Why are South Asians facing a wave of violence?

Pranav Jani puts recent attacks on Indian-Americans in the context of the history of xenophobia and racism toward immigrants from India and other South Asian countries.

Sikh, Hindu and Muslim religious leaders send a message of solidarity at a vigil for Srinivas Kuchibhotla in Kansas (Crescent Peace Society | Facebook)Sikh, Hindu and Muslim religious leaders send a message of solidarity at a vigil for Srinivas Kuchibhotla in Kansas (Crescent Peace Society | Facebook)

FOUR SOUTH Asian-Americans--all of them from India--have been shot in the last two weeks, two of them fatally.

Srinivas Kuchibhotla was killed and Alok Madasani was injured after a white gunman shot them in a Kansas bar on February 22. Witnesses report that the shooter yelled, "Get out of my country!"

Harnish Patel, the owner of a small convenience store in South Carolina, was gunned down in front of his home on the night of March 2. Authorities aren't confirming the shooting as a hate crime.

Deep Rai was shot in the arm on March 3 after being accosted by a white man while working on his car outside his home near Seattle. The shooter told Rai: "Go back to your own country."

In the wake of these attacks--which have been more intensely covered by news outlets in India than in the country where they took place--a wave of fear and anger has washed across the Indian-American community.

People are reconsidering whether they really want to move to, visit, study in, or remain in the U.S. There is a general sense that something has changed about a country that was seen until recently as a place where you faced discrimination, but could make a life.

Many are asking themselves the same question posed on Facebook by Sunayana Dumala, the widow of Kuchibhotla: "Is the U.S. the same country we once dreamed of?"

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WHILE READING the news over the last two weeks, I've had to sit down at times and take a deep breath to steady myself from the feelings of rage and sadness, combined with a sense of isolation and being out place in this country--even though this is my country, a place where I've lived since I was 10 months old.

I've felt this way before. The time after 9/11 was hard for me and mine. Like then, we feel today like a target has been carved deeply and permanently into our backs, and we wonder what the future holds.

I want to explain what's different about anti-South Asian violence in the Trump era, and what's very much the same--just another chapter in the long history of violence against South Asians in the U.S., going all the way back to the last quarter of the 19th century.

Specifically, I want to make the case to my fellow activists and organizers that racism against South Asians is part and parcel of the history of racism and racialization in this country. It is linked both to the foundational violence against Native Americans and Africans, and the special violence reserved for people of color whose labor builds this country, but who are used as tools to preserve profits for U.S. capitalists.

In progressive circles, there is a tendency to speak of South Asians and racism mainly in two ways: to denounce racist attitudes within South Asian communities or, when the violence is recognized, to see it only through the lens of Islamophobia.

There is something to each of these points: Racism within our communities is a reality, and heightened Islamophobia is certainly a root cause of violence against Muslim and non-Muslim South Asians. But there is also a need to talk about anti-South Asian racism, in and of itself.

In doing so, we must guard against another tendency: to minimize the scale of violence and prejudice against South Asians because of their wealth, whether real or perceived.

Many South Asian radicals themselves write in these terms, perhaps eager to demonstrate to others that we are renouncing our "privilege." Instead, we should use our own experience of racism to make ourselves better anti-racist fighters--for others and for ourselves.

This is not simply an ethical position, but emerges from an understanding of history. Anti-South Asian violence serves a specific purpose in the framework of U.S. racism and capitalism, and needs to be opposed unconditionally, regardless of whether the victims are financially successful or conservative.

If we can understand how Barack Obama, the head of U.S. imperialism during his presidency, can experience anti-Black racism, we should have no trouble taking seriously the instances of racist discrimination suffered by small businesspeople, technical workers and engineers.

Rejecting the myth of the "model minority," a key ideological tool of U.S. racism, the left needs to bring a deeper awareness of this racism into the larger picture of this country's anti-Black, anti-Native and anti-immigrant racism.

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THE HISTORY of racist violence against South Asians goes back to the last quarter of the 19th century, when laborers and a few students began coming to the North American West Coast.

The British Empire had been exporting its colonial subjects from India across the world to fulfill various needs. After the slave trade was abolished, laborers arrived in the Caribbean to fill the shortage in plantations. They were transported on crowded, disease-ridden ships that left many dead. Indians were brought in as businessmen to colonized Kenya to create a "buffer" race between the British and Black Africans.

When the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 kept Chinese and Japanese workers away from the farms and railroads of California, the stream of Indians, mostly Punjabis, increased. Many, unable to bring their families, married Mexican women. In Harlem, Detroit, and New Orleans, as Vivek Bald argues in Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America, new working-class communities emerged as Indians married Black, Creole and Puerto Rican women.

But soon, law after law stripped Indians of their property and land rights. Riots led by racist workers, like the 1907 riot in Bellingham, Washington, against South Asian lumber mill workers, terrorized the population and drove them away--with a local newspaper praising how the migrant workers were "wiped off the map."

The 1914 incident of the Komagatu Maru in Vancouver--in which 376 Indians were barred from setting foot on Canadian soil, held offshore for two months and then taken back to British India by the Canadian military--resonated across the world.

Indians didn't take it lightly. Political organizations sprang up. The Ghadar Party of students and workers was formed in San Francisco in 1913--it denounced British India and U.S. racism in its newspapers and even smuggled activists back into India.

The Ghadar Party's solidarity with the Easter Uprising in Ireland in 1916 drew the attention of Irish labor unions in California. In 1919, they voted to prevent the deportation of any Indian activist who was targeted for fighting the British.

South Asian immigration was sharply reduced by the 1923 Supreme Court ruling in the United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind case, which determined that Indians were not white and were ineligible for naturalized citizenship.

Lawyers for Thind, a U.S. military veteran of the First World War, had built a case not on the grounds of equality, but on the argument that Indians were also "Caucasian," and therefore shouldn't be subject to the country's racist immigration policies. In response, the majority opinion of the Supreme Court stated:

It is a matter of familiar observation and knowledge that the physical group characteristics of the Hindus render them readily distinguishable from the various groups of persons in this country commonly recognized as white. The children of English, French, German, Italian, Scandinavian and other European parentage quickly merge into the mass of our population and lose the distinctive hallmarks of their European origin. On the other hand, it cannot be doubted that the children born in this country of Hindu parents would retain indefinitely the clear evidence of their ancestry.

It is very far from our thought to suggest the slightest question of racial superiority or inferiority. What we suggest is merely racial difference, and it is of such character and extent that the great body of our people instinctively recognize it and reject the thought of assimilation.

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IN 1965, the pressures of the civil rights movement and the need for more technical workers to compete with the USSR, particularly the space program, led the U.S. to lift some restrictions on Asian immigration, but limit entry to those with a background in science and technology.

This selective admission of South Asians lies at the root of the "model minority" myth, which used the relative success of some Asian Americans to both perpetuate the American Dream narrative and scold African Americans and others for supposedly not measuring up.

This notion has persisted despite the fact that, as more families of the post-1965 generation emigrated in the 1980s and 1990s, Indians and South Asians as a group have became increasingly working class.

Economic crisis and anti-Asian sentiment--driven by the rise of economic nationalism not unlike Donald Trump's anti-China rhetoric today, but directed at America's then-chief economic rival Japan--led to the murder of Chinese American Vincent Chin in Detroit in 1982.

Less well known are the attacks on 15 Indians in Jersey City, New Jersey between 1987 and 1988 after The Jersey Journal published a threatening letter signed by an organization calling itself the "Dotbusters." "If I'm walking down the street," the letter warned, "and I see a Hindu and the setting is right, I will just hit him or her."

These weren't idle threats. Navroze Mody, beaten with a baseball bat, died from his injuries. Bhered Patel was beaten with a metal pipe while he slept; taxi driver Malkiat Singh was shot to death.

In the hyper-Islamophobic climate after 9/11, South Asian Muslims bore the brunt of the racist attacks. But many non-Muslim South Asians, particularly Sikhs, were also harassed, beaten and killed--as documented in Valarie Kaur's film Divided We Fall. Balbir Singh Sodhi was the first casualty, killed outside his gas station in Arizona on September 15.

"The unprecedented violence we saw following the September 11 attacks has returned, electrified by a hostile 2016 presidential election," reads a report by the advocacy group South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT). Note that this report was published in January 2017, before the recent shootings.

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AT EVERY step, the struggles of South Asian Americans have been tied to the struggles of other racially oppressed groups in the U.S.

But because of social engineering in immigration policy, their higher income levels than many other groups and their relative social conservatism, South Asians are often seen as being cut off from this history.

Understanding immigrant labor as labor, whatever the skill level or salary, is central to understanding why anti-South Asian violence is climbing at the same time as hateful rhetoric from the White House against Mexicans, Blacks, Arabs and other groups.

The violence right now is being fueled by a combination of Islamophobia and a xenophobic discourse that accompanies economic nationalism. There is a widespread idea that Indians are "taking" white-collar U.S. jobs through the visas given to students with technology backgrounds.

The sort of hatred that Indians face is exemplified in the chilling comments of a right winger about video taken last year of Indian families relaxing in a park in suburban Columbus, Ohio. Here is the uploaders's description of the video, since removed, but not before it got 500,000 views on YouTube:

It was the summer of 2016 and Save American Information Technology Jobs was on the ground with a video journey about the presence of Indian guest workers in the Great Midwest. Our walk in the park provides evidence as to who has the Jobs in this area, and they are not the citizens of Ohio. It is proof on the ground how guest workers are not only taking over jobs, but also taking away the real estate and parks. The USA Ohio IT Workers have disappeared to oblivion. In August 2016, Indians are seen as colonizing and occupying white American land, and making themselves rich.

Against this emerging hatred, we need to build greater and greater degrees of solidarity. A statement by the group India Civil Watch sends the right message:

We must get organized in broad coalitions with others who care and intend to defend immigrant and minority rights: African-American, Asian-American, Latinx, white and other immigrant groups. This is the moment to research, locate and get involved with local immigrant, civil or human rights organizations.

Our strength lies in our recognition that most of us are here as workers, whether we drive taxis in NYC or write code in the Bay Area, and the only way forward is to build solidarity with other workers, regardless of where exactly we might be located on the economic ladder. That the U.S. economy rewards each of these workers differently must not blind us to the fact that we are all targets of racist discrimination, and that the relative wealth of some of us only appears to insulate us from violence.

This is well put. But in addition to getting South Asian-Americans, and specifically Indian-Americans, to understand the need for solidarity and transformations within their communities, we also need others to challenge racism against Asians, from its ideological expression in the "model minority" idea to the material impact of discrimination and deadly violence.