Wednesday, June 30, 2010

What's Joel Stein Got Against Indians?

1) Sorry for the long delay in posting. It's been a while, but I'll catch up soon, I promise.

2) Close on the heels of Robin's post about Indian-Americans in politics (linking to a pretty balanced, and fact-based, story on Yahoo), we have here another post about Indians, this time, not in politics, but in Edison, N.J. And my post refers a story in Time Magazine, by regular columnist Joel Stein. Unfortunately, Stein's article is neither balanced nor fact-based.

Stein's article starts out as follows:
I am very much in favor of immigration everywhere in the U.S. except Edison, N.J. The mostly white suburban town I left when I graduated from high school in 1989 — the town that was called Menlo Park when Thomas Alva Edison set up shop there and was later renamed in his honor — has become home to one of the biggest Indian communities in the U.S., as familiar to people in India as how to instruct stupid Americans to reboot their Internet routers.
It's pretty much downhill from there. Stein writes that he learned to commit various petty crimes at neighborhood joints, and, now that the stores and restaurants are Indian, "[t]here is an entire generation of white children in Edison who have nowhere to learn crime."

Har-har. So Stein has a malformed, if incoherent, sense of humor. (Confidential to Klein: it is, in fact, possible to steal food from Indian restaurants, too.) But the article quickly degenerates into out-and-out racism. After noting that the locals took to calling the new immigrants "dot heads", Stein writes, "I question just how good our schools were if 'dot heads' was the best racist insult we could come up with for a group of people whose gods have multiple arms and an elephant nose."

Now I can take a joke pretty well, and Jay-Z's "red dot or feather" line doesn't bother me all that much. And I suspect that Stein was going for a tongue-in-cheek piece rather than a blatantly racist one. But it's too late to unring the bell. Stein's piece is just the type of fodder that fuels anti-immigrant sentiment (Indian or otherwise) around the country. The "sense of loss" he feels is because people in his hometown look different and eat "food that spicy". His attempt at humor (and I'm being charitable; maybe he really did intend to write a racist screed) falls flat precisely because it seems to belie an underlying xenophobia.

The ironic thing is, Stein sort of has a point. In his last paragraph, he writes (again inartfully) about the assimilation of the current generation of Indian-American kids into American -- and more specifically, Jersey -- culture. This is a good thing. Just like people from any other immigrant community, Indians in this country have, to varying degrees, adopted American customs, names, habits, musical tastes, and more. The Indian kids slick back their hair and wear gold chains, a la the cast of Jersey Shore; the kid whose family has been in Edison since the time of, well, Thomas Edison, tries Indian food and sneaks into a Bollywood movie. Stein is correct: that give-and-take is "so wonderfully American".

Also "wonderfully American" is petitioning for redress of one's grievances. So take a minute click this link, and petition Time Magazine to respond to Stein's article. Unlike in much of the world, Stein has a right to write whatever kind of article wants, racist, ill-informed, or otherwise. But he should defend his views, if he really does hold them, or publicly explain his motivations in writing the article, if he does not.


Since lawyers and law students read this blog, I'll make a few technical comments. One, I know the right to petition applies only to the government and not private actors; it's a rhetorical device, and anyway, the practice of petitioning has a long history in this country. Second, I know Stein's has a First Amendment right to publish whatever he wants; I don't suggest that it was (legally) improper for him to write or Time to publish the article. But First Amendment rights are a two-way street and, if for nothing more than his reputation and journalistic integrity, Stein ought to defend his views.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Is Ethnicity a Handicap When Running for Office?

I recently read this article discussing how more Indian Americans are running for office and found many things surprising. First, the two most widely recognized Republican Indian politicians, Bobby Jindal (Governor of Lousiana) and Nikki Haley (leading candidate for Governor of South Carolina) have both abandoned their Indian religions in favor of Christianity. Coincidence? If these politicians chose to convert to Christianity because of marriage or even to follow what they believe to be their true faith, all the power to them. However, if the conversion was a political and strategic move, I think it's just sad. Has the bible become such a central part of politics that our leaders must have some connection to it? It seems to always come up- abortion, marriage, evolution, especially from conservatives. So can you be Hindu or Jain or Sikh and run as a Republican? If it was a political move, maybe these candidates preemptively converted without either giving Americans a chance to prove that faith doesn't matter or being critiqued for their faith and showing America that apparently it does matter.

Another interesting element of the article was the discussion about name changes. Piyush became Bobby, Nimrata became Nikki, Jigar became J., all because the Americanized names are just easier to say. I've always wondered about this as well. Is something like that really a factor when Americans sit down to vote or do minorities maybe find it either annoying or insulting to have people constantly messing up their names, especially when they are in the public eye. I've been told several times that I have it easy with the name "Robin," but I'm curious as to whether making an ethnic name seem more American may actually make upset voters from the candidate's ethnic group. What's in a name when you're running for office?

I think the underlying theme of the article was the interplay between whether these Indian candidates are giving something up to run for office or simply running as who they are, Indian Americans raised in the United States who are more assimilated into American culture than their Indian immigrant parents. I really look forward to seeing possible trends develop in the future so this can be studied further.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Law School Lore: Myth or Vestige of History?

It was nice to be on the other side of law school...until bar studying got in the way for some of us. But during that brief post-3L/pre-graduation period in which I had nothing to do but think introspectively about where I started and where I want to wind up, I realized something that had not really crossed my mind before:  almost everything I had heard about law school before I took the plunge--from books, movies, lawyers, you name it--turned out to be grossly overstated at best.

We are all familiar with the lore--law school, we are constantly told, is where dreams go to die. You'll be studying around the clock, your professors will abuse you in the classroom, and you'll be lucky to have any meaningful social relationships during your (generally miserable) stay. Perhaps I'm embellishing a bit, but the general conception so far as I can tell is that law school is not only hard but very hard--almost to the point of being unmanageable and leading people to serious mental infirmity. Scott Turow's One L is a case in point. So is the old favorite The Paper Chase. More recently, Legally Blonde took a stab at perpetuating the stereotype in depicting a fun-loving sorority girl from California who managed to succeed amidst a class of (seemingly) more boring and neurotically-focused students.

I  found law school taxing and mentally exhausting at times, but I never felt as pressured and anxious as I expected to be based on all I had heard. I don't think my classmates ever really did either--at least not to the extent one would reasonably expect from talking to any lay person or older lawyer about law school.

So, if I am correct that things really are not all that bad, where do these stereotypes come from? I have two theories. First, maybe my observation (if accurate) is a self-aggrandizing phenomenon whereby those who have been through law school feel, after the fact, that it was more arduous than it was simply because it is a past accomplishment. Maybe complaining about how bad it was is a privilege of conquering it. But more likely, I think, is that something has changed in the legal education. Indeed, the horror stories tend to come from older attorneys as opposed to more recent graduates. There are many other tenable explanations for this, but I still think it strong evidence of a change in the educational pedagogy and the (probably) corresponding student mentality. If my hunch is correct, will the shift be good or bad for tomorrow's attorneys?

I leave that question, along with all the others I have posed, to you folks...


(Please accept our apologies for the slowdown in content. While law school is not as bad as they make it, bar preparation has made it harder for many of us to post as often as we would like.)