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Black lives made my life, as an Indian American doctor, possible | COMMENTARY

Linda Brown Smith, date and location unknown. Smith was a third-grader when her father started a class-action suit in 1951 in connection with the case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kan., which led to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 landmark decision against school segregation. (Associated Press)
Linda Brown Smith, date and location unknown. Smith was a third-grader when her father started a class-action suit in 1951 in connection with the case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kan., which led to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 landmark decision against school segregation. (Associated Press) (Associated Press)

I am an Indian American physician living in Baltimore. I went to college here, trained here, and now I work here. I have realized that Black Americans made my life in America possible. If it were not for Black Americans’ talents, creativity and resilience, I and other Indian American doctors would not have the opportunities that we enjoy today.

Black lives changed the trajectory of my life before I was born. To understand this, we must look back in history and see that Indians were not in a position to succeed in the U.S. until the 1960s.

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In the early 20th century, Indian immigration to the U.S. was stalled through the Immigration Act of 1917, creating an “Asiatic Barred Zone” denying entry for almost everyone from Asia. Through the Alien Land Act of 1913, Indian immigrants were stripped of any land and opportunity for purchase. If citizenship would overcome these struggles, Indians were again thwarted. The Supreme Court decision in U.S. v. Thind (1923) reserved the right to American naturalization for European Caucasians only. With all these dissuading factors, many Indians left the country until the census only counted a few thousand by 1946.

Then, Indians’ prospects changed dramatically. After World War II, Black lives transformed this country. I have long admired one of Baltimore’s favorite sons, Thurgood Marshall. He was the brilliant top lawyer for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and eventually a Supreme Court Justice.

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He ended the era of “separate but equal” practices in education. Marshall showed that “white” and “colored” education facilities were definitively unequal throughout the country and in violation of the 14th Amendment. Marshall initially used this argument to overturn racial discrimination during the admissions process at the University of Maryland School of Law. He subsequently argued similar cases across the country until the Supreme Court upheld his reasoning nationwide in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. In principle, this opened higher education to people of all ethnicities, including Indian Americans like myself. At this time, South Asians were still barely emigrating to the U.S., but Indians who resided in the U.S. were gaining naturalization rights.

The 1960s forged ahead with the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act and the Immigration and Naturalization Act (INA). The INA stopped explicit exclusion of nonwhite race immigration, and Indians started immigrating heavily through technical and professional visas. These initial cohorts included my father, an electrical engineer. The number of Indians in America quickly grew to 175,000 by 1975. This new generation of Indian immigrants had access, by law, to American higher education.

But access by law was not enough. Students of color still needed to walk through the doors of historically segregated schools, sometimes under threatened retaliation by the Ku Klux Klan. I cannot imagine the courage of Vivian Malone and James Hood, the first black students registering for classes at the University of Alabama in 1963. They had the Alabama governor standing in their way until the Federal Department of Justice intervened. The story of James Meredith’s first year at Ole Miss, as the University’s first Black student in 1962, is even more frightening to me. He needed a Federal escort in school for an extended period.

The great Black lives of Thurgood Marshall, Vivian Malone, James Hood, and James Meredith made it possible for Indian Americans to have access to American higher education. Aside from these famous names, countless numbers of Black lives fought for American minorities to have access to the same education and opportunities as white people.

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With my higher education, I have found a stable and satisfying career. My family and friends can say the same. We did not get here by ourselves. We had civil rights advocates and trailblazers come before us. After considering what 20th century Black lives made possible for my generation — I have realized it is not enough to say Black Lives Matter.

For me, Black Lives Made America Great.

Arkaprava Deb (ArkaDeb.Baltimore@gmail.com) is a psychiatrist and preventive medicine physician.

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