Indian Americans, on the Matter of Black Lives

It is high time for the community to repay its debt to the Civil Rights Movement and to show solidarity with the continuing struggle of Black America for equality.

I was sprawled face down on the snowbound sidewalk in downtown Detroit, nursing my bruised elbow. I had just been ejected from a building where I had gone apartment hunting. It was the winter of 1969 and I was in a neighbourhood that still bore the ugly scars of the 1967 riots.

My trespass? I had been enquiring about the ‘For Rent’ sign outside. Instead of answering me, the building manager had instructed his wife on the far side of the room to “tell that guy we don’t have any.”

Something had stirred in my stomach and I had blurted out something like, “Sir, I was speaking to you. Could you please answer me directly?”

Thereupon, the burly, red-faced manager had jumped out of his perch to lift me by the scruff of my neck and throw me onto the sidewalk, with an added “Get out of here, you Black Ass!”

As I lay on the snow, my immediate thought was not about Gandhi’s epiphany on a South African railway platform after being ejected from a First Class compartment. It certainly wasn’t to rush to the nearest police precinct to file an assault complaint. Rather, my only thought was about whether I might have better luck in the next building!

As I narrate this incident to my family and friends over the years, two things come into sharper focus, with a sense of shame: One, I had not connected what had happened to me on that winter day to the indignities that African Americans must face every day of their lives. And two, the fact that I was able to casually shake off the snow and get on with my quest must have had a lot to do with the near certainty from my privileged background that as soon as I had graduated, I would be transported to an altogether different world.

Just an hour later, I was back to my Desi comradery, which were often casually dotted with racial slurs against Blacks. We were all barely waiting for our assured white collar jobs and to move to whiter neighbourhoods in any part of America.

Sadly, we seemed to have little or no appreciation for the fact that none of us would have been in this country but for the Civil Rights Movement that had preceded our arrival.

Also read: Why We, as Hindu Americans, Are Opposed to Modi’s Undeclared Emergency

Today, as we witness protests against police brutality all across America and the rioting, nothing seems to have changed from that winter of 1969. On the contrary, the promise of coming equality that was in the air in those days, as we crowded to listen to people like Mohammed Ali, has been replaced with a worsening air of despair and backward mobility for large sections of Black America.

The civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965. Photo: Peter Pettus/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

In stark contrast, Indian Americans, often held up as a model minority, has made it big in almost every sector of our economy. But, unfortunately, the community has shown little interest in building alliances with our African American brothers and sisters, to whom we owe a great deal.

Scot Nakagawa talks about the nature of that debt in his landmark 2013 essay, wherein he challenges the myth of a model minority and makes the case that Asians would not have been able to rise to success without the help of government programs and political reforms.

Did Asians just lift themselves up and out of poverty and exclusion by our boot straps, or do we owe a debt to the black Civil Rights struggle? Most Asian Americans of my generation…know the answer. Here are three among many debts Asian Americans owe to the Civil Rights Movement:

  1. Ending bans on interracial marriage: Specifically, Loving v. Virginia, a case brought in 1967 by a white man and a black woman, ended the ban on all interracial marriages in the US. These marriages might never have been possible if not for the Civil Rights Movement.
  2. Voting Rights Protection: Chinese Americans were made voting citizens in 1943, largely as a result of international pressure on the US from foreign allies during WWII. Asian Indians followed in 1946, and other Asian Americans in 1952, all before the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. However, the 1965 Act provided critically important protections to Asian American voters.
  1. The Immigration and Nationality Act: The Act ended racist immigration bans that once excluded Latin Americans, Asians, and Africans. At the height of the Civil Rights Movement, the racist bans were viewed as an embarrassing contradiction to the Johnson administration’s civil rights agenda and thus the Act was signed into law by President Johnson at the foot of the Statue of Liberty in 1965. The immigration histories of the majority of Asian Americans living in the US begin after that date.

Almost everything that Scot Nakagawa talks about in the context of “Asian Americans” applies equally to Indian Americans.

As White nationalism continues to make unprecedented inroads in America, perhaps this is a good time to remind ourselves of how much we too owe the Civil Rights Movement and to ask ourselves where we might stand as a community in an openly racist America.

Also read: An Epic Story Never Seen Before Is Unfolding in the US

On the flip side, Indian Americans of my generation do remember and are proud of the debt that the Civil Rights Movement owes to India’s non-violent struggle against colonialism. Kanishk Tharoor elaborates on this and on Rev. Martin Luther King’s admiration for Gandhi:

When Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech…he was flanked by men wearing the distinctive boat-shaped “Gandhi caps.” Those paper hats were indicative of a larger truth: the campaign against segregation and Jim Crow was always embedded in a larger global battle against white supremacy.

In 1959, King and his wife travelled to India…“They praised our experiment with nonviolent resistance technique at Montgomery,” he wrote. “They seem to look upon it as an outstanding example of the possibilities of its use in Western civilization.”

He astutely drew a parallel between the workings of race in America with the persistence of caste in India, and praised the Indian government and constitution for legislating against caste discrimination.

It is great tragedy that today the very country to which the Civil Rights Movement owed its non-violent methods seems to be turning its back on Gandhi. In an eerie parallel to white nationalism, Hindutva nationalism is making unprecedented inroads in Indian society. As a result, Muslims and other minorities are under serious threat of becoming second-class citizens. At the same time, caste discrimination, especially against Dalits, continues unabated from the time of MLK’s observation in 1959.

Clearly, Indian Americans are at an important cross-road today.

On the one hand, we must recognise that Trump and his white nationalist supporters can never be our true friends, regardless of the India-friendly rhetoric emanating from the White House.

On the other hand, we must also recognise that Modi and his Hindutva nationalist supporters can never be our true friends, as their project of turning India into a majoritarian state is destined to lead the India that we love into dark times from which it may never fully recover.

It is high time that Indian Americans acknowledge the huge debt we owe to the Civil Rights Movement and to show solidarity with the continuing struggle of Black America for equality. And it is also high time for us to recognise that we can’t support civil rights in America and at the same time support a regime in India that is violating the fundamental rights of a large section if its own citizens.

Raju Rajagopal is co-founder of Hindus for Human Rights (.org) a US-based advocacy organisation dedicated to defending pluralism and democracy in India, US, and beyond.