This was my favorite yard sign during the months leading up to the 2020 presidential election. During the darkest days marked by mounting COVID-19 deaths, and dog whistles to white supremacists from the White House, it seemed that day would never come.
Votes were cast before or on November 3, and for one, then two, then three days after, an anxious nation awaited the results, dispensing with sleep and most forms of healthy nourishment. We are dealing with the shock that half the nation actually voted to keep Donald Trump in office.
Four years later, this is another wake-up call for Democrats. Who are these people? Who is being left so far behind that they believe Donald Trump is their savior? There have been some analyses, talk of a shrinking middle class, traditionally the Democratic base. Some speculate that perhaps a shift of the population to the edges, those with either very low or very high incomes, have enabled Trump, The voting demographics will be revealing.
A few hours into the morning of Saturday, November 7, after hours of vote-counting, the Associated Press called the state of Nevada and Pennsylvania for Joe Biden. The news flashed across the television networks and Twitter in seconds, and a tidal wave of jubilation took over. My immediate reaction was visceral: I was in tears at what has been achieved with Harris’s victory.
My favorite headline, “Biden wins, Harris makes history” said it all. First woman VP. (Really, America? How shameful that it has taken this long.) First Black person. First Asian American, specifically, the first person of Indian descent.
Shyamala Gopalan came to the US at the age of 19, as I did, to pursue an education. We know the story, of how she got involved soon after in the civil rights movement, where she met Donald Harris who became her husband. How later, as a single mother, with a strong moral compass, she raised her daughters as Black girls and taught them that they could be anything, do anything. On November 7, Kamala’s sister, Maya Harris, tweeted this:
Kamala Harris’s ascent to the most powerful position any woman has ever held in America is a striking reminder of “possibilities” – the single word Joe Biden chose to describe America in his acceptance speech. With a full heart, I told my daughter, “You can be President! You are like Kamala. Born in America to an Indian mother.” Never mind that she replied, with teen wisdom combined with sarcasm, “Why would I want to be President?!” In 2016, my daughter, then 11, and I watched in horror as state after state was called in favor of Donald Trump. That night, I went to bed at 9 PM, knowing where things were headed, and unable to bear it. I woke up to the horror. I remember the shock on my daughter’s face when I told her the results. To express my anger, frustration, and despair, I wrote this soon after that. And in 2020, a year of unending horrors, the smile on her face as she came out of her room, sleepy-eyed, smiling broadly, having seen the news on social media, made it seem that things would be all right again. We shared a joyous hug. Some captivating art has been making the rounds, inspired by this trail-blazing, accomplished, beautiful, formidable, competent leader.
This is the one I like the best, by San Francisco artist Bria Goeller. Here, Madam Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris walks purposefully, and her shadow is the silhouette of 6-year-old Ruby Bridges when she became the first Black student to integrate an all-white school in newly-desegregated New Orleans, Louisiana in 1960.
Here is the original painting by Norman Rockwell of her walking escorted by four deputy US marshals. Notice the slur on the wall, the hurled fruit smashed on the ground. And in the midst of it, the little girl with her notebook and ruler. In the words of Martin Luther King, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
The relief many of us feel is palpable. Finally, there is hope. A burden has lifted.
And one day, like a miracle, he will be gone. Can’t wait.
Raji Pillai lives in the SF Bay Area, and writes at www.rajiwrites.com where this article was originally published.
Dr. King’s words continue to be a powerful message for South Asians throughout the U.S.
Over the past month and a half, our country has been jolted by recent acts of violence against black folks. While systemic injustice and racism have existed in this country for centuries, there is renewed political engagement with the entrenched issues of race in our country.
For the South Asian community, it is more important than ever to be “accomplices” in the fight against white supremacy and racism. Several South Asian activist groups and nonprofits are paving the way to help our community uncover some of its entrenched prejudices. Through education and civic leadership, these groups are helping the community discover how to participate in today’s movement.
Why does this matter to the South Asian community?
The human dignity of black folks is something so fundamental that has been repeatedly ignored by our country. South Asians have often ignored their complicity in this reality by hiding behind the bootstrap myth or perpetrating harmful anti-black ideologies.
However, our communities are more interdependent than people might initially believe.
“Our stories are very much interconnected and to deny that it is the doing of white supremacy and colonization that tries to keep our people divided,” says Sabiha Basrai, a member of ASATA, a grassroots South Asian activist organization in San Francisco.
South Asians and black folks have a long and shared history. Black leaders have long fought for the liberation of South Asian communities. In the 1960s, the activism on the part of the civil rights movement banned national and racial quotas on immigrants, enabling the vast majority of today’s South Asian immigrants to come to America.
Solidarity with communities of color is more than merely a thought, it’s been exemplified throughout the course of history.
“A specific example of that kind of solidarity is demonstrated through Bayard Rustin who was a civil rights leader. He actually committed an act of civil disobedience in support of the free India movement in the forties. He locked himself to a British embassy in the United States to protest the British occupation of India,” says Basrai.
But over time, the South Asian community has forgotten about that solidarity. In today’s moment, it’s important to hear the call to action, Basrai advises.
What’s Caste got to do with it?
“We must examine and reflect on our own complicity with hierarchical systems, like caste, which enables so much police violence within our communities and within home regions,” says Mahn, communications director at Equality Labs. Equality Labs is an organization that fights against oppressive systems in South Asian communities through political education and collective organizing.
Holding complexity is an important part of this conversation, Mahn says.
“Caste isn’t just a theory. It’s a real experience of hegemony for a lot of people.” Black and South Asian experiences are both tied to hierarchies of power.
“Racial apartheid and caste apartheid depend on both racial abolition and caste abolition. They’re corollaries, they intersect in a lot of important ways for the South Asian community, but they’re parallel. They’re not the same thing,” Mahn says.
Caste continues to be crucial to the conversation about the South Asian diaspora. Last month, technology giant Cisco Systems was sued for discrimination against Dalit employees. The employee experienced verbal harassment and fewer workplace opportunities due to caste. These systems of harm are real and have tangible consequences in diaspora communities.
Progressive organizations like Equality Labs are encouraging South Asians to reflect on different vectors of privilege. While South Asians may be harmed by white supremacy in some respects, the community also benefits from the model minority myth. Similarly, it’s critical for South Asians to understand how they may propagate systems of harm.
“The incredible thing about activism is that there are so many different ways to be involved and each of them matter, each of them are important in terms of what the work is that needs to be done and the change that we need to see happen,” she says.
Getting involved can range from a variety of different activities, from attending protests, to donating to black non-profits, to starting conversations in one’s own community – the critical piece is personal education.
“None of us are born with bias against anyone. It is taught to us. And the beautiful thing about that is it means that it can be unlearned as well.” Sinha says.
Sinha says action is like a ladder. We have the personal-level, targeting biases in our own minds. We have the community-level, where we help people in our communities fight against these injustices. And finally, we have the policy level. It’s important to hold political systems accountable, “whether that’s through calling into different congressional offices and police departments, and being able to use your voice in whatever ways is comfortable to you.”
It’s important for South Asians to mobilize against anti-blackness.
“Where I really want people to understand that rather than being a source of fear or holding you back or paralysis that in fact, making even those small changes helps buffer us against racism. So if you’re feeling a little helpless or a little stuck pushing yourself to act on any level is a major part of what makes us heal.”
Today’s moment is different from anything in our recent history. Sinha thinks that shows promise.
“People are thinking about these issues for many people in a way that they never have before. And that just speaks to the power of the possibility and power of growth and change for humans.”
South Asian history is now inextricably linked to American history. The radical nature of today’s moment is important and will define the way our society functions for generations. We must choose the side of justice, for our collective liberation.
Swathi Ramprasad is a senior at Duke University. She enjoys learning more about the world through her South Asian heritage.
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.
Mahatma Gandhi, whose birthday is celebrated worldwide on October 2 (the International Day of Non-Violence), influenced many non-violent swaraj movements across the world, including the American Civil Rights movement led by Martin Luther King Jr.
The Gandhi-King Global Initiative (GKGI) at Stanford University (Oct 11-13), will commemorate the 150th anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi’s birth. The conference is an opportunity to honor the legacies of these two kindred spirits, Gandhi and King, and to share and act on world-changing ideals such as swaraj (self-rule), satyagraha (truth), sarvodaya (service), and ahimsa (nonviolence).
What did your grandfather want for India, for an Asia that is now ascendant?
Let me begin by recalling the words he offered more than 71 years ago to Asian leaders assembled in Delhi’s Old Fort, or the Purana Qila.
When Gandhi made those remarks in early April 1947, I was present as an eleven-year-old. Even if I understood his words at the time, I quickly forgot them. Yet the scene I glimpsed then, a Purana Qila dais occupied by Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sarojini Naidu and a very tall Badshah Khan, remains somewhere in my brain.
“I want you to go away with the thought that Asia has to conquer the West through love and truth. In this age of democracy, in this age of awakening of the poorest of the poor, you can redeliver this message with the greatest emphasis…. You will complete the conquest of the West not through vengeance because you have been exploited, but with real understanding…This conquest will be loved by the West itself.”
In the purest sense of the word, don’t you think this is a rather “Christian” outlook? (Webster’s definition of “Christian:” “treating other people in a kind or generous way.”)
‘Hate not,’ Gandhi was saying to Asians who resented the European colonization that was approaching its end. Vengeance was folly. But ‘conquest’ of another kind was fair. Asians could ‘conquer’ the West with love and truth.
Your grandfather was a rather frank man. What would he make of the violence in Indian movies, the “honor killings” in Indian villages, what some are calling state-sponsored “incarceration” of Kashmiris?
Many in the world were greeting India’s independence as a triumph of nonviolence. However, Gandhi was aware of India’s hospitality to violence. In a prayer-meeting talk on 16 June 1947, he admitted that India had accepted his nonviolent satyagraha not because violence was a horror, but because satyagraha seemed more effective than violence against the Empire. Said Gandhi:
“No one at the time (during the battles for Swaraj) showed us how to make an atom bomb. Had we known how to make it, we would have considered annihilating the English with it.”
Well, that’s rather distressing. Would he have foreseen that some in India’s Parliament are actually celebrating Nathuram Godse, Gandhiji’s assassin?
In their anger (Gandhi warned), Indians — the ‘we’ with whom he always identified himself, even when they went against him — might even have contemplated limitless violence, with dissenters like Gandhi protesting with their lives.
So how do we build trust when there are such fundamentally disparate viewpoints? We have something similar at work in the United States with the paralyzing mistrust between Republicans and Democrats.
Contrasting trust between communities, for which Gandhi strove, with bids by a government to win the trust of an individual or a community, poet-academic Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee observes that ‘trust, in the Gandhian sense, is an endearing and enduring state of confidence between people and communities.’ … Bhattacharjee argues that for Muslims and Hindus to trust each other is more important in India than for either community to trust a government. Mutual trust among a people builds democracy. Distrusting your neighbor while trusting the government is the road to dictatorship.
What do you think Gandhiji would make of the American situation which has a group of four young, congresswomen of color (“The Squad”) pushing back on what they are calling the racist policies of one older, white President (Donald Trump)?
In Gandhi’s Swaraj, the weakest Indian had the right to dissent. In his view, bullies were Swaraj’s annihilators.
There are times that I seek refuge in God from the madness of the world. For private reflection, I go to the mandir in our home, and to be in community, I go to the local Hindu temple. This gives me a deep sense of peacefulness, but I wonder if it is really just a form of escape.
I think it is impossibleto separate Gandhi, the public campaigner, from the inner Mohandas. We cannot separate Gandhi, the leader of millions, from the personal Gandhi who prayed, often from a position of helplessness, for strength and wisdom from God.
Hmm. “A leader of millions.” I do wonder if Gandhiji would think of himself that way or find himself reflected in Rabindranath Tagore’s poem, “Ekla Cholo Re” (“Walk Alone”).
Gandhi was asked by a young man from Gujarat … whether he expected a following for civil disobedience in India. Replied Gandhi:
“I am not very much worried about securing a large following. That will come in due course. But I do anticipate that a time may come when my large following may throw me overboard on account of my strict adhesion to my principles – and it may be that I shall almost be turned out on the streets and have to beg for a piece of bread from door to door.”
On May 3, 2019 Civic Leadership USA (CLUSA) and DingDing TV in partnership with India Currentsheld a Civic Leadership Forum aimed at addressing the need for Asian American to work together — the central question of the night being: What are the challenges facing Asian Americans?
A special guest for the event was Congressman David Wu, the first Taiwanese American to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Dr. Xiaoyan Zhang Cheng, visiting professor at the University of Pittsburgh, gave the keynote address. Aided with a PowerPoint presentation, he spoke of the unequal representation of Asian Americans in the political sphere. He focused on the fact that Asians tend to pursue high-paying jobs in STEM, thus paying disproportionately high tax dollars compared to other communities. The interesting thing, he noted, was that despite the larger portion of tax dollars paid, the number of Asian Americans holding public office was not proportional.
He also spoke of the pervasive nature of unequal Asian American representation in performing arts. However cinematic hits like Harold and Kumar and Crazy Rich Asians, proved to Hollywood that stories about Asians, featuring Asian actors and actresses in lead roles, can be enjoyed by all – AND make money!!
“All boats are lifted when water rises,” was his message that resonated with all, highlighting the power of working together.
This was followed by a panel discussion led by Joel Wong, former President of APAPA Greater Bay Area about the need for Asian communities to work together. The panel included Angelica Cortez (Investor Relations, Silicon Valley Leadership Group), Somanjana Chatterjee (Diversity Ambassador, India Currents) , and Cathy Peng (CEO at ROCS Global), representing the Filipino, Indian, and Chinese communities respectively. The panelists spoke of of the need for Asians to work together and the successes that are possible with this combined effort.
The program concluded with a dance piece choreographed by Mythili Kumar, Artistic Director, Abhinaya Dance Company. The performance featured “I Have A Dream” — a piece in bharatanatyam (an Indian classical dance form) performed by Indian-American dancers, about the struggles within the African-American community, which was viewed predominantly by audience members who were Chinese-American. A beautiful example of working together!
Events like these are essential in educating a new generation of leaders drawn from within the Asian American community. True to Dr. Xiaoyan Zhang Cheng’s words, the face of genuine representation will be the election of an Asian American president in the near future.