by Shemon Salam
This is a sketch. All the foundations have not been laid. The contours are beginning to take shape. Many of the details are still missing. Tasks lie ahead.
What will happen in the future is bound by what has happened in the past. What will happen in the future is also free of what has happened in the past. This is not a play of words or a typo, but a profound duality that is integrated into one total movement of the future. It is the interplay of human agency, historical facts and forces. None of these can be determined precisely. Even history at times turns into speculation and possibilities. Human agency is complicated and at times, speculative. That is its beauty and terror, all at the same time.
This essay however is not a metaphysical exploration of these questions, but a concrete analysis of a group of people who have found themselves in America. I speak of my own peopleâ€”South Asian Americans. It is within this context that I explore further questions, seeking for some guideposts to arrive at a few conclusions. I do not have all the answers. This essay is the beginning of a dialectical perspective that calmly and explosively looks at the South Asian experience not historically, but philosophically and theoretically. This is not about sociology or anthropology, but about how the perceived truth of reality can be destroyed by the â€œspontaneousâ€ movement of millions in a matter of days. It is a spontaneity that is neither mystical nor fetishized, but one borne from daily facets of everyday life in a capitalist society.
I hope to take up contemporary issues, historical events, and cast light on future possibilities of South Asian Americans in the United States. My own understanding of these questions have been influenced by left-libertarian perspectives which challenge contemporary takes on immigration, nationalism, and democracy. Contrary to popular belief, South Asians today are not free in the United States. We are bound, not only by an imperialist, racist, and capitalist government, but also by patriarchy, racism, and class tensions in our own community. It is only through the self-activity of working-class South Asians that our community can be free.
We are unevenly integrated into the American tradition, history, landscape, culture and politics. What is our future as South Asian Americans? How do we relate to our Latino, Asian, and Black brothers and sisters in this country as peers and not perpetual foreigners? No book, no professor, or otherwise, can clearly answer this question for us. The interactions of daily life, cooked in American-style class tensions, racism, and patriarchy will unleash movement politics that will resolve this question. We only need to look back to the 1960s to see how profound questions around race, immigration and sexuality were addressed through mass movement.
It is a hot stew that we have found ourselves in. We came with hopes of a new and clean start. Some, in the middle class, believe they have achieved this. Their playhouse will not stand for long. And if it does, it will bear the blood and tears of their own kin, blood and family. The options are starker than ever before: barbarism or freedom.
Americanization of South Asians
South Asiansâ€”in varying degreesâ€”carry the political, cultural, and historical traditions of their respective nations when they arrive in the United States. Some might hope to leave as much as possible behind for a variety of reasons. Others come here to replicate their homes, except with fuller stomachs. Most know that they will give up something to gain another and are willing to take that risk. Few can imagine what lies ahead.
Immigrants are influenced by their experiences of race, class, gender, and sexual dynamics in the U.S. On certain issues, we use political tools forged back at home to grapple with this countryâ€™s realities. In other situations, immigrants pick up liberal racism through the media, day-to-day experiences and stories from the more established immigrants. More often than not however, sexual dynamics are understood as they were in the home land. The need to preserve them is key because control of private space through women and the household is often regarded as grounds for cultural autonomy Pre-existing class relations within the community also help maintain hierarchical authorities in the family. This readjustment process is one that all immigrants, including Europeans go through. There is nothing degenerate or unique about South Asians.
This process is one of Americanization. Unfortunately, it has been muddied by the rulers of this country for too long; it has been monopolized, tarred with imperialist notions of patriotism, racist anti-immigrant sentiments and politics; it has been plagued with a white supremacist politics for millions of Black folks that will haunt future generations to come. This nation stateâ€™s vision of America is doomed. It will have nowhere to go when the US population becomes majority people of color and U.S. empire abroad continues to be ruthlessly resisted from Iraq to Korea. The alternative version of â€œAmericanizationâ€ I refer to has nothing to do with getting immigrants to speak English, acquiring citizenship, or assimilating them into WASP culture.
When I refer to America and to the process of Americanization, I hope to convince the reader that a different concept of Americanization can exist. When I speak of â€œAmericaâ€, I speak of the working people of this country. They are Black folks standing proud, Chicano folks protesting in the streets, the LGBTQ community with no fear, Muslims and Arabs protesting the war in Iraq and the occupation in Palestine, Southeast Asian youth resisting police brutality in their neighborhoods, and Korean Americans protesting the Free Trade Agreement between Korea and the US. I see these people carving out a new definition of America that is multi-racial, anti-racist, egalitarian, and more democratic than anything the rulers of this country could imagine. I base this on our histories, which stress moments of solidarity, compassion, hope, care, and struggle against forces of racism, colonialism, heterosexism and patriarchy. It might appear that these moments are few, but in reality they are happening all the time in small doses. Once in a while, when things come together they explode into beautiful protests, like the immigrant rallies led by the Chicano community in 2006. This America has a place for people from all walks of life, and it is about being in solidarity and finding solutions to American social problems.
When I speak of Americanization, it is also critical for us South Asians to broaden our political perspectives, to break down artificial divisions that make South Asian political reality distant and foreign to a US political reality. What happens in South Asia is not just an issue about American foreign policy; it is also an American domestic issue. Who it is in the U.S that has the power to dictate white supremacist and capitalist foreign policies in South Asia, cannot be separated from American racial, class, and gender politics as well. This means that our community needs to articulate South Asian politics on a local and national level in the US, in a way that intersects with concerns of Black, Chicano and Asian American communities. We cannot come up with demands that make issues appear as if they are relevant only to South Asians. As I will elaborate more later in this piece, the Hindutva issue, and current events in Pakistan are challenges that South Asian Americans must generalize and integrate into American society. With that, the community might even begin to speak on behalf of American-domestic issues to represent trends in the broader society, the way the Black Power movement started to do in the 1960s.
Americanization can only happen when South Asians are living and working side by side with other American communities. This molecular process is already happening on a daily basis but is extremely difficult to see, let alone understand. Usually, this process is discussed in terms of culture, which is critical, but has its limitations. The issues of dating and different lifestyles also carry political germs, but are usually discussed in terms of defending our cultural heritage alone. This cultural nationalist argument attempts to close deeper political discussions about more radical ideas of sexuality and lifestyle choices. At times, dissent around individual cultural and lifestyle choices also become substitutes for other forms of broader, more socialized political battles which are also integral parts of Americanization. The completion of the Americanization of South Asians can only happen in political and social struggle which demand freedoms, outreach to other oppressed sectors of the community, and begin to connect South Asian issues to American issues.
The tragic events of September 11, 2001 were a horrible, but nonetheless powerful igniter for the debate of what America means for many Muslim South Asians. So far, the broader community has handled it in quiet ways, hoping to be good people of color and assimilate into American society. This strategy is running into problems as South Asians are being harassed by the FBI and Homeland Security, often with the help and collaboration of middle-class Muslim leaders. This is hardly a program that will convince youth that they are equals of this country. It is only a matter of time before the dam breaks and sections of the community are fed up with this accommodationist stance. Will this result in new mass movements? How will this mass movement relate to other social problems facing the nation? In the cultural front we see the slow incorporation of South Asians and hip hop with artists such as DJ Rekha and Malabar to name only a few in this growing genre. These artistes rap about the ways in which Brown people in the US are collectively oppressed, and highlight the solidarity that is necessary between Black and Brown people in the US. How these artists will affect broader American society is unclear. In the South Asian community, they represent a force that will not cower before the US state, finding strength and solidarity instead with other people of color here.
My argument boils down to the following: the South Asians might be Americans in the way we dress, talk, eat, and behave, but we are not Americans in our politics, traditions, and beliefs. I am referring to how we conceptualize ourselves; how we concretely see our interests in relationship to other everyday Americans; how we interact with anti-Black racism, class conflict in this country. Oftentimes, we think ourselves to be outside the racial problems of this country. We think we can exist above them or outside them. We claim not to be Black or White, but too often we also end up siding with white supremacy in our political and cultural behavior. We have failed to come up with a South Asian American racial and class identity that is at the same time independent and confident of its own origins, and related to the racial and class conflicts of this country. Instead, we feel we are a social class destined to be doctors and engineers, and ignore the class differentiated societies we left back home. I am not looking for programmatic answers to these questions but searching for what they look like when people are on the move in the workplace, neighborhood, and their schools. What people do is often more important then what they say. On both counts, the verdict is not good at the present moment; however the future is not doomed either.
Class Dynamics in the South Asian Community
Myths are sometimes distorted reflections of truth. There is no exception to the one pertaining to South Asians in the U.S.: the model minority myth. In 1965, Congress passed the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) which encouraged skilled professionals to enter the United States. This meant a substantial number of doctors, scientists, and engineers entered the country for more than a decade. In 1976, a new set of laws made it difficult for skilled professionals to enter the country. The new laws still allowed family reunification for immigrants. This meant that the influx of immigrants from South Asia would not stop, but the class character of the immigrants would change. The 1980s and the 90s saw an increase in South Asians coming under the Family Reunification clause. These have tended not only to be of more working class origins but also from less developed countries like Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Nepal. These new class forces in the United States have been cause for tension. The very social relations and material realities for working class South Asians become a brutal school of authentic Americana: the hard knock life of racial conflict, class warfare, family problems, patriarchy, sex, drugs, and more. At the level of work, school, and neighborhoods, South Asians are forced to interact with an American experience.
The future of the South Asian working class is different from its middle-class counterpart. While the middle class has settled into its own sensibilities, ambitions, and a way of life, this door for the working class is closed except for the occasional individual here and there. For many youth, unemployment, poor education, and ghettoization are either already realities, or will soon be. Our generation will have to resolve a distinct set of American questions that have plagued the Black, Native American, and Latino communities. How they will be resolved, and what kind of leadership is needed, are challenges we have to take up.
Because of the influence and familial closeness of the South Asian middle class to the working class, the question of leadership becomes critical.
The classes in immigrant communities are literally related and tied to one another in much sharper ways then many white ethnic communities. Tribal family relations, arranged marriages, hierarchical gender roles, class antagonisms, not to mention caste from South Asia are brought to the U.S. This does not mean that they did not already exist in American society but under different political, social and cultural circumstances and frameworks. The problem is compounded since capitalist countries like the United States have no qualms with tribal family relations. In fact, there is no evidence that there is a fundamental contradiction between the two. Comparisons of whether the USA or South Asia is progressive or backward on this are much more complicated than theorized by thinkers of modernity, colonialism, or empire.
The carrying over of such family relations cause the South Asian American working class to trail their more visible and dominant middle class counterparts. Much of this can be attributed to a reliance on the latter as immigrants negotiate the economic and cultural aspects of American society. A simple example should shed light on what I am discussing. There is a tension between settled middle class first generation of immigrants versus the working class immigrants who have come in the last twenty years. The working class immigrants might be cousins, nephews, or nieces of the middle class immigrants. They cannot prop themselves up without some help from the now settled first wave of immigrants. These latter immigrants are well-established doctors or engineers. Many of them are the biggest financiers of temples and mosques. Newer immigrants might have access to small amounts of capital from savings back home, or via loans from family members They might start small businesses or rent a taxi, but many more end up in unskilled working class jobs. This is a reflection of class, caste, and gender dynamics in South Asia.
As South Asian American youth grow older, they have two sets of authorities they must deal with. It is not only their parents, but also the communityâ€™s authority that is a constant check on the activity of young people. In no uncertain terms, the middle class eye is always hovering over poorer families as well as youth. These middle class gate-keepers are the vigilant authority that often seeks idealistic notions of a pure religious or cultural order rooted in South Asia. They cannot see that their future is tied to a South Asian American reality. They see culture, religion, and identity as static, a-historic, and one-dimensional. I would argue that all these are extremely fluid, multi-dimensional, and constantly developing. We should welcome this process of Americanization. Middle class patriarchs worry about how everything in the United States will poison their perfect images of the South Asia household and community, and in doing so only serve to compress our political activity. Instead, we should recognize that South Asian identity has nothing to fear in the face of American culture. The question is rather, what will we contribute to this society?
As I have discussed above, the material success and social prestige of the middle class largely explains why the working class takes its cue from them. I hope I have successfully demonstrated that material and ideological pressures on the working class are immense. We can ask then, how will working class South Asian immigrants break from their middle class leadership? This is one of the lynchpins of the South Asian question. This question is tied to many other factors: young people need to be free of family control, women need to be free of patriarchal social relations, and racial politics need to be reconfigured on new axis. We will look at some other key contours and then come back to the question I have asked.
Two social processes are happening together. Americanization is a process which is determined by its class content. Middle class Americanization is more complex than simply assimilation on the one hand or romanticization of the homeland on the other. More fundamentally, it is the belief in the model minority myth. The model minority myth doesn’t say that the South Asian middle classes are “making it” because they have become “white,” but rather because “their own culture” is one of hard work and maintaining right family ties, both of which are recipes to success in American society. What this really means, as we know, is capitalist obedience bolstered by feudal tribalism and reinforced by the US state’s engineering projects of the 1965 immigration act. All this served to put the dentist class of South Asians in charge of the community. In any case, this middle class vision is not simply one of assimilating into whiteness but rather allying with the white middle classes against people of color and workers. Its ingenuity lies also in its ability to do the above and still maintain a sense of cultural authenticity, especially within the four walls of middle-class suburban houses where gender and age dynamics are strictly determined by tradition.
South Asian culture is seen as one which appreciates and promotes a hard work ethic, honesty, timeliness, and a host of other employer-friendly attributes. Often times, this perceived image of South Asian culture is contrasted to Black civilization or culture which racists will argue is mired in the violence of street life, the patriarchy of hip hop, or the lack of family values. Racists can claim that they are not for white-supremacy by pointing out that they are for values instead of racial superiority. Instead of racial slurs, they can point to the good cultures and bad cultures. From these racist points of view, it is nothing to do with white supremacy that so-called Black culture does not appreciate these values and skills. Nonetheless the racist rhetoric that vilifies anything indifferent to white middle class capitalist discipline is thinly veiled.
In this way, South Asians are posed as the solution to the Black and Latino problem. These latter communities supposedly need to learn from South Asians. We, South Asians are supposed to teach Black and Latino community how to be good people of color. This is not only about racism against other people of color, but also about which class perspectives monopolize and determine our lives. We live in a capitalist society and nothing drives the engines of capitalism like the consumer appetites of good middle class people, regardless of their color.
This Cultural Olympics way of â€œsolvingâ€ the â€œBlack and Latino Problemâ€ also ignores the structural, historical racism and oppression these communities have endured and continue to face. It ignores state violence towards these communities. It ignores the class dynamics and history of how each of these communities arrived in the U.S. model minority myth assumes that it is not racism or empire that are the roots of the problem, but laziness, lack of values, and other cultural deficiencies. It attempts to place blame on Black and Latino folks instead of the state, the police, and a failed education system.
The model minority myth is also used to police â€œBad South Asiansâ€ inside the community who do not exhibit the same values that the â€œGood South Asianâ€ a.k.a. model minority folks. These are South Asian youth who want to be anti-racist activists and hip hop artists; they want to date people of different races, have pre-marital sex, and more, like many youth; they want to experiment with their career choices, and push the limits of what success means. In all these ways, a standard of â€œGood South Asiansâ€ a.k.a. the model minority is a noose around the possibilities of any of these things happening. â€œGood South Asiansâ€ become doctors, get married, are good consumers, obey the law, and die peacefully Any deviation from this is a threat to this safe identity and way of life. We only need to look at South Asia to find plenty of South Asians who never made it to the U.S. and are hardly the definition of the model minority. How do their existences fit into the model minority picture?
The model minority myth not only has devastating effects in terms of broader race relations, but internally within the South Asian community as well. It attempts to buttress white supremacy and empire by controlling the norms and behavior of a group of people of color. The fact that the South Asian middle class is so comfortable in playing this role should shed light on any â€œprogressiveâ€ role it might play. It also demonstrates the importance of working class communities being independent of their middle class leaders.
The consequences of the model minority are three-fold: First, it prevents the development of international anti-imperialist solidarity. Are the Pakistani youth who burn U.S. flags and chant â€œanti-American slogansâ€ the model minority? Of course not: they are talked about as the uneducated and emotional third world brothers and sisters who need to be educated and civilized. While this might sound like Orientalist propaganda, it is also an often repeated sentiment by many progressive and liberal South Asians, quiet as it is kept. As discussed earlier, South Asian Americans, both liberal and progressive, too eager to play the part of the â€œgood,â€ â€œreasonableâ€ Muslim in contrast to their rowdy Muslim counterparts in the Middle East, highlight this point. Second, it ignores the discrimination that South Asian Americans have faced after 9-11, such as the countless name callings of â€œHabib,â€ â€œSand-nigger,â€ â€œCamel-jockey,â€ to name a few of the â€œtreatsâ€ that racists have in reserve for us. In the post 9-11 world we have also been treated to a new round of deportations and interrogations by the FBI, CIA, and Homeland Security, not to mention the subordination of Pakistan and Afghanistan by U.S. Empire. Third, the model minority also limits the possible and new identities that South Asian can explore. It defines a narrow racial, cultural, and class vision. The realities of America and the energy and courage of South Asian youth are already showing that the model minority myth will become obsolete.
Problems We Must Solve
The middle classes are pursuing their own vision of Americanization. This has left a landmine of problems that must be dealt with by the growing South Asian youth population in the U.S. Three key points come to mind: the race question, gender and politics, and strategies in the post 9-11 world.
Questions of race are can rarely be taken up on their own. In the United States, race is an inseparable part of class dynamics and vice versa. Subordination of one to the other leads to disaster. What I hope to show in the following section is an integrated analysis of class, race, and immigration in terms of the South Asian community.
South Asian chauvinism has been re-conceptualized in the racial matrix of this country. This chauvinism takes a variety of forms: religious, sexual, civilizational, class, and of course racial. As discussed earlier, the feudal family conceptions and class background all pull the middle class to be soft on white-supremacy but ruthless and racist against Black Americans. That reflects the power of white supremacy against Black folks in this country. The conflict is most visibly seen in the large suburban density of many South Asians. The logic goes that, as soon as a family living in the ghetto has enough money, it leaves for white suburbs. It should be no surprise to those familiar with the community, how comfortable the South Asian middle class can be in white suburban communities seeking to create their enclaves away from the third world invasion and black islands left in the inner city.
The question of where South Asians fall on the racial spectrum is a ticking time bomb. This conflict has not taken explosive dimensions as of yet, but the battles are happening in smaller ways. The key pivot in this question is our relationship to Black people in this country. Working class and unemployed Black folks are at the bottom of American capitalism and the labor market. They are attacked as a community on almost every imaginable front. It is off of their backs that many immigrants have made their stand in American society when they collaborate with the form of anti-black, white supremacy. An important piece of breaking down the destructive model minority myth is to forge a new relationship of solidarity and commonality between South Asian and Black folks. We see this happening organically among South Asian youth who are influenced by Black culture and history. Young South Asians are debating with their parents if they can hang out with, date, or marry Black folks. Arguments occur on other issues as well, such as whether Black folks are prone to crime, their work standards, sexual behavior, family values, and lifestyles. Some young folks have accepted the racist perceptions of their parents and the media about Black folks. However, many others see a different reality.
Hamtramck, Michigan provides a good case study of this problem. I have lived in this â€œnew American cityâ€. It is packed with Bengali, Yemeni, Somali, Polish, and Serbian immigrants, along with native Blacks and Whites. In the elementary schools, many South Asian kids are friends with Black kids, but by high school these same kids are getting in fights with one another. What happens between those years is critical. How do friends end up becoming such bitter enemies? There is immense ideological persuasion going on at home from the parents and the community not to mention the media that demonizes and scapegoats Black folks.
Racial identities are not chosen by simply sitting in the living room and pondering over them, or by going to meetings and discussing them. Parents might shape the early years of racial perspectives but reality is also a powerful teacher. Racial identities can be shaped by two forces: the first is the day to day experiences of South Asian folks with other people of color, and the second is when millions of people challenge white supremacy. In the late 1960s, Black rebellions shook the country and the Black Panther Party came to existence. At this time Chicano, Native American, Asian American and white youth were forced to take sides with either the Black rebellions or white supremacy. Many chose the former because they were inspired by the energy of the Black Power movement and saw their own liberation tied up with it. The same will be required of South Asian youth when future Black rebellions and organizations are born. Yet, this does not mean South Asian youth need to depend on Black organizations to become involved in anti-racist organizing. In Hamtramck alone, issues of community control of schools, police brutality, gang violence, drug use, FBI and Homeland Security raids are all problems that South Asian youth can play an important role in. But the reality is, we cannot confront these issues without figuring out how to relate to our Black neighbors on the basis of solidarity.
Black folks will have to give up chauvinisms as well. Common perceptions amongst the community are that Asiansâ€”broadly speakingâ€”are not oppressed, that they have gotten free money from the government, and have little to be angry about. Just as South Asian Americans have to reach across racial barriers which structure this country, Black folks will have to do the same. History can be an important teacher, reminding both communities of a time when South Asians were the inspiration of the Black liberation struggle in the United States. The importance of Indian national liberation movement was pivotal in demonstrating that white-supremacy could be challenged, and it was pivotal in developing a method of struggle in the U.S.â€”I am referring to the non-violent strategies of Mahatma Gandhi. Not to mention the important role India played in the Non-Aligned Movement, a coalition of African and Asian states attempting to forge a third path between American capitalism and Russian communism, despite the movementâ€™s extremely serious flaws and failings.
What this means is that South Asian Americans do not have to become â€œBlackâ€ to be in solidarity with the community and have anti-racist politics. Although I think it is great and healthy if South Asians Americans identify as Black in this country, the question I am more interested in, is whether a South Asian American identity that is both independent from and related to the Black community, can be developed. This is critical. I believe this can only happen when a break with the South Asian American middle class is made, a break which will open new possibilities for young and old people alike. Here, new dimensions of South Asian American and Black identity, culture, and politics can be explored when both communities are free to experiment, play, and struggle together without worries about purity and racial hierarchy. Each nation offers new configurations of identity and political formations. The U.S. is no exception. This country offers its own dynamic possibilities and we must go into the future with open minds and large ambitions. To pass this opportunity by would be a failure of our imagination and actions.
Women in the South Asian Community
Women in the South Asian community are at the center of many important questions. They have been at the forefront of social movements such as Palestine solidarity, anti-war, anti-globalization, and third world solidarity. The broader communityâ€™s failure to recognize this has been pitiful. This is based on my own experiences as an organizer for all the above issues in the last six years of my political life. Throw in Arab and Muslim women in this mix and the problem is even deeper. Contrast it to the absence of men and it is shocking. What to do? What is the problem? This question falls in the matrix of class, feudalism, and patriarchy. How can this happen? Women have been the backbone, often the most militant activists I have seen throughout my political experience. Letâ€™s take a concrete example: Wayne State University during the buildup to the Iraq war. Arab, African, and South Asian Women formed the bulk of the anti-war organization, demonstrations and events that were held on campus. Yet, further involvement in political life was always in tension with, if not checked by family pressures to be the good daughter, future professional and wife.
The forces of middle class ambitions, feudal family relations, combined with patriarchy, held women back from further pursuing political work. Breaking this deadlock in this context has explosive potentials. In one single stroke all three can fall. What is holding it back? None of these forces are ideas alone. Overthrowing authoritarian ideas goes hand-in-hand with overthrowing authoritarian relations and material realities. This is easier said than done. Much is at stake while possibilities of a better future are on uncertain grounds. Concretely, financial black mail, emotional threats, respectability, and ostracism from the community are at stake. Probably the most difficult is financial blackmail and the absence of a strong radical womenâ€™s movement to defend against it. The most courageous and politically daring women in the community are financially dependent on the familyâ€”a reality of most youth life. The absence of a womenâ€™s movement is devastating for women who do try to break from their families and are looking for solidarity amongst women who are going through or have gone through similar experiences. When larger movements do not develop, extra attention and support have to be given to the brave women involved in political activity. This is the only way they can gain a sense of independence from their family. There is a tragedy in this story as far as I am concerned. Women face three independent and at the same time interlocked sets of objective factors that oppress them. Overthrowing them is a massive feat and many brave women attempt this. In non-movement times however, I can only imagine how difficult it is with the many retreats and disappointments. We must support and emphasize the importance of this struggle and hope that the few women that cross this chasm will lay the groundwork for many more women in movement times.
Welcome to the Post 9-11 World
Two strategies so far have been developed in dealing with the new realities created by 9-11. One has been vigorously pursued by the South Asian middle classes. Leading up to the Afghanistan war, Bush held community sessions in Masjids. The â€œgood,â€ middle class South Asian American leadership tried to make sure there was no resistance to U.S. Empire by offering no dissent against the Afghanistan and later, the Iraq war. This type of prostration to U.S. Empire continues to this day. When Masjids are attacked, the first people called are the FBI. The contradiction in this behavior cannot be sharper considering it is this same FBI that infiltrates Masjids, rounds up South Asian-Muslims, and deport or interrogate them.
These have been immensely difficult times for young and working class South Asian Americans. It is in many of these communities that agents of state surveillance are operating. And yet the middle class is demanding cooperation. So far this pressure has held. However, the dam will eventually break. This has been the history of this dynamic in among Black, Japanese, Chicano and womenâ€™s groups in this country. The middle class seeks cooperation with the very people who constantly harass, terrorize, and oppress their broader community. The working class and youth are generally the victims. How long the U.S. can hold off the powerful Arab, South Asian, and Muslim movements in Europe, the Middle East, and South Asia from having effects which challenge this class cooperation is not clear. The riots in France over the last two years, the famous anti-fascist struggles in England, the developing movements in Germany and Turkey, not to mention the series of movements in the Middle East, cannot be treated as aberrations of the model minority forever. The shakeup of this weak class coalition will result in new organizations, with much more militant politics, and provide resolutions to many of the questions we have been asking in this essayâ€”this is exactly what U.S. Empire and the South Asian middle classes are attempting to block for their own reasons, in their own ways.
When the Black struggle led to splits in middle class and working class people it led to the latter creating working class based organizations such as the Black Panther Party, Revolutionary Action Movement, League of Revolutionary Black Workers and Congress of African People. Each of these organizations would later find it immensely difficult to remain free of middle class domination whether internally or in coalition work. These organizations give us a tradition and clues of what future groups might look like, what problems they might face, and how they are to be built. What can South-Asian American history tell us?
However, using historical examples as the only way to build a tradition of political activity in the United States has its limitations. How the Ghadar Party is often presented in South Asian progressive circles is an example that highlights the limitations of this method. The Ghadar Party was a group of ex-patriot Indians who built an anti-colonial organization in the United States. They hoped to send military aid and trained personnel from the United States to India This is a valid and highly important objective for anyone. However, it failed to sink roots in the American radical-left tradition of political and organizational activity. With the exception of the individual Hayar Dal, it had few other organizational and political ties with American groups. The Ghadar Party took little interest in the happenings of the U.S. working class, its race problems, etc. It was not able to make an impact in the trajectory and traditions of the variety of political trends that existed in the country. Today, its actual historical legacy is extremely faint. It is remembered by a few South Asian progressives. It is a historical example that is largely tied to the liberation of our own distant homeland, with little to say on matters of American politics.
The problem becomes greater when looking at South Asian activity in other major movements that have occurred in the United States: the Industrial Workers of the World, the Congress of Industrial Organizations, United Negro Improvement Association, Communist Party, Socialist Workerâ€™s Party, or Workers Party just to mention some of the major organizations before the 1960s. The absence of South Asians in these movements has been a serious obstacle for young South Asians today to see themselves as part of an American radical tradition.
The last political upheaval of the 1960s and 70s where numerous ethnic, racial, and religious groups articulated their demands and struggle for some measure of control and justice in their lives found South Asians missing again. This is an interesting historical point of fact for today, as that era has become a reference point for many young people today. It is often a starting point of icons, traditions, and a sense of belonging in the American radical tradition.
Again, this is not about cheap historical examples and a few slogans. More importantly this is about missed chances for South Asian Americans. Our political and cultural interests do not lie just in South Asia but also intersect with the problems occurring in this country. The 1960s exposed the questions of Black community control, womenâ€™s rights, Chicanismo, Third world solidarity, queer liberation, and labor rights for the working class. At this time, South Asians were not able to develop organic American-based traditions which determined where they would side, how they would expect support from other groups, and how they would explain themselves in the flow of movements. This phenomena can be partly explained by a relatively simple reason. South Asians were a minuscule population until after these movements were destroyed. We were not in this country in large numbers to take up the nationalist, ethnic, and class politics that flowered in the 1960s and 70s. It is not our fault, but the consequences will have to be dealt with.
My comments above should not be taken to mean that South Asians do not have a radical history to draw upon. The Ghadar Party is one living example, our involvement in the Black Power movement in Trinidad, in the nationalist movement in Kenya, in the anti-colonial struggle in India, the massive social movement in Pakistan in 1968 which brought down General Ayub Khan and a host of other examples. The question is, how will these struggles be used in the United States? Will there be recognition of this past and an integration of this into third world solidarity movements in the U.S.? Will there be sheroes rescued from this past? Only the future can tell.
Where do we go from here? Can the absence of a tradition in the US by itself define our community and its future political work? I believe they can be powerful factors but nonetheless not the only factor. . To make it so would be to reduce political activity to digging for a political tradition. Two aspects should be considered while looking at the development of South Asian American politics in the United States: how movements dealing with issues back in South Asia take shape and how movements dealing with domestic problems in the U.S. take shape. As I have discussed earlier in this piece, the relationship and connections made between these two aspects are crucial for the formation of a vibrant South Asian American politics.
The successful organizing of the New York Taxi Cab Alliance (NWTCA) shows that the struggles of working class South Asians have an important role to play in shaping US domestic politics. South Asian drivers constitute over half of the cabs in the city. Contrary to myth, taxi cab drivers do not make pockets full of cash. Instead they lease cars on a daily basis, pay for their own gas, and are hounded by New York City police who obviously enjoy handing them tickets on all sorts of frivolous charges . The breaking point came when Mayor Giuliani imposed policies to increase cab safety. These policies were in reality, thinly disguised attempts to push through anti-labor legislation, designed to create an increasingly obedient workforce The ensuing struggle in the form of a strike helped build multi-racial solidarity across religious and national lines among the cab drivers. Many drivers also talked to their passengers, explaining what was going on. In efforts to build working class solidarity in the 1998 strike, the taxi cab drivers had to deal with their linguistic and national differences if the action was to be successful. The drivers put their issues and needs on the agenda of New York City. It was from this angle that matters of race, religion, and language hato be dealt with.
Other issues have yet to find their mark in American politics, such as problems in South Asia: the rise of Hindutva, the partition of India into Pakistan and Bangladesh, the caste system, the Naxalite insurgency, the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, the Maoist movement in Nepal, and the question of dictatorship or democracy in Pakistan. How each of these issues will be translated into South Asian-American issues is yet to be seen.
There have been attempts made, but the most prominent examples have led to in-group only discussions with little ability to reach other Americans. One example is the â€œCampaign to Stop Funding Hateâ€. Relating Hindutva to social issues in this country has been a challenge. One of the targets has been the Hindu Student Council national leadership and the organization in general. The campaign has failed to create a movement. It has been relegated to small skirmishes inside an already small community. I do not believe this is because of the questions that the campaign is trying to address per se, but more to do with the political framework and organizing strategies undertaken. In general, the campaigns have not â€œAmericanizedâ€ this question. This does not mean liquidating the acutely Indian problem into the needs of an American constituency, but instead coming up with a framework that can make international politics more relevant here in the US. Organizationally there has been little development of building towards grassroots campaign where there are organizers who push for concrete demands, recruit folks to a specific political perspective, and build coalitions with other American organizations.
Pakistan is another example. Although of national concern amongst rulers and planners of this country, Pakistan has also become a new side kick in the fight against terror. Yet, Pakistanâ€™s neo-colonial dependency, poverty, and issues of democratic freedoms have not become the basis for an international solidarity movement in this country. There could be a variety of reasons for this. Perhaps the movements in Pakistan do not cause the imaginative and movement leaps in this country that other struggles have (for example, Palestine or Venezuela). Perhaps it is rooted in the class dimensions of the Pakistani community in the U.S. It could also be that the anti-Muslim and Arab laws and hysteria pushed by the U.S. State has stifled the political variety of Muslim activism in ? of this country. All three factors could be inhibiting the development of solidarity movements in this country.
Lastly, my own organizing experiences have shown contradictory results. I cannot claim to have done successful organizing around South Asian identity. Am I less South Asian because I have done multi-racial organizing around issues instead of around identity? Is the organizing less pure or worthy?
What I can take credit for, as a South Asian American, is a contribution to the deepening of South Asian activists in American political struggles. Most decisively this has been as a Palestine solidarity and anti-war (against Afghanistan and Iraq) activist. In this context, I have organized with Muslims, Black folks, Whites, LGBTQ folks, and more. I have seen Muslim and South Asian sectarianism towards more radical ideas. Ironically many such liberal formations ignore the militant traditions of South Asia and the Middle East. I have seen among them, contempt for the LGBTQ community as well. This ignores Muslim and South Asian LGBTQ communities long before any contact with the â€œWest,â€ which is often accused of importing this ideas. But I have also seen that it is in the act of struggle that people learn the limitations of their prejudices and what â€œbeliefsâ€ they must choose if they wish to be free. I have also experienced chauvinism and racism from other people of color inside the movement towards South Asians. Islam and Islamic politics has yet to be treated with the same care and nuance that Christianity and Christian liberation theology finds in many progressive circles.
I believe what my experiences demonstrate is that basing our political organizing on the basis of our ethnic identity is not the only place to begin for activists. It does not mean we lose sight of South Asians in the United States. Rather, we can choose to think about this in a different framework, some of which I have outlined in this essay. â€œMy communityâ€ cannot be based just on the origins of my birth or my resemblance to what other people look like. Luckily, community and identity are not determined by these factors alone. South Asiansâ€”myself includedâ€”are slowly being recast into something different as we continue to live in this society. What this will mean when the next great rebellions break out is yet to be seen. Just as new identities emerge based on our political environment, so do alternative organizational forms emerge, that reflect the needs of our society today. The politics of reformist organizations, such as those we are saturated with in the non-profit industrial complex, are fundamentally co-opted by capitalism and the structures of liberal racism. The monopoly that such reformist organizations have among many politicized folks is due to a general lack of historical knowledge and a failure of political imagination.
How then do we develop alternative organizations and politics that have been missing in the broader American population and consequently in the South Asian community? The last great wave of these alternatives was the late 1960s and early 70s. Today we are at a similar historical juncture, where easy solutions are no longer possible. Sacrifice and discipline are an inevitable part of liberatory politics and organizations. To be missing any of the components: creativity, sacrifice, discipline, joy, or spontaneity is to narrow the complexity and success of political projects.
Politically South Asian American youth have to take bold initiatives in anti-racist struggles that not only affect their own communities but that of Black, Chicano, and other Asians. Hip hop, inter-racial dating, sexual freedoms, or the struggle for new identities should be related political struggles. Not only new identities, new cultures, and new political organizations, but a new way of life is at stake. Pure identities, struggles, or organizations are a thing of the past. Instead we should look forward to a future where our struggle for freedom begins to open up new possibilities that we could not have imagined before. Whether these opportunities will forever remain a dream or become a reality is dependent on the defeat of forces which oppose us: white-supremacy, our own middle classes, and U.S. Empire.