Tag Archives: racism

Hindu temple in Livermore, California.

Eliminating Caste Discrimination is What Hindus Should Do

bell hooks once wrote that “homeplace” was a place constructed “where Black people could affirm one another and by so doing heal many of the wounds inflicted by racist domination.” I like to think that the Indian American, specifically the Hindu American community that raised me is a homeplace of sorts for brown folks in the racial superstructure of the U.S. It is the place where I made sense of my diasporic, non-white, Brahmin Hindu social position.

My earliest memory of my childhood religious upbringing was my father and I laying at the foot of my bed, reading mythological epics from Amar Chitra Katha. My favorite was the story of Shakuntala, the mother of Bharat. In her story, due to a vicious curse from a Rishi known as Durvasa, Shakuntala’s husband King Dushyanta forgot that she existed until years later when he saw the ring he gave her; all his memories of his love for her came rushing back. As a child, I considered Durvasa’s curse to be the most evil, most vile thing to bestow upon another being. What would my life be like should my loved ones forget about me? 

My father, an amateur theologian himself, smiled sadly at me. But don’t you see? This is the curse of humanity: we have all forgotten that atman, the soul, mirrors brahman, our cosmic reality. According to the teachings of the Upanishads, a forgotten truth of humanity is that every soul that exists is a perfect reflection of the universe. Of course, in my childhood, I could not grasp the radical inclusiveness of this concept. For, if atman is brahman, and brahman is atman, thus every soul is identical and equal in value and dignity. 

As I continued my studies and pursued a Ph.D. studying South Asian America and caste, I found myself fixating on this concept that encapsulated the foundation of my belief system. I learned that in the Advaita Vedanta philosophy of my youth, every soul could achieve liberation from the earthly cycles of violence and indignity, should only they remember the fundamental equality of all people. 

In my study of Hinduism, of the history and legacy of caste, and of South Asians in the diaspora, I came to recognize the disproportionate influence of caste on one’s livelihood. What was the difference between my soul born Brahmin and the soul of someone born Dalit, other than the random positions of our births? Yet, material outcomes told a different story. I grew up privileged, comfortably upper-middle-class, and with access to resources and education. As Ajantha Subramanian argues in her book The Caste of Merit: Engineering Education in India, while caste has increasingly become less visible in India, it still overwhelmingly benefits the caste privileged in terms of one’s educational and socioeconomic outcomes, including one’s ease of mobility to move to the United States. A 2003 study by the University of Pennsylvania found that only 1.5 percent of Indian immigrants in the United States were Dalit or of another oppressed caste. Equality Labs’ recent report on Caste in the U.S. found that 1 in 3 US-based Dalits experienced caste discrimination as students and 2 in 3 US-based Dalits experienced caste discrimination in their workplace. 

The complex and fate-determining caste system itself largely stems from the Manusmriti (Laws of Manu), a text that legal scholar Charles J. Naegele has positioned as similar in influence to the Code of Hammurabi. Unlike texts like the Vedas and the Upanishads that establish core Hindu teachings, the Laws of Manu put forward a code of conduct and manners for Hindu citizens during the 2nd century BCE. Along with a rigid caste system, the Laws of Manu put forward strict notions of gendered social roles, ideas about taxation, and clear guidelines on hygiene habits, much of which have been disregarded throughout history. 

While the Laws of Manu can be understood in its historical context, it is inconceivable to me that such an antiquated text should inform people’s futures — particularly when doing so moves us to forget the resounding truth that atman is brahman is atman. Moreover, Quare studies theorist E. Patrick Johnson emphasizes homeplace is also a site that we must critique in order to make it better. To envision a Hindu American homeplace where all souls are alike in dignity and equal in treatment requires liberation from the indignity of caste. Just as King Dushyanta remembered Shakuntala upon seeing his ring, we must remember the radical sense of justice enshrined in the Hindu faith. 

The Santa Clara Human Rights Commission heard public testimonies on April 29th to determine whether citizens should be protected against caste discrimination. As Hindu Americans, we must acknowledge that caste discrimination exists, that the caste oppressed must be protected, and that ensuring equality for all souls is what Hindu Americans should do.


Pavithra Suresh is a first-generation Indian Tamil American. She is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Cultural Studies at George Mason University where she teaches Global Affairs 101. Her dissertation will investigate the legacy of caste in the South Asian American community.


 

Cisco Headquarters in San Jose (Image by Coolcaesar Wikipedia Under CC BY-SA 3.0)

Why California’s Lawsuit Against Cisco Uniquely Endangers Hindus & Indians

The State of California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing sued the Silicon Valley tech giant Cisco Systems in June 2020, accusing the company of engaging in unlawful employment practices over a claim by an Indian-origin employee that two managers, also of Indian origin, allegedly discriminated against him based on his assumed caste. The case was initially filed in federal court but has since been re-filed in state court. Cisco Systems is promising a vigorous defense, rejecting the claim of discrimination.

The State’s claim goes well beyond the specific allegations of caste discrimination, however. Despite not knowing what caste is, it attempts to define it in a way that maligns an entire community and religion. In so much that caste discrimination is a kind of malice against someone based not on their inherent worth, but something else, HAF wholeheartedly agrees that it is wrong and condemnable.

But the State of California has defined Hinduism in contradiction to the precepts of the religion and the beliefs of an overwhelming number of its own adherents. This violates the religious freedom rights of Hindu Americans.

The State of California has also failed to provide any definition or workable method to determine anyone’s caste other than an assumption that Hindus of Indian descent must identify as part of a specific caste, ascribe to a “strict Hindu social and religious hierarchy,” and engage in caste discrimination. The State’s inaccurate and unconstitutional definition will perversely lead to increased targeting of and discrimination against Indian-origin, and particularly Hindu workers by marking them as a suspicious class. This violates the due process rights of Hindu Americans.

We vehemently oppose all types of caste-based discrimination. We also reject any claim that prejudice and discrimination based on caste are inherent to Hinduism and take great exception to the State of California’s defaming and demeaning of all Hindus by attempting to connect a caste system to the Hindu religion.

Here’s why.

California has unconstitutionally defined Hindu religious doctrine, and  perpetuated false and dangerous stereotypes equating caste-based discrimination with Hinduism and Hindus

California’s complaint states:

“As a strict Hindu social and religious hierarchy, India’s caste system defines a person’s status based on their religion, ancestry, national origin/ethnicity, and race/color—or the caste into which they are born—and will remain until death.”  (emphasis added)

In connecting caste and caste-based discrimination to Hindu teachings and practice, the state’s suit explicitly defines and ties Hinduism to inequality.

The State of California’s assertion is a clear violation of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom because rather than allowing Hindus to define their religions for themselves, the state is defining the precepts and practices of Hinduism for Hindus.

Such unconstitutional overreach by the State of California should be concerning for all Americans.

Not only is California’s definition unconstitutional, it’s wrong 

Any assertion that caste discrimination is integral to Hindu teachings and practice is not only wrong, it traffics in anti-Hindu hate.

Hinduism teaches that the Divine is equally present in all. Because all beings are connected through this shared divine presence, prejudice and discrimination against anyone or any group violate this most profound and fundamental teaching and the moral duties of selflessness, non-injury, and truth evoked by it.

Hinduism’s wide array of sacred texts, stories, and poetry, and widely respected spiritual teachers, both past and present, repeatedly emphasize this profound life lesson. Moreover,  every major sampradaya (Hindu religious tradition) and Hindu socio-religious organization rejects caste-based discrimination.

California’s failure to provide any definition or workable method to determine anyone’s caste will lead to more discrimination

The only consistent factor California seeks to identify with caste is that it is an inherent part of Hinduism. That this authorizes or encourages seriously discriminatory enforcement against Hindus and Americans of South Asian descent is self-evident. Without any context outside of its asserted connection to Hinduism, the DFEH has provided no meaning or definition of caste and would set up a legal structure that actually requires the discrimination it seeks to prevent.

California has also blown a dog-whistle for anti-immigrant bigotry

The State of California frames the beginning of its complaint in blatantly racist and anti-immigrant terms. It alleges that Indians are “significantly overrepresented” at Cisco, which could be read to be implying that similarly qualified non-Indian immigrants are being ignored in hiring there and at other tech companies.

Such framing — that hordes of Indians are overrepresented, taking away American jobs —  is common rhetoric amongst anti-immigrant extremists and hate groups.

Predictably, news of the lawsuit is stoking a spate of xenophobic attacks targeting Indian and Hindu Americans. A recent story covering the case in Breitbart evinced comments like these:

“We don’t want too many Indians in the USA. After all, look what those geniuses did to India. Too many geniuses in one place seems to be a bad thing.”

California also perpetuates racist European theories about caste

California’s claims about Hinduism and its conflation of caste with race and color, stem not from Hindu understanding of their own religion and history, but rather from the misinformed and misrepresentative assertions by Western Europeans.

British colonial occupation defined Hinduism not based on Indians’ own understandings of Hinduism’s precepts and practices, but rather on the British’s own 18th and 19th-century belief in their superiority over non-white, non-Christian peoples outside of Europe. British colonial government latched onto existing non-uniform, highly localized social and cultural divisions within India to devise a four-fold pan-Indian caste system to use to control the occupied.

The caste system as defined by the State of California is merely a reflection of this British-created administrative tool and the scientific racism in vogue.

 California is targeting its Californians of Indian descent.

Discrimination based on national origin is already prohibited under US law as is ancestry and ethnicity under many state laws and public and private sector employment policies. National origin, ancestry, and ethnicity have been interpreted as protecting against discrimination based on birthplace, ancestry, culture, or linguistic characteristics — all of which are social markers associated with the various theories about caste.

Every protected class under US civil rights law, namely race, national origin (ancestry/ethnicity), gender, religion, disability, age, and now sexual orientation, is broad, facially neutral, and universal. They seek to address well-documented bases of discrimination broadly.

Caste as a specific category is problematic because it singles out and targets people of Indian descent given the singular association of caste and a caste system with India. Caste as a specific class also suggests that there is a prevalent form of prejudice and malice amongst only people of Indian and/or South Asian descent and Hindus that is so entirely different and abhorrent that they should be marked a suspicious class based on their race, national origin, ethnicity, or religion and specifically monitored and policed. This in itself is discriminatory because prejudice and discrimination based on social backgrounds such as clan, class, sect, tribe, or other factors are prevalent within all countries and cultures.

Conclusion

Stopping prejudice and discrimination are worthy goals that directly further Hinduism’s teaching about the equality of the divine essence of all people.

Companies should work on creating a safe environment for all employees to thrive and be mutually respected. Any issues of unfair treatment should be thoroughly addressed and resolved.

But wrongly tying Hinduism and Hindus to the abhorrent act of caste discrimination undermines that goal and violates the First Amendment rights of all Hindu Americans.  It denies them due process based on their religious affiliation by uniquely targeting them in the absence of any universally accepted understanding of what “caste” is or proof of widespread discrimination on its basis.


The Hindu American Foundation (HAF) is an educational and advocacy organization established in 2003.

This article was originally published on their website here.


 

Decoding the Significance of Indian-American Heritage

One of our seven beloved grandchildren asked the other day, “How do you say ‘reception’ in Indian?” She needed the information for her school paper, Growing up in a Multicultural Family.

A few months ago, another granddaughter had asked, “Has anyone in our family invented something?” for her high school paper.

The significance of Indian American heritage can be decoded through an understanding of “reason” and its limitations.

The renowned eighteenth-century philosopher, Immanuel Kant would say, “All knowledge flows from the senses, proceeds then to the understanding, and ends with reason. There is nothing higher than reason.

The world continues to subscribe to the philosophy of Kant.

Science, six sigma, policies, laws & regulations, and the like are products of reason. America excels in the products of reason. Most Nobel prizes go to Americans and America is home to top-notch technologies, products, and services.

In spite of these incredible accomplishments, why then has America not been able to tackle racial disharmony for over a century?

The Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution abolished slavery in 1865 and a host of newer laws, policies, rules, and regulations have been adopted since then, including the 1965 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, gender, or national origin.

Racism persists because the nation is limiting its pursuits to the products of reason, but the solution is not to be found there.

Swami Vivekananda was an Indian monk revered in his native land and widely respected in the United States. Asserts Vivekananda, “Indian thought dares to seek, and successfully finds, something higher than reason.”

Swami Vivekananda’s wisdom can be proved.

Intuition is immediate cognition without the benefit of the five senses and the rational mind. Perfect intuition translates into the capacity to discern truth from falsehood. We all have a certain level of intuition, but the accuracy is generally too low to be of any practical value.

How does one discover something higher than reason? Obviously, one cannot use reason itself for such an inquiry.

Seers have left behind clues in the form of discoveries over millennia that couldn’t have been sourced from previous knowledge, and in every case, the process used is meditation, known for thousands of years.

As an example, the four Vedas are the most ancient scriptures of humanity. Their knowledge and wisdom couldn’t have been sourced from previous knowledge as there was none. This is why they are referred to as “revealed” (Shruti).

Another example, physics realizes that the universe came into existence pursuant to a big bang moment 13.8 billion years ago when it was an incredibly small energy phase (10-33 cm in diameter), unbelievably hot and immensely dense. Physics realizes too that on the other side of the big bang, there was absolutely nothing, a void.

How did “nothing” transform into the energy phase of the big bang? No product of reason has an explanation, and the explanation they do have is fraught with inconsistencies and paradoxes.

Inspired by Indian wisdom, my friend and associate physician turned theoretical physicist, Jim Kowall found the answer: “Consciousness of the void created the universe”.

How did seers know that meditation is the route to progress? They cite their Guru as their source, but how did their Guru know it? If you keep going back, you will eventually run out of Gurus, and then the question is, where did the first sage get the knowledge?

This is where the inquiry comes to an end, and the belief in God exponentially increases.

Meditation also brings about a rise in internal excellence, inducing positive changes from within. And this hypothesis can be tested as internal excellence can be measured.

Internal excellence has nothing to do with race, religion, gender, political affiliation, or national origin.

A rise in internal excellence is accompanied by a rise in positive emotions (love, kindness, empathy, compassion) and a fall in negative emotions (anger, hatred, hostility, resentment, frustration, jealousy, anxiety, despair, fear, sorrow, and the like).

So, society needs to do meditation to bring about a rise in racial harmony and a fall in societal discord. Who would have thought? 

Relatedly, the best performance results when the best products of reason are combined with a program to enhance internal excellence

The ancient contributions notwithstanding, science is the appropriate body of knowledge to use when the system fundamentals are well understood. When they are not, but measurements are available, data-driven methodologies such as six sigma are appropriate. When system fundamentals are not well understood and measurements are not available, then enhancing one’s focus of attention as with meditation, remains the only route to new discoveries. Take care though, discoveries made this way must nonetheless meet the rigor of logical scrutiny.

Remember, transcending reason may well produce new knowledge, but once produced, it is subject to all the constraints reason imposes on all knowledge.

This in a nutshell is the significance of Indian American heritage. American heritage provides the best products of reason, while Indian heritage suggests that transcending the bondage of reason is the only route to further progress and teaches how.

Indian American heritage has the capacity to make a substantial contribution toward a better and more peaceful nation and world. These ideas should be front-and-center in the conversations to further strengthen US-India strategic partnership.


Pradeep B. Deshpande is an Indian-American academic in America for fifty-five years. He has interacted with Prime Ministers Rajiv Gandhi and P. V. Narasimha Rao, a friend and associate of his late father in the freedom struggle.

Acknowledgments. This article is written with the blessings of H. H. Gurumahan, Founder, Universal Peace Foundation, Thirumoorthy Hills, Tamil Nadu, India.


 

BLM Organizer At My School Was Targeted By A Gun Dealer: A Next-Gen Desi Reflection

(Featured Image: Denel McMahan speaking with ABC News)

Weeks before a youth-led Black Lives Matter protest that took place outside the Dublin Civic Center, owner of local gun business Mike Grant posted a picture of the 17-year old organizer, Denel McMahan, on his Facebook page. The caption read, “Please bring your vests and helmets in case these BLM people start trouble. Remember this group is known as a left-wing anti-government group. Take Dublin back!”

Within days, the veiled threat garnered a swift and strong backlash from the Dublin community and beyond. From city residents to Congressman Eric Swalwell, people came together to defend “these BLM people” and the cause they champion. 

When I first learned about the situation, I was curious to know who “these BLM people” were, and how Grant’s social media targeting has affected them in this increasingly polarized climate. I had a chat with high school senior, Denel McMahan, president of Dublin High’s Black Student Union, member of the Tri-Valley Black Lives Matter movement, and recipient of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Legacy Award at the City of Pleasanton’s annual Community of Character Collaborative. Denel was inspired by the string of protests that captured the heart of America this past summer and wanted to bring peaceful advocacy to his city.  

Denel McMahan’s Thoughts

1) You’re a staunch supporter of racial equality and a member of the Black Lives Matter movement. As a Gen Z activist, how do you think social media and the Internet Age have affected both racism and social advocacy? 

I think that social media has been a great resource throughout this period of COVID-19 and quarantine. The thing that I love about it is that social media has no boundary when it comes to education. People are free to post about whatever in its true form. This includes history. In school, history is heavily censored and manipulated in order to make students comfortable. However, to make real change we need to stop desiring comfortability. We learn about history to avoid repeating it, but we are right now due to sheltering students from traumatic concepts. The same goes for the internet too. I’ve learned more Black history myself through Google than I have in my 11 and a half years of schooling. My parents are also a great resource, but not everyone has parents who understand Black history in its entirety or are Black in general. So, if you want to learn more about truthful history, I recommend looking through Social Media and researching through Google. 

2) At school, you’re the president of the Black Student Union. How has this experience shaped your journey of raising awareness and initiating change in your community as a whole?

My presidency has allowed me to earn a platform that is being taken seriously by our administration. For 3 years, I sat and watched the past presidents and how they ran the BSU. Through that, I began to shape my leading style and figured out what I wanted to do with my position. With it, I wanted to do the best I could. I not only wanted to improve our BSU and increase its presence on campus, but I wanted to make sure that we were involved in the Black Lives Matter movement efforts in Dublin. A protest was held in Dublin and there was so much support. Eventually, the other BSU officers and I drafted plans for school change, and our admin engaged heavily with us and is even making more opportunities for us to help the community out more.  

3) Post the election, we find ourselves at the precipice of extraordinary political change. What legislative changes do you hope our new administration will bring to address racism, criminal justice, and police brutality?

I just hope that there’s some sense of accountability that comes with a new president. Of course, the President doesn’t have all the power in the federal government, but I feel that at least when incidents of brutality happen, we will have his support. The other big thing that I would want to see is national reparations. Those have been promised to Black Americans since the end of Slavery, but they haven’t been done. They are currently planning a reparations task force in California, so that would be interesting to see what they try to implement. However, they need to be done at the national level since slavery was pretty much a national thing before it ended. 

4) If you’re comfortable speaking about this, what was the experience of seeing Mr. Grant’s Facebook post like? Was this kind of backlash something you’ve experienced in the past?

It was very worrying for me. When I saw the post, I was in Las Vegas for my sister’s 21st birthday. When I got word of the post, I was physically shaking. My face had been posted in a public, alt-right Facebook group for many conservatives to see. I saw that it had 29 shares, so that was 30 people who saw me as some thug trying to destroy Dublin, which in no case I was. The event was passed unanimously and was city-sponsored. A huge part of my nervousness was also because this was the first time I received public backlash. I knew I would eventually get some, but never that quick and never by a grown man. 

5) In a conversation with ABC News, you mentioned that you’re willing to have a conversation with Mr. Grant. Do you feel like conversations like this are possible at a larger scale, where protestors and counter-protestors can reach a middle ground in constructive, innocuous ways?

Honestly, I believe that the political climate has destroyed any possibility of large-scale, constructive conversations. I think the best way to have them is in private so that all you need to do is to listen. A simple one-on-one conversation to get to a middle ground is the most effective way to do so. However, I hope that one day, groups of people from different beliefs can come together and conversate without it becoming ineffective or violent. 

6) What advice do you have for other young people who want to show their support for the Black Lives Matter movement?

My advice is to be vocal. In this time, silence also means compliance. Take the time to understand it and bring it close to you. Even in this time of COVID, there are social media platforms. Making and sharing posts are still great ways to advocate for the movement. If you find yourself wanting to protest, don’t be scared. The supporters will always outweigh the opposition. 

The Sign Garden For Justice Project was organized by Tri-Valley Black Lives Matter (Photo: Denel McMahan)

My Thoughts

These are wise words, especially coming from an individual who helped organize a Black Lives Matter protest on November 15th. The demonstration was both peaceful and successful, with Denel and his peers giving speeches about racism, their participation in the Black Student Union, and the harsh realities of police brutality in America. In a creative display of solidarity, this protest featured a ‘Sign Garden’, where signs and posters supporting the Black Lives Matter were placed everywhere from City Hall to the Civic Plaza. These signs were both positive and united, some of them including messages like, “Fear and hate have no place here” and “Color is not a crime”. 

Personally, I’m both relieved and overjoyed that this demonstration, despite the initial conflict, remained peaceful and constructive. It was interesting to see this single cause bring together different generations, ethnicities, and cities to reflect on racial justice. But I can’t help but harken back to Denel’s comment about initiating a conversation with Grant. What does the exchange between these two political antipodes suggest about the future of race relations in America? 

In a flash of optimism, I’d like to believe that recorded displays of police brutality, such as the tragic murder of George Floyd, will bring different ends of the socio-political spectrum together. As said by Will Smith, “Racism is not getting worse; it’s getting recorded.” Before videos of racism had the opportunity to go viral on social media and mainstream news outlets, it was far easier for American citizens to exist within an ideological bubble, where systemic oppression did not exist. That’s much harder to do when they’re being confronted by a live video of police brutality and racial profiling at its worst. 

Furthermore, I do think that the coronavirus outbreak may offer a moment for the public to self-reflect, and consider how racial and socio-economic privilege has ravaged the very ideals we consider the ‘soul’ of America. After the strong online response to his incendiary post, Grant discussed how he became ‘educated’ about what it means to be a person of color in the United States in a phone interview with ABC

“I never thought a 17-year old-boy could teach a 65-year-old man something, but he did,” said Grant. “For the last four-and-a-half days I’ve lived it. Just with phone calls, and texts, and hate mail and stuff. Now I think I understand why this young man is doing this, to try to educate people.” 

The First Amendment of the American Constitution offers each one of us a voice, but these voices are muffled or confined in echo chambers due to political polarization. And personally, I can attest to subscribing to certain echo chambers myself. My social media feed is primarily consumed by individuals who shared the same political views that I do. My choices in mainstream media are a reflection of my opinions as well.

As an Indian-American, I think my identity as an immigrant has definitely been splintered along the lines of these echo chambers as well. During the 2020 election, for example, I found myself isolating myself from certain subsets of the Indian-American population who identified as Trump supporters. Amid the growing strength of the Black Lives Matter movement, I’ve seen so many Indian-Americans distance themselves from conversations about racial equality because they don’t learn (and perhaps don’t want to learn) about racial hierarchies and the myth that is America’s “Model Minority”. As immigrants, the echo chambers of this nation have only made our ignorance of the issues that plague our communities more convenient. 

And while these tendencies may be very normal on both ends of the spectrum in our heated political climate, they also contribute to ideological myopia. Men like Mike Grant have no idea what it’s like to be a young black man, constantly targeted and unjustly policed. They read and watch media which feeds them highly distorted narratives on race in this country, and it shows.

Prior to this incident, I can’t help but wonder if Grant has ever had a constructive, honest conversation with a supporter of the Black Lives Matter Movement. Could this gap be bridged? Perhaps the path to an educated America — an America willing to recognize its racism for what it is — requires a space where these conversations can take place.


Kanchan Naik is a senior at the Quarry Lane School in Dublin, California. She is the 2019-2020 Teen Poet Laureate for the City of Pleasanton, as well as the Director of Media Outreach for youth nonprofit Break the Outbreak. Kanchan is the founder and editor-in-chief of her school newspaper, The Roar, and was the Global Student Editor for the summer edition of Stanford’s Newsroom by the Bay publication. 

“Often Our Communities Are Pitted Against Each Other” says Manjusha Kulkarni of A3PCON

A rash of hate incidents against Asian Americans is spreading like a virus since the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

On March 16, eight people were shot and killed at three Atlanta area spas amid growing fears nationwide of anti-Asian bias. Six of the victims were Asian women.

Anti‐Asian hate crimes surged by a staggering 149% in 16 of America’s largest cities, even though overall hate crime dropped by 7% in 2020, according to a fact sheet released by the California State University’s Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism.

With the stabbing of a 36 year Asian man in Chinatown In February, New York leapt to the top of the leaderboard for the most number (28) of racially motivated crimes against people of Asian descent in a major city, followed by Los Angeles (15) and Boston (14), in hate incidents reported to the police.

Data shows that the first spate of hate crimes occurred in March and April ‘amidst a rise in COVID-19 cases and negative stereotyping of Asians relating to the pandemic’.

The brutal spike in attacks on Asian and Pacific Island Americans (particularly seniors)  amid an epidemic of anti-Asian violence ,“is a source of grave concern for our community,” said John C Yang, of AAJC. “While battling COVID19, unfortunately Asian Americans have also had to fight a second virus of racism.”

At an ethnic media briefing on February 19, civil rights advocates called for a unified response to counter racial and ethnic divisions, bigotry and incidents of hate.

“What we are experiencing is the America First virus,”  declared Jose Roberto Hernandez, Chief of Staff, Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance, where hatred is manifesting in a rash of vicious attacks targeting Asian Americans.

STOP AAPI Hate, a national coalition aimed at addressing anti-Asian discrimination, received 2,808 reported incidents of racism and discrimination against Asian Americans across the U.S. between March 19 and December 31, 2020. Sixty nine percent of anti-AAPI attacks occurred in California, followed by New York City (20%), Washington (7%) and Illinois (4%).

According to STOP AAPI Hate, victims reported prejudice incidents that ranged from physical assault (8%), coughing and spitting (6%), to being shunned or avoided (20%). The vast majority (66%) reported verbal assaults.

In another study, hateful comments on social media also reflected racist trends sweeping the Internet. The term Kung Flu spiked in March and July last year in a Google key word search, while an analysis of Poll and Twitter posts from January 2020 saw a similar surge of Sino phobic racial slurs in March.

The most victimized group in the AAPI population – almost 41% – were people of Chinese descent while  Koreans, Vietnamese and Filipinos also were targeted.

The effect on the Asian American community is significant, said Yang, President and Executive Director, Asian Americans Advancing Justice, referring to a Harris poll that showed three-quarters (75%) of Asian Americans  increasingly fear discrimination related to the coronavirus pandemic.

Another poll, added Yang, reported that 40% of Asian Americans either experienced discrimination or heard someone blame Asia or China for COVID-19. Many of the people who felt threatened are frontline workers in essential jobs at grocery stores, hospitals and community centers and custodial services.

“The surge in violence is creating an atmosphere of  tremendous fear,” noted Cynthia  Choi, Co-Executive Director of Chinese for Affirmative Action and co-creator of Stop AAPI Hate.

Hate against Asian Americans is not a new phenomenon added Yang, referring to historical fear and prejudice that led to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the incarceration of 120 thousand Japanese Americans during World War 2, and the war on terror after 9/11 that impacted Arab Americans.

Asian Americans are often demonized for being ‘foreigners,’ or carriers of disease, but during the pandemic, said Yang, the ‘need to blame’ someone for the virus has exacerbated those fears and morphed into violence against the Asian American community.

Hateful rhetoric from President Trump, who referred to COVID19 as ‘the China virus, the Wuhan flu, and the China plague’ at political rallies, further inflamed racially motivated violence against Asian Americans.

“That has had a lasting impact”, stated Choi.

Her view was echoed by Manjusha Kulkarni, Executive Director of Pacific Policy and Planning Council, who pointed to “.. a very direct connection between the actions and the words of the former presidents and the administration.” She referred to policies initiated by the former administration to ‘alienate, isolate, and prevent our communities from getting the support they needed, and to reports her organization received, containing ‘the words of the president.’

“Words matter,” said Yang, calling on people to come together to dismantle the contagion of racism and hatred.

AAPI advocates drew the strong support of Marc Morial, President and CEO, National Urban League, who condemned the ‘climate of intolerance which has been created in this nation.” He reiterated his support for AAPI, accountability for perpetrators of violent acts, and commitment to cross cultural understanding “which is central to civil rights in the 21st century.

“Hate anywhere, is hate everywhere,” noted Morial. “We stand against efforts to demonize the Asian American community.”

So how is the nation addressing this issue?

“What we need to work on is establishing the checks and balances in society that grant equal power to everybody,” said Hernandez, “at home, at work, and in the community.” Yang called for a stand against hatred, for witnesses to report incidents, and for bystander intervention training, so people know what do when they witness accounts of hate. He urged setting up dialog at local levels.

A number of AAPI organizations, including  OCANational Council of Asian Pacific AmericansChinese for Affirmative Action, and Asian Pacific Planning and Policy Council, have joined forces to unanimously condemn anti-Asian hate crimes. Several civil rights advocacy groups – Chinese for Affirmative Action, SAALT, and A3PCON, offer in language links on their websites, to report hate incidents.

At the national level, said Yang, Biden’s national memorandum against AAPI hate is a good start in terms of data collection and better understanding of the hate Asian Americans are facing. But the government needs to invest in communities – in victim response centers, financial resources for victims and cross-community, cross-cultural conversations,” – to break down the barriers of prejudice.

“Often our communities are pitted against each other,” said Kulkarni, “that is how white supremacy works.” She remarked that sometimes AAPI communities tend to turn on one other because of ‘close proximity’ geographically or socio-economically, while too many people in AAPI communities accept the model minority myth or anti-blackness “all too easily.”

Communities need to collaborate to combat this culture of hatred and take responsibility to work on solutions, rather than accept the premises of white supremacy, added Kulkarni. She called for healing rather than division.  “We have so much in common …that we should be able to work together for the right, restorative and transformative justice.”

Everyone has a part to play in highlighting this issue. urged Yang. “The virus of racism is very contagious and affects all of our communities. We need to fight that virus together.”


Meera Kymal is the Contributing Editor at India Currents
Photo by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona on Unsplash

Originally published February 24, 2021.

In Solidarity Against AAPI Hate: Bay Area Poets Look Back at Tagore and Xu Zimo

(Featured Image: Rabindranath Tagore in China)

About a century ago, Rabindranath Tagore visited Shanghai where he was hosted by a young Chinese poet Xu Zimo, who had studied at Cambridge. Xu died young but changed poetry in China forever by liberating it from the formalism to introduce free form, and his work was influenced by Tagore.

Tagore wrote a poem called The Year 1400 (Bengali calendar – 1996 in Gregorian) addressing a reader a hundred years into the future. In it, he tells the future reader: “My spring birdsong and breeze fills me with song and I can’t send it forward but won’t you too sit by your open window and think of a poet who wrote this poem for you to share the youthful passion spring brings for all.”

Jing Jing, an immigrant from China, moved to the U.S. and taught herself English, to earn her young American daughter’s respect, and eventually become the current poet laureate of Cupertino (aka the place where Apple has built its spaceship HQ). She heard Tagore’s poem, The Year 1400, late on a Saturday night, when she visited our Poetry of Diaspora in Silicon Valley readings last May. We happened to be celebrating Tagore’s birthday by inviting all our Bengali poets to read. One poet, Jayanta chose Tagore’s poem and its English translation by Ketki Kushari Dyson, from Oxford. It moved Jing Jing to goosebumps and tears.

As Jing Jing planned the Lunar New Year celebrations with poetry reading, she invited the grandson and great-granddaughter of Xu Zimo to read his work. Jing Jing remembered Tagore’s poem and wondered if our poets would be willing to read it at the celebration — to bring the old poets’ works together — like the friends who met in Shanghai a century ago.

I had no recollection of it and wondered who might have read it. Jing Jing had saved a screenshot so I knew it was Jayanta. When I reached out to him, he said “Anything Jyoti asks, I have to do.”

But as it turned out — there was a conflict in his schedule. He found the poem and its translation for us, even though he couldn’t read it. That is how I ended up reading Tagore’s poem and another of our poetry circle members, Debolina, read the original in Bengali.

130 people attended this online event. This is amazing for so many reasons. The China, India, US, and UK connections, the passion and love of poems and ode to spring, old friends connected through poetry, strangers making happenstance connections across the impossible distance and centuries, in springtime for celebrations with verse, and me getting caught up to enjoy it all, without leaving the comfort of my home.


Dr. Jyoti Bachani is an Associate Professor of Strategy and Innovation at Saint Mary’s College of California. She is a former Fulbright Senior Research Scholar, with degrees from London Business School, UK, Stanford, USA, and St. Stephen’s College, India. She translates Hindi poems and edited a poetry anthology called The Memory Book of the Poetry of Diaspora in Silicon Valley.

This article was first published on American Kahani.

Nose In Books, Feet In Socks: On Dr. Seuss

Growing up in the misty mountain valleys of South India, I relished every moment spent with my nose in books and my feet in socks.  Nestled in the range of Nilgiri hills, in a place too small to merit a dot on the map, is a place I was lucky enough to call home when I was growing up. The rainy climes and lack of digital entertainment options meant that we read as many books as we could, and used our imagination to come up with innovative games and entertainment options.

Enid Blyton lifted all of us children into clouds above The Magic Faraway Tree or whisked us away on the Wishing Chair. Tinkle comics & Champak took us for a spin (I am trying to remember some of the characters without the aid of the Internet – a cheap thrill in the current times – Kalia the crow, Chamataka the fox, Doob-Doob the crocodile, Tantri the Mantri, Suppandi, Naseeruddin Hodja, Vikram & Betaal and of course, that vague huntsman who should be the mascot for gun control laws, Shikari Shambu).  

As we grew older though, we moved away from Children’s comics and fantasy books. As more serious fare gradually replaced this wonderful array, I never expected to revisit that wondrous feeling of picking up a children’s book where you know not what magical world opens up to you, and when. But that is exactly what happened when I had children here, and we journeyed into these marvelous worlds together. I had never read the Thomas Train series or the Curious George series or the Berenstain Bear series or any of the books by Dr. Seuss as a child and I got to experience all of this with them for the first time. Oh! The simple pleasures of reading a book like any of these for the first time are gift enough, but to be blessed to be able to read it for the first time as an adult is surreal. It was like growing up all over again. To that, I am eternally grateful.

One morning, the old body was off to a slow start, and I was yawning sleepily in the car. The elementary school-going son looked at me, shook his head with pity and said, “I know what will wake you up! Let’s listen to Horton Hatches The Egg” and we did. The son & I were soon cracking up with loud laughter in the car – sleep had flown, and the nonsensical plot had truly woken me up surer than caffeine could. It is a marvelous book and takes one through the hilarious plot of an elephant hatching an egg. 

I don’t think the little fellow knew about Dr Seuss’s quote on nonsense waking up the brain cells, but it worked like a charm:

“I like nonsense, it wakes up the brain cells. Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living. It’s a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope. Which is what I do, And that enables you to laugh at life’s realities.”

Today, some of Dr. Seuss’s books are being pulled back to have a more inclusive perspective. We know the world changes, but the underlying sentiment he sought to share with the world is one of inclusivity, as he knew first-hand what it was to be ostracized. He knew what it meant to not feel welcomed, and most of his books encouraged us to open our minds and embrace the world. 

March 4, 2021 Article in the NYT.

The current news about the books makes for a great conversation starter on racism with children – for some of his books such as Sneetches examine racism, and how we are more alike than different in spite of our physical differences. I remember being shocked to learn Enid Blyton’s books came under similar criticism. When I was a child reading these books, all they did was transport me to a magical place. I was a brown-skinned girl growing up in South India, but that did not stop me from imagining the 90-ft Eucalyptus tree at the end of our street poked its topmost branches into the revolving worlds in the clouds. But when I re-read them now, I see the point: I must confess that this has led to many interesting discussions with the children.

As the world evolves, and we continue to grow as individuals, it also gives us an opportunity to look for places in the writing that were reflective of the times. For instance, what we identify as unacceptable today was considered acceptable 20-30 years ago. This, in my mind, is a hugely positive aspect of human-beings. Isn’t being able to stop, evaluate ourselves and become better versions of ourselves one of the greatest accomplishments of being human? 

I read Dr. Seuss and Mr. Geisel, by Judith & Neil Morgan, a biography of the beloved author, Dr. Seuss

Ted Geisel was born on March 2, 1904, in a well-off family. His father, after running the successful family business for several years, later worked for the public parks system with access to a zoo. He puts many of his influences down to the natural loafing around in the countryside with access to animals as a child. His mother had a knack for reading things in verse to him in a way that stuck in his brain. Over his brilliant career, he would combine both these influences in a charming manner to enable an entire generation to love reading.

Ted was a school-going child in Springtown, Massachusetts, when the First World War started. The Geisels were first-generation German Americans and though they were citizens at the time of war, the world around them did not treat them kindly. It is disheartening to read that young Ted Geisel was persecuted for his lineage. This boy went on to write books that are loved and adored by children of all races, religions, nationalities, and backgrounds. His books only ask for an open mind whether it was imagining an elephant gingerly climbing up a tree to hatch an egg or eating green eggs and ham. 

His college sweetheart, and later, wife, Helen Palmer, was the first person to suggest to Ted that he may be better off drawing and writing than pursuing an academic career at Cambridge. He says this was around the time he realized that writing and drawing were like the Yin and Yang to his work. 

Excerpt from the book:

One day she watched Ted undertake to illustrate Milton’s Paradise Lost; he drew the angel Uriel sliding down a sunbeam, oiling the beam as he went from a can that resembled a tuba.

“You’re crazy to be a professor. What you really want to do is draw.” she blurted out. She glanced at a cow he had drawn and said, “That is a beautiful cow!”

Praise from the one you love is truly lovely, and it set him on the course of his career.

I am truly grateful for Dr. Seuss’s books. He and so many authors gave me the gift of finding wonder and magic in an immigrant’s journey.  Read Across America Week was started during Dr. Seuss’s birthday week, and continues to enthrall children. In my son’s school, this year was the multicultural reading week. He told me about some excellent books they read in school this week:  Under the Hijab, The Roots of Rap, My Papi has a Motorcycle, etc, and I am looking forward to reading these myself.


Saumya Balasubramanian writes regularly at nourishncherish.wordpress.com. Some of her articles have been published in the San Francisco Chronicle, The Hindu, and India Currents. She lives with her family in the Bay Area where she lilts along savoring the ability to find humor in everyday life and finding joy in the little things.

IC Live: A Vibrant Community of Desi Poets

IC held its third Desi Poetry Reading, in collaboration with Matwaala, on December 3, 2020, which was moderated by Srishti Prabha and Kanchan Naik. The topic was certainly timely – Uncertainty and Change.

After a quick introduction by Pramila Venkatewaran, the co-founder of Matwaala, the Desi Poetry Reading was kicked off by a prolific and accomplished high school poet.

Sara Garg started the evening with a reading of an experiential poem called 2020, that captured the universal feeling of waiting, waiting for the count to go to zero. Another tender poem was about the mini sparks of light that are the front-line workers who face darkness, terror, and monsters while just having each other while they cope with uncertainty. Blood Questions was hard-hitting, speaking dramatically about BLM and our common humanity as it took on the voice of blood as it poured out of the chest of a Black young man as he is killed by blue and brass. In Sunset Sunrise, she gives eloquent voice to the uncertainty we live with during the pandemic, finally admitting she cannot see if the sun is rising or setting, whether hope is ascendent or not. In an answer to a question, Sara attributed her sense of rhythm to the early influence of Usha Akella (co-founder of Matwaala) when she was in 4th grade, as she learned to write a poem about a banana. This was a story of affection that Sara shared with the listeners, a sweet moment of connection, one that most of us can engage with, and that lifted the weight of uncertainty to one of positive change.

R. Cheran, a poet and professor, writes creatively in Tamil. He shared four parts of a powerful translated piece called On the Street, Anytime. His poem had vivid images, of jackfruits, leaves, and bodies run over by tanks on the street, blood seeping into paddy fields, and leaves being the only witnesses to bodies getting together anytime. Repetitions of Anytime, built into a crescendo as he conjured images of extreme contrast – blood, sperm, and poems written on colored pieces of paper, on the street, anytime. He sets the stage in memories of experiencing and witnessing slices of the genocide in Sri Lanka. The poet shifts to potholes in snowy weather, covered in ice, that refill with the blood of 2 boys who could be his sons, shot by the white policeman. Black brave boys whose blood fills the pothole, not once, but twice. In the final fourth part of the poem, Cheran speaks of poverty of the soul, of being left by a lover, one who takes almost everything away with her, but the poem refuses to go with her, the one whose first line is, On the Street, Anytime.

R. Cheran shared another short poem that was equally evocative of remembered trauma as he sketched out the scene of Indian soldiers, a woman held down, a child thrown into a well, and the well that is now without a voice to even say Aiyyo. Cheran’s poems are certainly not “easy listening” but instead pull the listener into a well of traumatic memories and images, the work of a master story-teller, craftsman, and poet. In response to a question by Srishti Prabha about how he balances violence and beauty, Cheran said that the genocide he witnessed and survived cannot be written in words or taught through a lens of sociology or anthropology, that he has portrayed but the tip of an iceberg and such horror can only be begun to be experienced through an art form such as poetry.

I have to take a break in writing this now, and walk around, as I try to shake off and metabolize the intensity of revisiting and closely listening to this part of the reading.

Kalpna Singh-Chitnis, a poet, writer, and film-maker, continued the evening. In a poem about the pandemic, one of the stark images she drew was of the Faceless One stealing all the faces that have disappeared behind masks, likening it to Kabuki dancers magically stealing faces and tucking them away in their kimonos. In a hard-hitting poem titled E.R., she speaks of holding the ground like a tree in a storm, not collapsing or vomiting, but holding in her internal injuries, and dying inside without being noticed. In The Salt of a Woman, anger and outrage jump off the words, her story older than civilization, questioned, blamed, conquered, gifted, dismissed, shamed. In IF, she writes of the only power a survivor of sexual assault may have, in telling others what not to do if she is killed, do not hang the perpetrators, she says – they will be born again and do it again. Hopelessness permeates the poem but ends with dignity. Tell your sons about me, she asks of women, preach me as a sermon, she asks of the preachers, write me as an epic, she asks of the writer.

I believe the BLM movement’s rise in the summer of 2020, empowered many of us in the desi community to finally speak openly of our own experiences of racial discrimination in the United States. Microaggressions are carried in the body, held on to for years, taken out every now and then, and re-examined through various lenses such as – why did the teacher not speak up, why did I not speak up, as if it would have been easy, as if it would have found validation at the time. I think many will identify with the process, the self-doubt, the worry of being heard, being believed, and the fear of having our experiences being discounted

Singh-Chitnis bravely shares a poem 25 years in the making and birthing. In this final poem, Kalpna addresses these excoriations – I am sitting there like the stump of a tree, still sitting there like the stump of a tree, still sitting there in that classroom. The lectures begin and end, she says, but the question remains. She is still waiting for the professor to speak up for her – she was voiceless and powerless at the time.

As these wounds get more light and air, as more people hear our experiences, as more speak up, as more poetry and art is used to communicate, the more hope there can be. I fully understand how it took 25 years to write that poem.

Indran Amirthanayagam, an author and poet read from his recently published book, Uncivil War, continuing the theme of trauma, displacement, war, and unbelonging. In Fire Department asks displaced refugee peoples from all over the world – Where is your Village Burning even if your home is not in the list. Ready to Move was a poignant ode to those who are witnesses to the only truth worth repeating – ready to move with a toothbrush, a fresh set of clothes. In Father, Indran eloquently mourns his father, moving from speaking of personal loss (watching geese honking on their way to the other side of the sky, poems to survive the fires, he has left us his name we wear it today) to the theme of universal experiences of the death of a father. Indran moved on to poems of upliftment as he hoped that the world would be inspired by the outcome of the American elections, in spite of something rotten in America, life pressed out of George Floyd, there is still hope he said – ordinary decent Joe has my vote – ending by saying he is an American optimist, and that the next war needs to be one that can unite humanity – saving our planet.

Varsha Saraiya-Shah continued the evening with a reading of I Speak from Towers of Silence in which she likens 6 feet of social distancing as a coffin length apart, observing that babies pop out like flowers, and being moved in different ways by the reality of bodies piling up in refrigerated trucks in New York. In Neither Hope nor Miracle, she speaks of science being necessary, that it needs to be unfenced with countless windows, that climate will throw earthly tantrums, warning, exhorting, and pleading with people to heed science. In When the Wind Blows, Varsha goes back to music, drawing inspiration from Miles Davis, saying, listen to what you can leave out. In Headlines, she playfully alludes to hair at different life stages, bound, unbound, and finally to a time to reshape the wildness even if Broadway will be closed till June 2021.

Saleem Peeradina’s poems submitted for this event were read by Pramila Venkateswararan. In The Body in Question Saleem Peeradina examines the world through striking images of different bodies and their symbolizing the various states of humanity, power and inhumanity –the bud of infancy to maternal bloom, migrating bodies washed ashore, body behind bars in solitary, body in whose soil is grown cotton, cane or tobacco, bodies from which coal is mined, in genocide, counted in numbers. In Song of the Makeover, he embodies the split he experiences as someone who never fits in where he is, always travelling, seeking himself or what appears to be himself through vivid phrases like full circle renewing the past, most at ease in a state of passage, two tongues, over there another face goes by my name, and, whose shadow doubles behind me.

In The View from 70, Saleem Peeradina draws playful and delightful images for us of interlopers who take over our bodies and are finally successful. The interloper enters stealthily with unmarked baggage, practice(s) hit and run arts, is the seducer who played for years on the swings slides and seesaws of my heart, a seventh sense, even with a no-vacancy sign. Finally, he concedes that it is best to befriend them, learn about them and co-exist until they (armed and dangerous) eventually win.

I am so glad I made the time for this new (to me) listening experience. It opened my eyes to a whole new vibrant community of poets and lovers of poetry, as well as those who enjoy hearing about the desi experience that we bring to the world of poetry. It seemed generally agreed upon that there has been more poetry written and made available to people all over the world, and that more people turned to poetry during the pandemic. Whether people had more time, needed poetry to make sense of the world, or whether technology brought poetry to more people, the increased interest has been one of the more welcome outcomes of the pandemic.

Desi Poets

Here are all these people

 

Who look like me Sound like me

And they read, and they love

Carry their hearts outside

Like me

speak the same languages

 

Languages

Of love and poetry

Of loss and separation

Of longing and dreams

Old homes and new

Old words renewed

 

Speak the language

Of Jack fruit, mango piquant as

Cilantro and green Chilis

Chai and samosas, sweet as

Jasmine with Thulasi leaves

 

Dusty tropical heat

Musty corner memories

Uncles, aunts, cousins

Clammy hands of first loves

Awkward fumbling kisses

 

Drenching thunderous monsoons

Umbrellas collapse in submission

 

Veins singing 

Gathering with hope

Hearts together 

rising in affection

 

Speaking old tongues in these newer lands

Using our Indlish to praise, protest, love

Finding connection in skin, language, country

 

Are these new cousins I see here?

Watch the Desi Poetry reading below!


Kalpana Asok is the author of ‘Whose Baby Is It, Anyway? Inside the Indian Heart’ and ‘Everyday Flowers’.

Voting in Anger In the Election

Though the high turnout of minority voters gave Joe Biden the edge in this election, exit polls showed that the majority of white voters favored Trump, exposing a ‘race gap’ in election 2020.

While three in five white voters (58%) supported Trump in 2020 like they did in 2016, 42% of white women voted for Trump, alongside Asians (34%), Latinos (32%,) and Black (12%). Among voters of color, over a third of Arab Americans polled preferred Trump because “they felt the Democrat’s support for Arabs was nothing but pandering for votes.” An AAPI survey also found that 48% of Vietnamese Americans and 28% of Asian Indians voted for the president.

But what puzzles the pundits is why white people (74 million) and some minorities voted the way they did. Though some voting patterns remain predictable, why did Trump win 3 out of 10 non-white voters? Why did half the country support a candidate whom the other half finds unacceptable?

The threadbare cliche that none of these groups (white, brown, or black) is monolithic, does not sufficiently explain why some of the electorate voted to support a norm-breaking candidate, whose views hew racist, sexist, xenophobic, disconnected and delusional, and who is responsible for a mangled response to a pandemic that has taken more than 300 thousand lives.

What do we really know about who voted for Trump and why?

Experts at a December 11 Ethnic Media briefing shared insights into voter turnout and the race gap in a contentious election.

The panel agreed that exit polls don’t tell the whole story. Polls only reflect those who voted, not those who did not cast a ballot. Despite a record number of votes in 2020, said  Mindy Romero a professor at USC, what’s significant is that 85 million eligible voters did not turn out  at all.

Trump got 31% vs 33% for Biden of eligible voters, among whom whites are a majority. So the voting electorate is not really representative of the voting population, stated Romero, because “disparities are entrenched in our electoral and prevent people from participating.’ If disparities were eliminated, Biden would have had a stronger mandate.

But there’s more at stake than counting voter turnout urged influential Berkeley sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild. “It’s in our interest to get into the mindset of the 74 million who voted for Trump” because of the president’s partisan efforts to create divisiveness in the electorate.

Hochschild, the author of Strangers in their Own Land, shared her insights into the rise of conservative American voters. Her research, based on intensive interviews of Tea Party enthusiasts in Louisiana, drills down into the fundamental values and concerns of marginalized white voters that shaped turnout in this election.

Their story, she said, reveals the ‘anger and mourning’ on the right that’s fueling a sizable divide between Republicans and Democrats who don’t really seem to understand each other.

The left cannot assume that right-leaning voters with MAGA hats and pumping fists ‘are sitting pretty’ said Hochschild. That image is an illusion, describing very few who live in the Trump heartland around Eastern Kentucky and Appalachia, which is the focus of her current research.

In interviews, Trump supporters admit that life isn’t better for them after four years, but they are still voting for him.  Why? Because, Hochschild explained, Trump has a way of ‘insinuating himself into the dominant paradigm of evangelical Christians, and reaching into his base using the trifecta of a ‘treasonous press,’ the deep state, and his bout with COVID19, to position himself as a victim ‘suffering for them,’ and that he alone can save them. Many Christians see Trump as a savior, said Hochschild.

On the other hand, Democrats, despite their education and curiosity tend to live in urban enclaves and don’t have a presence in disadvantaged, white strongholds. Such political bubbles leave many in these communities feeling invisible explained Hochschild. Support for Trump is rooted in disillusionment and anger at the system.

White Anger and the Trump supporter

What prompts the right-wing hostility of Trump supporters, argues Hochschild, is “an anguishing loss of honor, alienation and engagement in a hidden social class war,” lying hidden beneath their difficult struggle for the American Dream.

Trump supporters get their picture of reality not just from Fox News but also mainstream media such as CNN and MSNBC. But their impressions of non-white newscasters and black football stars with multimillion dollar deals, have heightened their sense of being left out. To them, people of color appear to be getting ahead and receiving special treatment in what is perceived as a ‘put down of white men,’ said Hochschild, adding that they regarded themselves as ‘poor and dumb,’ and actually felt that life was rigged against them; they felt they were ‘sinking as others are rising.’

Ironically, this sense of victimhood has made  ‘a lot of white people…blue collar, high school educated white (Christian) people’ and pockets of poor folk, “feel like a minority group themselves” that is in decline, explained Hochschild.

One of her respondents had grown up in a trailer park where drug abuse and crime was rampant; he pointed out that communities like his were not dissimilar to those in the Bronx and Detroit, yet the media tended to portray poor whites in a more negative light.

So it was not racism, but economic anxiety, that propelled disenfranchised white voters towards Trump, explained Davin Phoenix, Asst. Professor of  Political Science, (USC Irvine), and author of The Anger Gap: How Race Shapes Emotion in Politics,

Trends show thatwhite people feel the ground shifting under their feet.” Trump has harnessed their fear of a shifting society and losing their dominant status, to fan white anger and normalize the Trumpian viewpoint. “Anger is a palpable force,” said Phoenix.

But anger against an unresponsive society does not drive people of color in a similar way, he countered. While white anger manifested in a 2016 Trump victory, there is a racial anger gap prevents black people from mobilizing their anger.

“Race shapes who gets to be publicly angry over politics’ stated Phoenix. It determines how the polity, the media treats groups inequitably based on how they air their grievances.

Contrary to the stereotype of the angry black man, people of color express less anger at the system than their  white counterparts.

White people express anger over politics by canvassing for candidates, going to the voting booth, donating, or contacting election officials. People of color are less likely to do so, though they may protest or boycott, said Phoenix. His research indicates that  when people of color encounter threats, they are more likely to withdraw from politics or pursue alternative forms of action.

“Anger consistently mobilizes White Americans toward a wide range of political actions more effectively than African Americans,” writes Phoenix 

The Media Narrative has to Change

Trump and his media echo chamber have continued to fuel this white anger in the run up to election 2020, and deepen the divide between Democrats and Republicans. Panelists agreed that the media narrative needs to change.

“There are lots of stories that could be written to reach across this divide,” suggested Hochschild, to frame migrant stories of both people of color and whites – Latino and Appalachian for example – so people can form a common, human connection. While we read about migrant camps on the Mexican border, the mainstream press does not cover out-of-work Appalachians in camped outside Cincinnati.  We need stories that remind us that “there is work that Latinos do, that is not competitive with what whites do.”

We also need to address the idea of ‘displacement’ said Hochschild, because many of these people are not entitled – they’re depressed and a little bit frightened. “Labelling people as racist is going to backfire.”

The media plays a key role in educating the electorate about race and power, democratic norms and how the electoral process works, added Romero. She warned that the media sets up the narrative when they blame certain groups for failure in voter turnout. Instead of playing the ‘blame game’ after every election – young people were apathetic, why did black people vote for Trump, why didn’t more Latinos vote  – Romero suggested the narrative must evolve from handwringing, to understanding the nuances in policy preferences among groups and where people are coming from, especially with historically underrepresented populations.  We need to reach out and honestly address racial bias to begin a positive dialogue and encourage people to get past their differences, urged Romero.

Thinking Ahead

The racial divide is underscored by misconceptions Democrats and Republicans have about each other, said Hochschild. In a survey Dems estimated that 50% of Republicans felt racism is still a problem, when that number was actually 80%. Republicans estimated that half of Democrats felt that police were ‘bad people’ when the actual number was lower (15%). Both sides are unable to predict what each think, and when perception of the other is so skewed, they really need to change tactics.

It won’t be easy, but Americans need to ’abandon party tribalism’, lower their guard, and listen to really understand each other, if they want to forge a less polarized, more inclusive country.


Meera Kymal is the contributing editor at India Currents

image credit: photopin Only in Oregon

Dancing in Plain Sight

“The world is full of paper. I am writing now. I am writing to me. I am writing to myself and others like me,” author Sejal Shah professes in an essay “The World is Full of Paper. Write to Me“, which is featured in her debut collection, This Is One Way to Dance. 

When asked to review this collection, I remembered Shah’s piece in an anthology I’d reviewed fifteen years ago, Under Her Skin: How Girls Experience Race in America (IC, April 2005). In that particular piece, “Betsy, Tacy, Sejal, Tib”, Shah imagines a childhood in which girls read books about characters who looked like her, and life was perfectly normal, even outside the walls of her home in a predominantly-white neighborhood bordering Rochester, New York.

Like that piece, her collection is an exploration of the sharp corners of the hypervisibility and invisibility she bore—identity, race, acceptance, foreignness in her own country. “Dance” offers twenty-five of Shah’s writings and is chronicled by the year written (1999—2019). The result is an inspiring autobiographical search for identity in her birth country, a country that prides itself on its diversity yet persists in designating “Other” to strip away one’s non-white distinctiveness.

Sejal Shah
Sejal Shah, Author of This Is One Way to Dance.

The daughter of Gujarati immigrants from India and Kenya, Shah is the only person in her immediate family who was born in America and grew up in western New York. She was 19 when she first visited India. Still, travel is an important method of seeing herself as she moves from Rochester to Amherst, Brooklyn, Decorah, the Bay Area, and the desert of Nevada. We follow her as she moves to college, teaching positions, fellowships, residencies, and Burning Man. She travels to France – and reminisces about a dear friend lost to suicide – and to Sicily – and unexpectedly befriends an Indian family of vendors.

Shah guides the reader through skillfully written examinations of dancing and weddings (her brother’s, friends’, hers); her sense of place and belonging (contrasting the contentment of her parents’ circle of friends with living in numerous places where her comfort level varied); her challenges as an American of color (“Where do you come from?” people ask her, expecting an answer different from “Upstate New York”); frictional pop culture (The Simpsons’ Apu character voiced by a white man); microaggressions (encountered too regularly); and food (it means home no matter where she dines).

Shah is a poet, short story writer, and essayist. “Dance” is the canvas upon which she has successfully discarded rules, choosing instead to marry the three in a genre-mixing volume that shows her talents and voice at their best. As a poet, too, she brings a lyricism to her prose, an economy with hard juxtapositions, and an open, welcoming door into her thoughts and life. At times, it reads like a journal, a diary, those most intimate keepers of one’s emotions.

Her introspective, thought-provoking, often-humorous essays laced with frustration and joy, sadness and discovery give rise to seeing life through her eyes, then reflecting on one’s own. Her writing reveals an individual and offers no template for a large group of people. Instead, it is personal, honest, and hopeful.

Shah’s essays are springboards to conversation. They are reminders that under the broad umbrella of race, each person sheds light on as many unique facets of life as there are colors of skin and ways to dance. In a period during which race finally has moved forward in the national spotlight, these essays should be required reading.   


Jeanne E. Fredriksen lives in both Carolinas where she is a Books for Youth reviewer for Booklist magazine/American Library Association and a member of WCPE-FM The Classical Station’s Music Education Fund committee. She is always reading and writing.

At 52 Hz, My Throat is Parched

The 2020 US elections were not just about differing political views. People’s lives were impacted on the basis of their skin color, their gender, their sexuality, or their religion.

It bred uncertainty and fear in people who had been targeted for years.

Human beings should be respected for just that, being human. There is no other clause or addition to that. 

Here is a poem dedicated to those that felt weak. Rather than offer a solution of light in the darkness, I offer a hand to hold in it. 

Oil painting by Swati Ramaswamy (crashed waves/clouds dissolving) 
Oil painting by Author, Swati Ramaswamy (crashed waves/clouds dissolving)

6th November 10:11 pm

I felt it in waves, that dissolve in the sand

Blue and red neon signs holding each hand

“Am I human enough?” 

My skin dipped chocolate and my heart of rainbows

I can’t seem to hide, in the hours that count down— 

I can’t seem to stop.

Maybe if my eyes could close, maybe if my mind switched off—

Maybe if red and blue-dyed into a plethora of purple, 

losing in color and gaining the “other”.

 

“In a world with its eyes closed, a person with their’s open

Isn’t it strange how now they are made blind?” 

Is that victory? 

Effortless rounds that never escape a cycle,

Drugged on more and living less.

If it never starts, it never ends.

People become collateral, waves become loose sand.

A gripping fist, shows an empty hand. 

My throat is parched, lungs need a break—

But I haven’t slept yet:

 

Waking up in this state. 

7th November 5:50 am


Swati Ramaswamy is a recent graduate from UC Davis and is an aspiring creative writer who loathes speaking in the third person. 

Have Our Votes Ever Reflected Our Population?

Humans are pattern-seeking – something that doesn’t agree with the nature of reality since it is inherently uncertain and unpredictable. Anything can happen. There is a perfect blend of beauty and terror in the ambiguity, but it’s the reality we live with and keep tucked away in the backs of our minds every day. 

This year has been one of pure uncertainty (in case the advertisements haven’t told you that “these are uncertain times” enough). We joke that 2020 can’t get any worse, so go ahead and add another disaster to the pile forming in the corner in the same way national debt does. It’s not normal to be as numb as we are to the concept of uncertainty. Global pandemic? Economic recession? Protestors getting shot down? The election of a decade? At this point, I could’ve added alien invasion to the list and no one would be phased. 

In the year 2020, the only certainty is uncertainty itself. This year has been a breath we’ve been waiting to let out. When will it be okay to breathe? When will it be okay to feel like the crisis is over? When will we be okay? 

Until then, we hold our breaths, twiddle our thumbs, and try not to hope too much in fear that something worse will roll along in response.

And here it is: this year (of all years this could possibly happen) incidentally is the year of the general elections.

Red vs. Blue

Elephant vs. Donkey

Democrat vs. Republican

We make decisions on who makes decisions for us. One of the cornerstones of democracy is free and fair elections. Take your ballot and drop it in the box as all votes are counted accurately

But not this year. No. Like everything else this year, voting is a bit different. Mail-in ballot voting. The concept itself is not all that foreign and has worked on a smaller scale in the past. But this year (to use an overused phrase) there seems to be some controversy surrounding this. Mail-in ballots are voter fraud. We might not know the results until later. The post office sucks. You’ve heard almost everything on this by now if you’ve tuned into even half an hour of news a week.

It’s hilarious. I’m laughing right now as I write this because of the utter hypocrisy of it. I get it, the post system isn’t always perfect, but neither is our political system right now, and it seems the same people criticizing mail-in ballots seem to be glossing over the faults of our government. We keep talking about how fair it is to have mail-in ballots. Can we trust it? What if everyone’s votes don’t count? It’s not an accurate representation. It won’t make everyone’s voice heard.

Has it ever counted? Think about it. No really. Think. Way back in ye olden days, women couldn’t vote, people of color couldn’t vote, the impoverished found it difficult to vote. Was that accurate? The voice of the people was the voice of straight, rich, property-owning, white males. 

Oh, but we’ve evolved from that.

Have we though?

Remember: just because it’s legal doesn’t mean it’s acceptable. That’s the equivalent of saying that starting to think about giving rights to the LGBTQ community can fix homophobia. That’s not how that works. 

We’re not that much better today than we were centuries ago in terms of free and fair elections. Why? Voter suppression exists. Who are we suppressing?

Who are the people who are suppressed in all aspects of the American government? Minority groups.

Type of voter suppression at a polling station in New Hampshire, 2013. (Image by: Mark Buckawicki)

This administration is known to suppress minority groups. Throwing them in cages, threatening deportation, building a literal border wall, shooting protesters, and just sowing hatred. Not to mention how difficult it is to even be able to vote if you have a criminal record. The Shelby County vs. Holder trial didn’t help either. Democracy lost 5-4. 

There are tactics and chess pieces being moved to silence people that we aren’t even aware of. 

The worst kind of uncertainty is the uncertainty in whether or not your voice is heard. Am I represented? Am I equal? Am I cared for? This type of uncertainty is almost existential in nature and deserves a definitive yes. These shouldn’t be things we have to worry about, but such is the state of reality at this point. 

There is a way to change this. Vote. You’ve probably already heard this one, but I’m serious: if you can, then do it. I’m not saying vote for any particular candidate but just vote. The best way to predict the future and eliminate as much of this malicious uncertainty as possible is to vote.

Vote. You can be certain in your own opinions, actions, and decisions. Once you master that, the rest shouldn’t bother you much. You have to voice your opinions and speak out against injustice. It’s hard to pinpoint definitively what is wrong and right, but the important thing is to try. It’s all anyone can do. I can say with complete certainty that trying has more of a chance of succeeding than not trying at all.


Reema Kalidindi is a junior at Lower Bucks High School and a lead volunteer at Bharatiya Temple’s school for children.