maneuvered a Marxist out of power during the Cold War. It did so by manipulating tensions between Blacks and Indians first created by the policies of British colonial rulers in the previous century.
At slavery’s end, instead of employing emancipated Africans at fair wages on the plantations, the British imported workers from India and China on exploitative contracts, paid them cheaply, and controlled them through a system that prosecuted two in five of them and convicted one in five of them, sending them to prison for labor violations. The discord thus began with indenture itself, seen as kind of global deployment of scab labor, and intensified as the British put African Guyanese in positions of power over the new workforce: they were, for instance, the “drivers” or sub-overseers, in charge of crews of Indian field laborers and the police constables who, sometimes fatally, suppressed plantation strikes and uprisings by Indian workers. By redirecting the resentments of the colonized to each other, rather than to their British masters, the state sought to stifle any united resistance to their rule.
The central struggle of my native country’s life as an independent nation has been to break free from the legacies of this strategy of sowing conflict. As it was developing its own politics in the 1950s and 1960s, the U.S. government intervened, with the cooperation of the British, in ways that created two political parties not differentiated by policy, but by race. At its birth in 1966, Guyana became the first Black-led nation in the Western hemisphere without a Black majority. The leader ousted was Indian, and the leader installed, Black. Elections there had been rigged until October 1992—my freshman year in college—when former president Jimmy Carter, through his work at the Carter Center, was invited to oversee the first free and fair elections in the country in three decades. He helped to uphold democracy after John F. Kennedy’s administration had dashed it.
In the tension between the idea and the reality of “who we are” and “what we stand for” as Americans, I do my work as a writer. I consider myself a lucky embodiment of the American Dream—lucky that my body was not broken with bricks or baseball bats for living it and lucky to have a body that, in a society beset by anti-Blackness, did not hinder my chances at it. Ever since the Dotbusters showed me how words could be weapons, I try my best to use America’s uneven, ironic blessings to illuminate how we have been led to hate each other and how we might transcend that history.
Buchanan ran on an anti-Black and anti-immigrant platform because demagogues like him know only too well how profound—as Guyanese historian Walter Rodney put it—“people’s power” can be. But if it can give white supremacy power, it can also rival it. We can resist how the state categorizes us. And the street can mean what we fight for it to mean. Solidarity, rather than a conflagration where people of color allow themselves to be manipulated against each other. The shape that populism takes is ours to mold.
My own contribution is to work toward an expanded sense of self: an “I” that redefines exceptionalism, my own and America’s, by rejecting the concept entirely. I do this because, to echo Langston Hughes, “I, too, am America.”
Karoline Gonzalez Sanchez and Veronica Torres provided research support for this essay as Clement A. Price Scholars at Rutgers–Newark.
We’re interested in what you think. Send a letter to the editors at email@example.com. Boston Review is nonprofit, paywall-free, and reader-funded. To support work like this, please donate here.