Tag Archives: Bengali

Rahima Begum Wins AALDEF Lawsuit To Vote In Bengali

When the city of Hamtramck in Michigan goes to the polls on August 3,  Bangladeshi-American Rahima Begum will cast her vote for the first time in Bengali.

Rahima, 47, who lives in Hamtramck with her husband and two daughters is a limited English speaker like many in her Bangladeshi community. For years she struggled to understand the English-only election information that Hamtramck provided and relied on her daughters to translate the ballots when casting her vote.

Though Bengali is a minority language protected by Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act, and designated for language assistance provision in Hamtramck since 2011, it took ten years and a lawsuit for Rahima to win the bilingual-language assistance that was rightfully hers.

Rahima was a plaintiff along with Detroit Action, a grassroots organization that advocates for marginalized communities, in a lawsuit filed by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) against the City of Hamtramck, over the failure of its former City Clerk to provide Bengali language information and assistance in compliance with the Voting Rights Act (VRA).

The complaint prompted a speedy resolution by Hamtramck City Council to provide Bengali language assistance for its Bengali-speaking electorate.

“It shouldn’t have to take a complaint to ensure people comply with a law that they have been subject to since 2011,” said Susana Lorenzo-Giguere, Senior Staff Attorney at AALDEF. But with the new decree in place, Rahima and other Bangladeshi voters in Hamtramck will now have access to translated ballots and Bengali-speaking poll workers in the upcoming primary elections.

The win was a relief for Rahima who told India Currents that many other Bengali speakers were unable to vote due to a language barrier. “I know first-hand how difficult it is to vote. Other Bengali speakers may not have children to rely on. I am confident that it will encourage more people to vote and participate in the democratic system.”

 

A formula to protect eligible immigrant voters

Hamtramck sits 5 miles from the center of Detroit. It is home to a diverse immigrant population from Yemen, Poland and Eastern Europe, and reflects the changing face of America as immigrants make the country their home.

Over the last 20 years, more immigrants across the US are becoming eligible to vote – approximately one out of every ten eligible voters is an immigrant. A  Pew study found that the immigrant electorate nearly doubled to 23.2 million since 2000.

But many of these voters have difficulty communicating in English. They need access to voting materials in their own language so they can cast informed votes. Section 203 of the VRA was implemented to ensure that  eligible immigrant voters were not excluded from the voting process by their lack of English language skills.

According to the law, when 5% of voting-age citizens are limited-English proficient (LEP) in a jurisdiction, local election officials must provide election information in the minority language in order to help them participate in the voting process, and ensure equitable elections.

“The law has a numeric formula of 5% or 10,000 of voting age citizens who are limited English speaking in a jurisdiction running elections, like Hamtramck,” explained Lorenzo-Giguere, “and Hamtramck met that formula.”

Bangladeshis, who make up 20% of the population in Hamtramck, made sure their voices were heard in the 2010 census.

“What local advocacy groups did in Hamtramck is that they mobilized to ensure everybody in the community filled out their census form and also to specifically write in “Bangladeshi” on their census form, not just check off Asian Indian,”   said Lorenzo-Giguere.

“So that’s why the Director of the Census designated Hamtramck for ballots in Bengali. Once that designation is made by the Census it isn’t reviewable, except if the next Census shows they no longer meet the formula. Under the law, Congress has decided that such cities that meet the formula must provide election materials and assistance in that language because that is what the community needs.”

Out of four jurisdictions designated for Asian Indian language assistance by Section 203 – (New Jersey (Middlesex), New York (Queens) and Illinois (Cook – Hamtramck is the only one covered for Bengali.

But Hamtramck’s former City Clerk made no such provision for its Bangladeshi community.  The city had an English-only elections website for its English-speaking residents, and did not offer Bengali ballots, or adequate numbers of Bengali speaking poll workers or interpreters at its poll sites.

 

Race relations upend civic participation in Hamtramck

Even though Hamtramck holds the distinction of electing the first Muslim-majority city council in the history of the United States, and is recognized as Michigan’s most internationally diverse city with a foreign born population that stands at 41.1%, an underlying racism still divides the community.

“We’ve heard that certain city ordinances have been disproportionately enforced against the Bangladeshi and Yemeni residents,” said AALDEF. “The vast majority of people responding to citations – too much garbage in their garbage cans, or hedges being too high, or screened-in porches – are Bangladeshi and Yemeni.”

“Despite the fact that there were gains in the election of Yemeni and Bangladeshi City Council members, the white, non-Yemeni and non-Bangladeshi city council meeting attendees like the city clerk, city manager, city mayor, city attorney, and other city council members, still controlled the way the city and city elections were run,” said Lorenzo-Giguere.

Hamtramck’s public officials exhibited prejudicial behavior to thwart immigrants trying to engage in their civic  duty.

“Live recorded meetings show that a white city council member told a Yemeni city council member to shut up. A couple of years ago that same white city council member was censured for physically assaulting a non-white city council member with whom he disagreed. Before that he had made public comments that the City of Hamtramck was dirty because of its immigrant residents.”

“Although the election of Barack Obama as the first black President was historic, it didn’t mean that there’s no more racism in the United States,” said Lorenzo-Giguere, explaining why the city lagged in its compliance with Section 203.

Advocates described how discriminatory tactics derailed Hamtramck’s minority communities as they tried to navigate barriers to casting their vote.

When Bangladeshi voters turned to Bengali speaking exit pollers (mostly high school volunteers) for assistance, white poll workers came out and called the police on the volunteer Bangladeshi exit pollers saying that they were intimidating voters.

“It’s quite frightening, I imagine, for high school volunteers who were there to help their community

Community leaders who tried to offer assistance incurred criminal liability while simply trying to help people.

“Limited English speaking voters  would not have needed help with their absentee ballots if Hamtramck had just complied with the law and provided Bengali ballots and assistance. The voters couldn’t know that asking a friend to bring their absentee ballot to the clerk’s office was possibly a crime because the notice was only in English.”

““There is tension between this idea of voter integrity and actual voting access,” said Lorenzo-Giguere .”Unbeknownst to them, they may be committing a crime. There is the appearance of committing fraud though that’s not their intention at all.  It’s troubling the criminalization and weaponization that’s asserted when people are trying to vote or help others to vote.”

In October, before the last general election, Detroit Action reviewed a sample ballot and identified poorly made translations and other language inaccuracies.  The former City Clerk confirmed that the sample ballot was the same as what was made available to voters as the official ballot.

Community groups like Detroit Action, Rising Voices, APIA Vote offered their assistance to recruit election workers, and to look at the translations, and they were declined.

“So in the face of all of those declined offers and for the voters who had problems because they didn’t have Bengali assistance at the polls, or Bengali ballots or materials, or a Bengali website to get  election information, there was a clear violation,” said Lorenzo-Giguere, “and the effect was that it suppressed voters.”

In a statement, AALDEF confirmed it sent a letter to the former city clerk, August Gitschlag, alerting the City to specific violations under Section 203, ahead of its 2020 special election to fill the late Representative Isaac Robinson’s seat of Michigan’s 4th House District (including Hamtramck).

But Bengali speaking voters continued to be excluded from City’s 2020 primary and general election process despite 10 years of Section  203 coverage.

After a year without any response to specific notifications of Section 203 violations, AALDEF filed the lawsuit against the Hamtramck; the City  resolved the complaint by agreeing to provide Bengali language information and assistance, and convening an emergency meeting to approve the terms of a negotiated Consent Decree on June 30, 2021.

 

Hamtramck settles AALDEF lawsuit and agrees  to provide Bengali Language Assstance

“This lawsuit was necessary to protect the voting rights of this growing population and to remove unnecessary barriers to engaging in our democracy,” said Branden Snyder, Executive Director of Detroit Action.

“We are pleased with the results. These are good community solutions which we hope can be replicated for other communities and in other cities, even where they aren’t required by the VRA.”

Going forward, the city of Hamtramck  will comply with the Consent Decree for all future elections, and provide accurately translated election materials in Bengali, assign Bengali  speaking bilingual poll workers and interpreters to its poll sites, and appoint a Bengali Elections Program Coordinator  and an Advisory Group to advise its Bengali Elections Program.

“The right to vote is fundamental and cannot be taken away or restricted based on English language ability, said Sarah Prescott, partner at Salvatore Prescott Porter & Porter which served as pro bono co-counsel in this lawsuit with AALDEF; neither organization sought attorneys’ fees for their work.

“With this Consent Decree, Bangladeshi American voters achieved progress toward equality at the polls,” said Lorenzo-Giguere. “It is an expenditure that has to be made in order to comply with the law. And if the result is that hundreds of citizens can understand and participate in the voting process, then it’s worth it.

Lorenzo-Giguere applauded Rahima’s role in the outcome. “We’re hopeful that this lawsuit, thanks to Rahima’s bravery, will make a difference.”

In the primaries coming up, Rahima can vote in Bengali to elect Hamtramck’s next mayor and council members from a slate of minority candidates.

Rahima’s daughter Farhana is proud of her mother.  “I remember when I first told her about the lawsuit she was very nervous. She is a housewife, and this is the first time she got to do something big.”

“Her smile when I first told her she had won she said, oh my goodness I helped with that.”

“Sometimes when you are afraid, take a step forward. Big change can happen.”

 

Contact AALDEF to find out more about protecting Asian American civil rights.


Meera Kymal is the Contributing Editor at India Currents
Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash


 

Black and Desi: A Shared History

On January 28, 1900, Swami Vivekananda looked out at the white audience at the Universalist Church in Pasadena, California, and spoke out against anti-Black racism. “As soon as a man becomes a Mohammedan, the whole of Islam receives him as a brother with open arms, without making any distinction, which no other religion does … In this country, I have never yet seen a church where the white man and the negro can kneel side by side to pray.

Half a century later, a young Black man sat down inside the British Embassy in Washington, DC, and refused to move. African American pacifist Bayard Rustin became director of the Free India Committee in 1945, working to end British rule in India. But it wasn’t enough to just talk, so Rustin began leading sit-in protests at the British Embassy, repeatedly getting arrested as he worked to help free India, two decades before he went on to organize the 1963 March on Washington, site of Martin Luther King, Jr’s “I have a dream” speech.

Why would a Hindu monk speak out against anti-Black racism? Why would a gay African American civil rights leader repeatedly face arrest fighting for India’s independence? South Asians and African Americans have been standing up for each other for over a century. Our histories are deeply intertwined, even if our communities don’t always know it.

I don’t know if Vivekananda was scared to condemn American anti-Black racism. But I heard fear, or at least a great discomfort, when I talked to a young Desi activist speaking out against anti-Black racism. She wasn’t scared of engaging in civil disobedience, but the thought of talking to her parents left her speechless. “When I act in solidarity with Black people in this movement, I want to call my parents into the struggle,” she explained. “After an action, when Ma calls and asks if I’ve eaten and if my health is well and how is school, I want to tell her everything … Instead, I say, ‘My health is good, Ma.’ And it breaks my heart.”

South Asians and African Americans have been standing up for each other for over a century. If we knew our shared history, would it make the conversations easier?

The Black Bengalis of Harlem: 1880s-1940s

Growing up in California, many of my South Asian friends were instructed by their parents that they weren’t allowed to marry someone African American—racism cloaked as “tradition.” But over the last several years, historian Vivek Bald has uncovered a history we were never told: when we were new to the United States, we were welcomed by African American communities, to intermarry, and built rich mixed lives together.

Between the 1880s and 1940s, two waves of South Asian men came to the United States, marrying and building new lives in African American, Creole, and Puerto Rican communities. Bald traced the story of these men and their lives in a strange new country in his groundbreaking book Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America.

The first wave of these immigrants came to the United States from the Hooghly district of Bengal between the 1880s and 1910s. They worked as peddlers across the East Coast and the South, selling embroidered silks and “Oriental” goods from Bengal. These dark-skinned Muslim immigrants found homes in communities of color, with many settling in New Orleans. Bald found records of about two dozen South Asian men in New Orleans who married African American and Creole women.

Moksad and Elizabeth Ali married in 1895 and had six sons and a daughter. In 1900, they were living in a joint family in New Orleans’ Third Ward: Moksad, Elizabeth, their children, Elizabeth’s sister, and brother-in-law, and her 80-year-old grandmother, a freed slave from Virginia. The Alis later moved to Mississippi, and by the 1920s, the next generation of Alis had moved to New York’s Harlem neighborhood, where a new Black Bengali community was about to form.

From World War I to the 1940s, the second wave of working-class Bengali ex-seamen was finding their way to New York, often settling in Harlem, the heart of African American New York. Vivek Bald, an intrepid history detective, scoured New York City marriage records to uncover the stories of Harlem Bengalis marrying African American and Puerto Rican women.

The community eventually spread outside Harlem, but the Bengali men, their wives, and their mixed-race families would continue to come together to celebrate Eid-al-fitr, and host an annual summer celebration bringing together hundreds of members of the scattered community.

Dreaming of Freedom, Standing Up for Civil Rights: 1920s-1947

From the 1920s onward, Indian and African American freedom fighters started recognizing the links between their struggles against colonial rule and racist oppression. Gerald Horne, Sudarshan Kapur, and others have written extensively about this history, often focusing on African American scholar and civil rights leader W. E. B. Du Bois, who corresponded with Gandhi, Nehru, Ambedkar, Lala Lajpat Rai, and others.

By 1942, Horace Cayton, Jr. would write “it may seem odd to hear India discussed in pool rooms in South State Street in Chicago, but India and the possibility of the Indians obtaining their freedom from England by any means has captured the imagination of the American Negro.” The NAACP, the prominent African American civil rights group, passed a resolution supporting Indian autonomy that same year, with accompanying statements from major African American artist-activists like Paul Robeson, Countee Cullen, and Langston Hughes.

African American poet Langston Hughes, a leader of the Harlem Renaissance, wrote eloquently about the shared struggle of Indians and African Americans. “It just does not make sense,” he wrote, “for the Allied leaders of the Western world to make beautiful speeches about freedom and liberty and democracy with India still in chains and Negroes still jim-crowed.”

One of Langston Hughes’ several poems about Indian liberation, “How About It, Dixie” connected Indian political prisoners and African American victims of racist police brutality. It reads, in part:

“Show me that you mean / Democracy please— / Cause from Bombay to Georgia / I’m beat to my knees / You can’t lock up Nehru / Club Roland Hayes /  Then make fine speeches / About Freedom’s way.”

Jawaharlal Nehru was devoted to solidarity with African America, connecting both with friends like Paul Robeson, and through intermediaries like Cedric Grover. After India gained independence, solidarity was complicated by the need to maintain good relations with a white-led American government. However, in a secret memo to the first Indian ambassadors to the U.S. and China, Nehru remained clear about India’s position: “our sympathies are entirely with the Negroes.”

How African Americans Created South Asian America: 1950-1960s

We are in the United States today because African American activists organized, bled, and died to overturn the racist laws keeping us out. American laws long restricted immigration from South Asia. While several thousand South Asians had journeyed to the United States by the early 20th century, the Immigration Act of 1917 explicitly barred our immigration. Three decades later, the 1946 Luce-Cellar Act loosened the restrictions—but allowed in only one hundred Indian immigrants per year.

From the 1950s onward, new waves of African American activists took on the policies upholding American racism. Civil rights activists organized in the face of social pressure, mob violence, police brutality, and domestic terror. In Mississippi, NAACP activist Medgar Evers was shot and killed in his home. In Alabama, four little girls were killed when their church was firebombed. In South Carolina, three students were shot and killed by Highway Patrol officers on a college campus. In Tennessee, Nobel Peace Prize winner Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated as he stood in support of local African American union workers. The list goes on.

Some early South Asian immigrants participated in the civil rights movement. For example, in his book Colored Cosmopolitanism, historian Nico Slate describes how in the mid-1960s, two professors in Jackson, Mississippi stood with their African American students to help desegregate the city in the mid-1960s. Hamid Kizilbash (from Pakistan) and Savithri Chattopadhyay (from India), both faculty members at Tougaloo College, challenged racial segregation and terror, taking advantage of their ambiguous racial status. (In one instance, a white mob stopped attacking a bloody Kizilbash after a priest yelled “he’s not Negro, he is Indian.”)

The civil rights movement won one of its biggest victories with the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Services Act of 1965, which created South Asian America as we know it today. This law ended the racist restrictive immigration quotas, allowing us to become one of the fastest-growing populations in the United States, with over 3.5 million South Asians in the United States today.

While the burden of the civil rights movement was carried largely by African Americans, perhaps no group has benefited as much from African American activism as Indian (and particularly upper-caste Hindu) Americans. Fifty years after the civil rights movement, the median Indian American household income is over two and a half times higher than that of African Americans, in part because of immigration policies favoring the selective import of skilled foreign workers like my father.

I grew up in the United States, and never questioned my right to be here. But my wife Barnali Ghosh came to the United States as a graduate student; and stayed on as an H-1B worker. Learning history made a deep impression on her. “I realized that my presence in this country, and the existence of our Desi community, was possible only because African American activists helped overturn anti-Indian immigration laws. How do we repay the deep debt that we owe?”

South Asians for Black Lives: 2014-

Seventy years ago, Bayard Rustin, a gay African American civil rights activist, repeatedly engaged in civil disobedience to support Indian independence. Across the country, South Asians are starting to repay the debt, at a time when African American activists are asking other communities for their support as they organize against racism and police brutality.

In Ferguson, Missouri, after Michael Brown was fatally shot, South Asians whose businesses were impacted by protests stood with their African American neighbors and often saw their neighbors stand up for them. Ferguson resident Anil Gopal, president of the St. Louis Asian Indian Business Association, described to India Abroad how “Black people came to help the (Indian) community … Some of them even kept vigil outside the store as long as they could, to protect the stores.”

In New York City, the DRUM (Desis Rising Up And Moving) South Asian Organizing Center brought together over a hundred community members to discuss race and policing in light of the killings of Mike Brown and Eric Garner, before starting a march against racism and for immigrant rights.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, South Asians organizing with #Asians4BlackLives have been engaging in nonviolent civil disobedience against institutions responsible for killing African Americans.

Across the country, South Asian Americans are divided about how we understand our relationship to African Americans; many community members have never given much thought to the topic. The Queer South Asian National Network developed a free curriculum on confronting anti-Blackness in South Asian communities, which is being used for 1–2 hour workshops in New York City, Detroit, Washington, D.C., and beyond. Little by little, some community members are choosing to repay the debt, continuing the century-long tradition of solidarity.

Growing up, I learned a version of our community’s history where we desis worked hard, pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps, never connecting with other communities of color.

But for over a century, South Asians and African Americans have lived entangled lives—Black-Bengali marriages, Vivekananda speaking out against anti-Black racism, satyagraha in the civil rights movement, Indian Muslims offering Black Muslims a more global perspective, Dalit activists learning about Black Power, long histories of individual friendships, and African American activists who first fought for our independence, and then helped end the barriers to our immigration.

Knowing our history leaves us with a choice. Behind closed doors, I’ve heard some of us openly express anti-Black racism; perhaps this is linked to casteism or colorism, or maybe we’re mimicking what we see and hear around us. Will we ignore our history and give in to some of our worst instincts? Many community members are choosing a different path, celebrating our shared histories, and helping add a new chapter to one of our best and oldest traditions.

Anirvan Chatterjee is a community historian. He’s one of the curators of the award-winning Berkeley South Asian Radical History Walking Tour, and the author of the Secret History of South Asian and African American Solidarity


First published on the 1st of June, 2015.