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After Indian Immigrant Was Shot Dead, Indian-Americans Rethink Kansas Life


In February, an Indian immigrant in Kansas was shot dead. The incident is just one reason members of the Indian community are mobilizing across the country while others are leaving the United States. Arun Venugopal of member station WNYC reports.

ARUN VENUGOPAL, BYLINE: Raj and Kara Tan Bhala live in Kansas City. They moved here with their daughter in 2003. We spent an afternoon at their tennis club drinking juice like civilized folk do.

RAJ TAN BHALA: It's been a very good place to raise our family, and it's been marvelous professionally for me. It's logistically a very easy and straightforward and simplified life. We've been blessed with a number of good friends.

VENUGOPAL: He teaches international law and has 13 books to his name. She runs a think tank devoted to global financial ethics. They're both on the Council on Foreign Relations. Their global elites who happen to live in Kansas instead of Manhattan at least for now.

R. BHALA: This is not the Kansas that we moved to in 2003. It has changed.

VENUGOPAL: It's more conservative, he says, and just doesn't feel as welcoming. Raj is of Indian descent. Kara is Malaysian Chinese. They're worried about a law that will soon permit college students in Kansas to carry concealed guns on campus. And they were alarmed by the shooting death of an Indian-American software engineer, Srinivas Kuchibhotla, by someone shouting, get out of my country.

So Kara wrote to her elected representatives saying that as someone who's not white, she doesn't feel safe. The response from her congresswoman did not help. It focused on terrorism and defending the Second Amendment.

KARA TAN BHALA: It just made me feel as if my voice wasn't being heard in a very conservative state and that, perhaps, it was time to just take a break from the country and come back when things get better.

VENUGOPAL: So now they're looking abroad. The shooting and other recent incidents have served as a huge wakeup call for the Indian community, says Anirvan Chatterjee, a Bay Area organizer. I met him at the National South-Asian summit in D.C.


ANIRVAN CHATTERJEE: We started seeing all these people coming out of the woodwork, going like, we need to civically engaged.

VENUGOPAL: Many of these are affluent, well-educated people. Indian Americans have the highest median income of any ethnic group in the country. Historian Vijay Prashad said that's because when the U.S. started allowing Indians into the country in the 1960s, it only took in the most educated ones.

VIJAY PRASHAD: Between 1965 and about 1980, 85 percent of the Indians who entered the United States had advanced degrees in engineering or in applied sciences of some kind or pure sciences or physics, chemistry, et cetera.

VENUGOPAL: This was during the Cold War when America wanted to stay ahead of the Soviets. As for all those Indian doctors, they came in response to the passage of Medicaid and Medicare, which created an enormous need for medical expertise.

PRASHAD: So I mean, it's an extraordinary thing. It's unheard of in terms of migration policy that the government would allow in people of such high skills and then create this very strange community inside the United States.

VENUGOPAL: It was social engineering, but it became fashionable to say Indian-Americans did well because of, quote, "cultural values." Critics call this the model minority myth - a narrative that elevates some groups while arguing that others namely, blacks and Hispanics, have the wrong values or don't try hard enough. In other words, it's a racial hierarchy. Here's how comedian Vir Das recently put it on Conan O'Brien.


VIR DAS: Not the best time to be brown, but if you're going to be brown, Indian is the best brown. Think about where all the other brown people on the planet come from. Indians, we are the top of that food chain. Indians, we are the white people of brown people.


VENUGOPAL: But Vir is not quite done.


DAS: Because when we get shot, there's an investigation, ladies and gentlemen.

VENUGOPAL: We're dark enough to be the targets of hate crimes, but connected enough that the powers that be actually pay attention. That strange paradox explains why even the wealthiest Indian Americans are now mobilizing, why they are aligning with civil rights groups and other communities of color because, frankly, they're scared. Anirvan Chatterjee.

CHATTERJEE: It's not enough for us to just be good people and go to PTA meetings and know our neighbors.

VENUGOPAL: People need to engage, he says, and be ready for whatever comes next. For NPR News, I'm Arun Venugopal in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.