What’s So Right About America
It’s a low moment for America, perhaps the lowest in more than a generation. Even superpatriots, unless they are blindly partisan, would agree that there is a major crisis of confidence in this country’s government and the direction in which we are heading. But this isn’t yet another lament on what went wrong in recent years; instead it’s an acknowledgment that, despite the pervasive gloom and doom, our private lives in the U.S. are for the most part remarkably privileged. Especially for Indian Americans. As we like to crow ad nauseam, we have not only the highest per capita income but also the highest educational attainments among all national origin groups. However, it’s important to remember that we tend to be a selective immigrant group with advantages (English, education, etc.) that other groups—Mexicans, for instance—don’t necessarily have. We get a head start, certainly, but that’s not the whole story. And the role that our efforts play in our subsequent achievements is not the whole story either. A major part is played by the society we live in.
Even the most visible, and high status, symbols of success (Bobby Jindal becomes the first Indian American governor, roughly 8 percent of Indian Americans are millionaires, etc.) are the consequence—not the cause—of what is so right about America.
What, then, is so right about America? And ‘right’ here only means ‘proper and desirable’; there is no ideological double meaning, although some may be tempted to look for it. Since every individual has to, ultimately, come up with his or her own explanation, here is one immigrant’s attempt. For me, simply put, it can be boiled down to four easily understood categories, three of which are as follows: opportunity, freedom, and variety (or diversity). And these categories are applicable in a range of spheres: economic, social, cultural, spiritual, intellectual, political. Now one could point out that these characteristics are by no means unique to the American way of life. Very true, but it’s not quite the same for immigrants in other countries. And that brings me to the final category—acceptance—which is what sets America apart.
If we leave out India, I can think of no other country where I’d feel more accepted than I do here. One could reasonably argue that British Indians, who form the largest ethnic minority in the U.K., are also doing quite well and should therefore feel at home. Yet they are nowhere as integrated as we are in this country. According to a BBC/ICM poll this summer, 38 percent of South Asian Brits felt only slightly or not at all British. The BBC added, “More than a third agreed that to get on in the U.K. they needed to be a ‘coconut’, a term for somebody who is ‘brown on the outside and white on the inside’.”
I’m not aware of a corresponding poll on Indian Americans, but even if there were one, I cannot imagine coming across a similar result. In fact, there was a revealing poll in the summer that’s worth mentioning. As the Pew Research Center noted, American Muslims are “better assimilated, more content and less politically polarized than counterpart Muslim populations in Western Europe.” They are less likely than European residents to see themselves as Muslim first, the report added. We have, in other words, a much more integrated population in this society.
Actually, I think there is just one other country which can match the U.S. in this respect—and that’s Canada. An Ipsos poll for CanWest News, also conducted this summer, found that “90 percent of Canadians disagree with the question that Canada would be better off if immigrants returned to where they came from” and “30 percent of Canadians agree that Canada is not taking in enough immigrants.” This is hardly the sentiment you would find in any other nation. Canada has much in common with the U.S., including a marvelous ability to accept and absorb huge numbers of strangers from foreign lands.
My title, to sum up, is a statement rather than a question and it should be tweaked to read as follows: “What’s So Right About North America.”
- Murali Kamma
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