In Defense of Joe Biden
Amidst all the hype, have we missed the “real” story? The Indian American Community is diverse. What’s wrong with that?
The recent comments by Senator Joe Biden about the Indian American community have been hyped in the mainstream media and in the “blogosphere” over the last few days. While on a campaign stop in New Hampshire, Biden, a 2008 Democratic Presidential hopeful, had the chance to have some casual conversation with some young Indian Americans in attendance. Captured by C-SPAN, he said the following:
“In Delaware, the largest growth in population is Indian Americans, moving from India. You cannot go to a 7/11 or a Dunkin Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent. I’m not joking.”
As an Indian American Democratic political consultant who spent close to 2 years working in New Hampshire, my reaction to watching the original video (widely circulated on the internet) was something like: “there are that many Indian Americans in New Hampshire and Delaware now?”
While I was concerned that Senator Biden’s comments were stereotypical and could have the unintended consequence of offending elements of the Indian American community, I did not personally find them offensive. I did find them remarkable.
Here was a powerful American Senator commenting on class diversity within a relatively small immigrant community at an event in New Hampshire, where the entire Asian American population is less than 1%. (Delaware’s population is less, but these two states are among the 10 fastest growing Asian American populations in the country according to a report done by the Washington D.C. based Asian American Justice Center. Senator Biden was correct when he said the community was “growing, moving.”)
So I was surprised when the next day Senator Biden was questioned about this over and over on talk shows and in the mainstream press. This has been the most interesting part of the story for me: despite passage of US-India Civil Nuclear Cooperation, this is the most media attention the Indian American community has received all year.
He was also immediately attacked by the Indian American Republican Council in a press release that was disingenuous and borderline irresponsible considering that Senator Biden had just been instrumental in guiding the pro-India nuclear legislation through the Senate Foreign Relations committee. As a political consultant who works with candidates and community groups on their ethnic outreach strategies, and lobbies for community concerns, I question the wisdom of manipulating community sentiment for a minor partisan gain. We will need Senator Biden’s friendship again. Luckily, for us, I am sure we will be able to count on it.
When I worked in New Hampshire, I saw nine different Democratic presidential candidates in any number or settings, from casual to formal, in people’s homes and at televised debates. They made all kinds of comments, the kind political junkies treasure for their unscripted nature, and most of which would never be picked up by anyone but the lone C-SPAN camera. Only the most astute watcher (like my mother, watching “Road to the White House” hoping to catch a glimpse of me) would ever hear the kinds of snippets of casual conversation Senator Biden has been questioned about, repeatedly, on CNN, MSNBC, and FOX News. I do not make this point to minimize the significance of what Senator Biden said. After all, he is a powerful man who wants to be President. His every word should be scrutinized, but let’s be honest- not every random comment the actual President says gets this much attention.
So, I had to ask myself, my friends, and my family, what does this all mean? Were Senator Biden’s comments truly so offensive that they merit this level of scrutiny, or maybe, (optimistically) the mainstream media is finally beginning to register the political power (whether real or perceived) of the Indian American community and thus, actually saw this incident as “real news.”
General consensus in my personal circles has been, this was not a very smart comment, but hey, lots of Indian Americans do own and work in convenience stores, gas stations, and Dunkin Donuts. A lot of them have accents. What’s wrong with that? Would anyone be so “offended” if Senator Biden made the same comment about engineers at software companies or doctors in an emergency room? What about motel owners in the South? Cab drivers in New York City? Is our dirty little secret the fact that after years of fretting about model minority stereotypes, we don’t like being perceived as working class either?
I don’t pretend to have the answers to these questions, but in order for us to get the most out of this “incident”, I believe Indian Americans should ask these questions and reflect deeper than the typical “knee-jerk” reaction allows.
Unlike me, the Indian American Republican Council believes it does have the answer: vote Republican. Their response was incorrectly characterized by some elements of the Indian and Indian American press as representative of the entire community.
Dr. Vijay, Chairman of the IARC immediately blasted Senator Biden, and brought up past gaffes by Senators Clinton and Kerry, and stated, “A clear double-standard in the mainstream media will likely ensure Senator Biden gets a pass over these comments that would get a Republican in deep trouble if he ever made a similar statement.”
Well, it appears evident that Senator Biden has not received such a “pass,” and recent political history shows that the Republican leadership, from Senator Trent Lott’s deeply disturbing comments about segregation at the passing of Strom Thurmond, to President Bush’s first campaign in South Carolina in which Republican operatives used push polling to insinuate that Senator John McCain had an illegitimate “black” child (in reality- his Bangladesh born adopted daughter), is prone to making significantly worse choices in language, rhetoric, and campaign tactics when it comes to race, class, and ethnicity.
If the IARC is interested in engaging in a substantive public discussion of their political party’s positions on issues regarding race and class, and how that affects our community, I would be pleasantly surprised. Unfortunately, I don’t expect that to happen. I do commend them on starting the discussion and for their civic engagement.
When it comes to issues that truly affect the Indian American immigrant communities, particularly those who do work at stores such as 7/11 and Dunkin Donuts, (not just the ones who own them) Democratic Senators Biden, Clinton, and Kerry have always stood up for our entire community, not just the financially privileged few who make large political contributions. Instead of searching for meaningful middle ground on issues like immigration reform, voting rights, education, and health care, this election year, Republicans have blocked attempts to renew the Voting Rights Act and choose to demonize illegal immigrants. Instead of focusing on finding ways to make sure all Americans can afford to go to college and obtain quality health care, they’ve been preoccupied with finding ways to circumvent our civil liberties.
Let’s have a meaningful discussion in our community about what our real values are. Dr. Vijay concludes his press statement by insisting that Senator Biden would be “surprised to hear that I am a cardiothoracic surgeon, leading a national association of Indian Americans who are physicians, attorneys, and small business owners. It’s amazing to know we don’t all work at Dunkin Donuts or the local 7/11.”
In fact, Senator Biden knows a lot of people like Dr. Vijay and his colleagues. He worked closely with them when he was a critical voice of support for US-India Civil Nuclear Cooperation.
Besides, isn’t it amazing that we don’t all work in hospitals and engineering firms? That we’re a community of ethnic and class diversity? That we’re a community of contrasts and differing political viewpoints?
Senator Biden should apologize to any Indian Americans he may have offended. Then he needs to go back to the business of being a strong Democratic Senator who represents all of his constituents. In the meantime, our community needs to continue to discuss and debate the issues and participate in the political process until we are recognized as more than the subject of a few stereotypical comments.
Mini Timmarju is a former board member of the Indian American Leadership Institute.