How South Asian Americans Are Asserting Their Political Voice This Election

By sowmiya ashok | 29 October 2016

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It was a chilly evening on 26 September at a bar in lower Manhattan. A group of well-dressed South Asian Americans, most of them in their early thirties, sat around a table fondly reminiscing about George W Bush, the former president of the United States. “Did you see that picture with him and Michelle Obama?” one of the women asked, referring to an image of an embrace that the First Lady of the United States had shared with Bush at the opening of the African American museum in Washington DC on 24 September. “It was pretty cute,” someone else chimed in. “Funny how we are now missing Bush…”

On a flat-screen television above, the NBC news anchor Lester Holt took his position behind a desk at Hofstra University in Long Island, New York. His background was fading into darkness to hide specially invited guests, while the camera cut to the stage. From the right side of the stage emerged Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, dressed in a red pantsuit. “Pantsuit!” shrieked two women on the table in unison and laughed. But when Donald Trump, the Republican nominee for the President of the United States, joined Clinton, the crowd I was with erupted into jeers.

I was at a presidential-debate watch party organised by the South Asians for Hillary (SAHILL), an autonomous campaign consisting of over 3,500 people, which is, according to its website, “dedicated to energizing and engaging the South Asian American community with the goal of electing Hillary Clinton to the presidency on November 8, 2016.” The logo of SAHILL—embellished with translations of its name in eleven South Asian languages including Tamil, Hindi and Bengali—is reflective of the diverse community the campaign is attempting to mobilise. According to figures released by South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), a non-profit organisation, in December 2015, South Asians are the fastest-growing major ethnic group in America—close to 4.3 million in all, over three-quarters of which are foreign-born. Yet, despite their varying origins, a majority of them have been consistently uniform in their political leanings. According to an exit poll, in the last three presidential elections, on an average, at least 90 percent of the South Asians in America voted for the Democratic candidate and in each of these elections, over 70 percent were registered Democrats.

The young men and women I was watching the debate with were first and second-generation South Asian immigrants. Most of them were pursuing divergent careers—some worked as lawyers, others as public servants at the New York Mayor’s office—but what they all had in common was a keen interest in politics. Over the course of the first presidential debate, I watched them scream at the television, flail their hands in exasperation when Trump spoke, and hoot loudly when Clinton asked Trump to reveal his tax returns. On one corner of the long table sat Neha Dewan, SAHILL’s co-chair, and an associate at a New York city-based law firm. “Shut.Him.Up,” she tweeted as she ate her dinner, inviting an unpleasant conversation with a Trump supporter online.

I had first spoken to Dewan over the phone in early August, when I was included in a conference call with the key organisers of SAHILL: Dewan, and communications co-chairs for New Jersey Amit Jani and Dev Awasthi—all Indian Americans. Although Indian Americans do not form even one percent of the American population, they are among the dominant ethnic groups within the South Asian community. “We need to have a voice. If we don’t advocate for our community, then how are the leaders going to know what our needs are?” Dewan told me over the phone when I asked her about the need for a specific campaign focused on the South Asian community. As the former chair of the New York Chapter of the South Asians for Obama—a position through which she headed grassroots efforts in support of US President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign—Dewan has been involved with national politics since 2012. “For SAHILL we banded together in November 2015,” she said.  “It was a very conscious decision on our part. This had to be all inclusive, we wanted this to be a South Asian unified voice and when we are asked [by the Hillary for America campaign] for translations, we are conscious about including Bengali and Urdu and not just having it in Hindi.”

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On 15 October, Dewan’s colleague Jani spent his afternoon protesting outside a peculiar convention in New Jersey. The event, ostensibly called the “Hindus United Against Terror Charity Concert” was organised in support of Trump—also the chief guest of the extravaganza—by a group that refers to itself as the Republican Hindu Coalition. Contrary to SAHILL’s call for a unified South Asian voice, the RHC attempted to rally support around a myopically constructed Hindu-American identity. “I think it was very deceptive on the part of the RHC to try to represent the entire community,” Jani told me over the phone. “But we had a good amount of support that day with fifteen elected officials and a lot of community leaders, some of them Bangladeshis and Sri Lankans.” More importantly, Jani said, “It revealed how little Trump knew about the South Asian community or the region and how bad he will be for the community.”

Although SAHILL initially garnered support for Clinton through door-to-door canvassing, its efforts are now primarily focused on reaching out to voters in swing states—such as North Carolina, Florida, Wisconsin—through the phone. In Ohio, for instance, the group has managed to filter down voter lists to identify Indian American voters. The message underlining all of these endeavours, Jani told me, is the same: “to point out how Hillary has been inclusive, focused on the middle-class economy, how she understands the South Asian community especially since as Secretary of State it was the first region she visited.”

Since September, SAHILL has also been running an initiative called “Project First Gen.” Given that a lot of the campaign’s supporters were young, SAHILL “launched this project to motivate them to go home and speak to their parents and extended family about supporting Hillary Clinton,” said Jani. In July, when I met Mohammed Alam, the New York regional representative for SAHILL, at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, he had articulated the need for such attempts to cut across different age groups as well. According to Alam, “the need to be more unified,” that SAHILL has been pushing for, is aimed at consolidating the sentiment of “two disparate groups within the South Asian community—the younger Bernie supporters and the older Trump supporters—and channelise it towards Hillary Clinton.”

***

Nikhil Mandalaparthy, a 19-year-old South Asian American voter and a student at University of Chicago, voted for the first time during the Democratic primary in Illinois, in March 2016. Although he was guarded about his choice, he told me that Bernie Sanders was fairly popular in his college.

I first learnt about Mandalaparthy in late August, on Twitter, through a blog post he had written about organising a “South Asians for Black Lives” event on his campus. Writing about the genesis of the conference, Mandalaparthy recounted that in the spring of 2015, he had been procrastinating while preparing for his finals and browsing Facebook instead. “In between the endless feed of news articles and photos, one event caught my eye: a three-part discussion series, ‘South Asians for Black Lives,’” he wrote in the blog. The Facebook event listed some speakers at Northwestern University, “talking about important issues such as the model minority myth and colourism in South Asian communities, which both affect whether and how South Asians choose to stand in solidarity with Black communities (or not).”

Travelling to the conference was not feasible and so, some of Mandalaparthy’s friends and he began pondering over bringing “‘South Asians for Black Lives’ to us instead.” The South Asian Students Association Mandalaparthy was a part of at the University of Chicago, he noted, focused mostly on cultural and social events. “Kids who grew up in the US like me do not have a strong sense of political activism as ‘South Asians’ and the student body was prominent as a cultural body. Like, most major universities will have a Bhangra team at least,” he told me over the phone.

Mandalaparthy said that his decision to organise the event at his college in Chicago “was not just for me.”  He continued, “A lot of South Asian students were hearing from family about the model minority myth. Indians are proud of being an affluent group in America and this notion that ‘Black people need to step it up’ is prevalent in the larger community. Yet, the real reasons for this, systematic racism for instance, is never discussed.” His friend Mahi Senthilkumar said, “Only through solidarity can racial justice be a realistic goal.” But, she added, “as young people, a lot of South Asians are disengaged.”­­­­

While Alam may have been right about young voters, Abhijit Desai, a 59-year-old doctor who moved to America from Gujarat in 1983, disagreed with the distinction Alam drew between young and old South Asian voters. “I wouldn’t say that all Indians who came 30 or 40 years ago are Republicans or Trump supporters,” he said when I served him Alam’s theory. “I have a lot of Indian friends who are physicians and some may even have anti-Muslim sentiments, and may even be Republicans, but they are as much anti-Trump.” A Democrat who has thought through his decision to vote for Hillary Clinton, Desai recited his reasons with practiced ease: she is experienced, she is educated, and “she has worked across the aisle as a senator.”

Desai lives in a predominantly white neighbourhood in Cincinnati, a city in Ohio, a swing state in which voters have historically switched between different parties depending on the elections. He is used to seeing a lot of signs rooting for Republicans. “I often tell my sister that what she sees in New York or the west coast is entirely different to the mid-west,” Desai said, “We live in a Republican-heavy city where Fox News runs all day long in the hospital I work at.” In fact, in 2012, when he pitched a sign on his front lawn to express his support from Obama, it disappeared overnight. But this year, Desai told me, is playing out oddly. “When I drive through my street, where 90 percent are possibly Republican supporters, I don’t see a whole lot of signs. There is only one Trump sign,” he said when we spoke over the phone.
***

Yet, efforts to unify the South Asian community are challenging given how diverse and economically varied the base is. In fact, the Chicago-based South Asian American Policy and Research Institute (SAAPRI) has pointed to a general lack of data on the South Asian demographic in America. Educating and making voters more aware is one among the several objectives of SAAPRI, which was set up in the aftermath of the attacks in September 2001 with the aim of finding data-driven solutions to the problems affecting the South Asian community. Reema Kapur, the executive director of SAAPRI, said, “Census data has revealed that a quarter of the South Asian immigrants are not proficient in English or they speak a language other than English. As citizens, they have a right to vote.” As a result, SAAPRI pushed for—and succeeded in—introducing ballots that would be provided in Hindi in Chicago and the Cook county region of Illinois.

Yet, the lack of information persists and poses a challenge for organisations that want to assist and advocate for the community. Biju Mathew, the co-founder of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, said, “Over the last 15-20 years, the South Asian middle-class and South Asian elite, who have become the ‘opinion makers,’ have managed to make their entry into the American party system and so there is a specific kind of party loyalty that has come into place, and Hillary is who they are all pitching for now because she is the Democrat.” He continued, “Now that’s the really interesting part about the South Asian community, under the broader framework of a society that has a significant problem of racism, the entry of the immigrant into the political realm tends to happen from within the folds of the liberal party even though on economic issues they may be closer to the right-wing party.”

Highlighting some of the schisms within the community, Mathew said, “If I speak to people in the taxi workforce, there is deep cynicism regarding national politics. The immigrant communities in the United States, post 1996-1997, I would say, have felt that the way the economy is getting structured and the way the political class is responding to them, it is apparent that nothing is being done for these communities.” According to Mathew, nearly 70 percent of those who drive taxis in New York are Muslims. In a miasma that is coloured with Trump’s virulent rhetoric, several among these drivers, Mathew told me, have witnessed an increase in incidents of Islamaphobia. “There might be some difference in very localised politics, for instance in New York City, you will find, many many people in our base deeply enthusiastic about a few city council members,” he said, “They are people who have really spent time with the immigrant communities, and really are trying to do things from within. But at the national level and state level, there is deep cynicism.”

Meanwhile, Kapur has been observing the South Asian community’s response to these elections with interest. “The positive feedback is that there will a record-breaking number of South Asian Americans who will vote in Illinois this year,” she told me, “The negative is, the drive is anxiety. The motivation why people are going to the polls is fear and anxiety. A strong rejection of some of the polarising aspects of this election campaign.”

Sowmiya Ashok is an independent journalist based in New York. She is a graduate of the Columbia Journalism School. She was a political reporter with The Hindu and has also reported for Mint.

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