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Posted by: Mehul Srivastava on June 03, 2009
While the media brouhaha continues over the attacks against Indian students in Australia, it is worthwhile to take a step back and ask what exactly is happening – and why.
The Indian argument that Australia is a racist country is just as ridiculous as the suggestion by Australian authorities that Indians invite these attacks by carrying laptops and MP3 players openly. (Don’t Australians own laptops? Other foreigners don’t carry iPods?).
Anthropologists will tell you that at the bottom of all this is a sort of race-based anxiety, both on the part of Australians and the part of Indians. I beg to differ – at the bottom of most things in the world is economics.
Take for instance, Indian-bashing, and not just the violent kind. As the world goes through its worst economic re-ordering, countries are looking inward, closing borders, trying to hold jobs for their own citizens. In the U.S., Indians make up the richest immigrant group, according to the census bureau. In India, the outsourcing industry exists for the exact purpose of taking overseas work and shifting it here. And in Australia, Indian students make up the second largest group of all foreign students, and are amongst the most likely students to stay on with resident visas.
In just the same way that some western European people resent Turks and North Africans for taking low-paying jobs, and some Americans are joining a huge anti-immigration wave because of Mexican and other Hispanic workers, some Australians have singled out Indians for having the personal wealth to afford expensive universities, for taking jobs after graduation that not all Australians can get, and yes, for being foreigners who stand out in a mostly-white country.
Not all of it is just simple racism - it’s anger and resentment tinged by economic envy and by anxiety over their own financial conditions. (The thugs and goons who snatch valuables and smack around people walking alone at night aren’t often college graduates with well-paying jobs.)
It is definitely “anti-foreigner”, but that, sadly, is a common enough sentiment in almost all countries of the world. Indians in the west, particularly, take good jobs – software engineers, doctors, architects, nurses – because economically, they are the most likely to emigrate westwards. And in the Middle East, where lower-skilled Indians take up jobs, nearly 2 million Indian laborers build the skyscrapers and malls of oil-rich Emiratis who simply are not interested in those jobs. Last month, President Barack Obama singled out Bangalore by name, and criticized a U.S. tax code that encouraged companies to create jobs there, rather than in the U.S. He may be a lot of things, but President Obama is not a racist – and nobody dared suggest that.
There is perhaps no economic subject that raises more ire than the ownership of jobs. Every time BusinessWeek writes a story about outsourcing, or about H1B visas, hundreds of commenters flood the site. Most bring up interesting facets of the argument; some, like one regular poster, ponder how Indians can pretend to be a great country when they, he alleges, have the worst personal hygiene.
The argument never changes. As a reporter in Ohio in 2005, I wrote about Bangalore’s outsourcing industry, and a software engineer turned blogger attacked the paper for hiring an Indian to do an American’s job. (Thanks to the Internet, you can read that exchange here, which quickly turned snippy.) Lou Dobbs has ridden the wave of that anger on CNN by being a one-man army against the economic forces that bring foreign workers to American shores (His network did well, propelling his show into the top ten cable news shows for a while, but the number of foreign workers in the US only increased, not the other way around).
Things between India and Australia will eventually cool down. The media will lose interest, the police will crack down, some Indian students will flee home, others will take precautions. But the fact that borders matter less in today’s world, especially when it comes to jobs, will continue to irk people, and I suspect, that when economies go sour, so will people’s moods.
BusinessWeek’s team of Asia reporters brings you the latest insights on business, politics, technology and culture from some of the world’s biggest and fastest-growing economies. Eye on Asia’s bloggers include Asia regional editor Bruce Einhorn, Tokyo reporter Ian Rowley, Korea bureau chief Moon Ihlwan, Asia News Editor and China Bureau Chief. Dexter Roberts, and Hong Kong-based Asia correspondent Frederik Balfour.