Editor’s Note: Sayu Bhojwani served as New York’s first commissioner of immigrant affairs and is the founder of South Asian Youth Action, a community-based organization in Queens. Since 2010, she has served as founder and president of The New American Leaders Project, which is based in New York. The views expressed in this commentary are her own.
In the last two weeks, there have been four violent attacks on Indian-American men
Sayu Bhojwani: This kind of discrimination isn't new, but combating it will require minority communities to join forces
Two weeks, four attacks, two fatal. Violent incidents in Kansas, Washington, South Carolina and Florida have one thing in common. The victims, Srinivas Kuchibhotla, Deep Rai, Harnish Patel and the owner of a Met Mart store in Port St. Lucie, Florida, were all Indian-American men.
Understandably, the Indian-American community is now in a state of mourning. As we heal, I hope we will learn the greater lesson necessary to respond to future attacks: that we can’t fight bigotry alone. We must form long-term alliances with other minority groups and find strength in organized collective action.
For Indian-Americans, this is an opportunity to emerge from a myth of racial ambiguity to a reality of historical racism.
The spate of violence in 2017 is rightfully linked to the hateful rhetoric and racist policy that the Trump administration has been accused of perpetuating. But it is neither the first nor last cycle of hate crimes against Indian-Americans in this country. Since I moved to the United States in 1984, there have been at least three periods in which hate crimes against the community spiked. First in the late 1980s in Jersey City, New Jersey, and then across the nation during both Iraq Wars and after the September 11, 2001, attacks.
What makes the hate crimes in 2017 different? America today is no longer a beacon of hope and opportunity for immigrants, and the current administration has helped create an environment for this kind of hostility to take hold.
Indeed, Trump has contributed to a new America where racist beliefs, practices and laws may once again be normalized. As is evidenced in these violent attacks, Islamophobia (the perpetrator in Port St. Lucie said he was mad at Arabs for “what they are doing in the Middle East”) and xenophobia (the Kansas and Washington shootings were preceded with “go back to your country” declarations) are on the rise.
But let’s remember that these attacks are part of a long history of discrimination.
Based on my work over the last two decades, first running a community organization for South Asian youth, then serving as commissioner of Immigrant Affairs for New York, and now running a pan-ethnic national organization, I believe we will continue to experience cycles of violence and hate if we don’t do something differently.
From our early history in America, white workers resented South Asians, who they feared would take their jobs. Once considered whites, early Indian immigrants’ “privileged” status slowly began to disintegrate.
In 1914, in US v. Bhagat Singh Thind, Indians first faced an overt denial of their “whiteness.” The court ruled that Indians may be Caucasian, but they were not “white” and therefore ineligible for the “privilege of citizenship” conferred upon that “class of persons.” The Thind decision also meant that Indian men could not marry white women or own land, under the California Alien Land Law.
Another major blow to Asian Indians came in the form of the 1924 Immigration Act, which barred people ineligible for citizenship from entry to the United States.
It’s not until the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act, which eliminated national origin quotas, that larger numbers of Indians began coming to America. The 1965 act, which delineated preferences for professionals, scientists and artists, drew immigrants who were highly skilled and educated in British India.
Since that wave of immigrants, the community has diversified significantly, and Indian-Americans are now the second largest group of immigrants after Mexican-Americans. Numbering just over 3 million, they make up a mere 1% of the population, a small fraction of the country.
Our visible status as minorities, and this recent wave of attacks against Indian-Americans, mandate actions bigger than our size. This is our time to build alliances with other people of color to fight back against both the Trump administration and our country’s institutionalized racism.
This is not the time to rely on the myth of Indian-American exceptionalism. We are not alone in experiencing hate and violence. African-Americans, Latinos, other Asian-Americans and LGBTQ people have a sustained record of being attacked and vilified for their appearance, mannerisms and real or perceived immigration status.
Many in the Indian-American community were disappointed that Trump didn’t condemn the Srinivas Kuchibhotla shooting, but these same people stand quietly by as transgender women are killed, Latinos deported and Muslims banned.
The Internet would explode if Trump accurately and compassionately responded to every hate crime in America. Instead of calling on him to be something he has repeatedly shown he cannot be, let’s figure out how all of us – brown and black, gay and straight – can stand together.
We need one rapid response communications and activism machine that is louder and more organized than ever. This must be multiracial and national in scope, with capacity for nimble and local actions.
Funded by high net worth donors and small donations, the effort must develop long-term infrastructure for sustained and systematic responses to every hate crime, racist policy and ignorant public statement. The spokespersons we select must be committed to a multiracial agenda and determined to be inclusive. The actions in which we engage must embrace those who fear speaking out and those who can speak loudly and proudly.
This is not the work of one community for one administration. It’s the work of all communities for all of our country.