My mother shows me on Facetime her corner of Santa Monica, California: A scene of protesters chanting “I can’t breathe” and the names of so many Americans who have been killed by the police, unjustly and unarmed—George Floyd, Jamar Clark, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Breonna Taylor, Dreasjon “Sean” Reed, Botham Jean, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Ezell Ford, Michelle Shirley, Redell Jones, Kenney Watkins, Stephon Clark, Tamir Rice, LaQuan McDonald and many more.
The names have become talismans for many. That may seem contradictory. How could these names bring good luck? They are Black Americans who were murdered for having the ‘wrong’ skin tone. Is it a tone or a colour – or a political subjectivity? We’re still debating that, as do Indians, alas for different reasons. It’s sometimes a few shades darker than my own and sometimes a few shades lighter. But we know it comes with a culture, a history. Many cultures, many histories. But, also, one culture and one history.
African-Americans are not simply a “minority” (just as Native Americans can’t be thought of as only a minority in the US context) but also the soul of the country, the conscience, the reason perhaps. I was taught this, even as I grew up in a segregated Los Angeles, bisected by freeways that enforced hard-to-miss racial geography. The same city where the 1991 beating of Rodney King was captured on video and the 1992 riots that followed the acquittal of the four police officers charged in the assault. A geography of urban spaces that allows you and enables you not to look or know.
Growing up, I had the privilege of being inspired by the African-American history of the US. I watched Alex Haley’s Roots (along with The Holocaust) – those late 1970s miniseries that seemed to lay out the moral universe of the time. I went to Berkeley for college and took history courses that described the civil rights movement in great detail and with such care, and literature courses by leading Black feminist professors, who taught me what writing was really about and what society really meant. I remember sometimes thinking how lucky I was to be a recipient of this, to inherit this part of Americana, and to square it with my own experience as a middle class Indian-American.
‘A bedroom community’
I grew up in Glendale, California. My parents moved there from far out (at that time) Valencia, California because they were doing well and were looking for a place closer to Los Angeles that also had good public schools. This was code for a majority white middle-class population, though they didn’t think of it quite like that; and I certainly didn’t, until much later. And the schools were good. I excelled in them; my teachers, all white, liked me and encouraged me. I had friends who were white, Persian, Filipino and Mexican. But not black. I couldn’t even try to have black friends, because there were no black people in Glendale.
The place – a “bedroom community” ten miles from downtown Los Angeles – had plenty of brown people: so many Armenians (our mayor was one); so many of Shah-era Iranians who called themselves Persian to avoid that spotlight; many Chinese; many Koreans. But somehow no African-Americans, except for one, who I remember came into my “diverse” public high school of 2,000 students, senior year.
There were also very few Jewish students in my high school, a smattering at most. As it turns out, the American Nazi Party’s headquarters was located in Glendale in the 1960s. It also had a law in the 1950s that barred black Americans from walking the streets past 10 pm. I remember hearing this at some point in my childhood and registering it, and yet not fully putting the pieces of the puzzle together until I was in high school. And then I came to see what this liberal, West Coast, urban American so-called multi-culturalism was really about. I was a beneficiary of something for sure, and yet, I was also segregated from a core of American culture: Black culture. How does this segregation happen? And how was I implicated in it?
Every place is different of course. At Berkeley, I had a ton of Jewish friends all of a sudden. But I only had one African-American housemate. Life still seemed segregated. I would go to the Oakland flea market and buy African baskets and see a lot of black people. But it was always at a distance.
I soon realised you had to make an effort to integrate because the structures of society effectively kept us apart, from schooling to housing, to health care, to recreation. Our society was not in fact integrated. It was not yet “natural” to be so, despite all the Berkeley rhetoric, despite the inspiring video at freshmen orientation featuring Martin Luther King Jr, Mario Savio, Desmond Tutu and so many others who moved us to tears.
When Dalit Indians connect their cause to the struggle against apartheid in South Africa and the civil rights movement in the US, I see potential in this kind of global solidarity and political action. And yet I also see Indians in the US – for instance, some (not all) of my parents’ friends no less, my aunties and uncles – who would sooner die than ally with African-Americans.
They complain about white people when it suits them (a missed promotion, an interaction gone sour), but they still want to be allied with white society. They like Trump because of the tax cuts and Islamophobia. Maybe it’s a more clear-cut path for them, devoid of morals, but with the possibility of more riches and more security. They didn’t hear perhaps, because they didn’t watch the miniseries about how one day, someone will come knocking on their brown doors as well.
A different sensibility
The younger generations of South Asians (Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan, Nepali, Afghani) in the US, for the most part, have a different sensibility. They are both more savvy about the pitfalls of an American multiculturalism that continues to be anti-black and are suspicious of and most often rejecting of the exclusionary, racist nationalisms of their, or their parents’, countries of origin. Can you be a bigot in one time zone and not another? Is that the secret of globalisation? That a person’s anti-racism in one context, which may give them legitimacy and the moral high ground, can be a knee pressing down on someone’s neck in another?
These protests in the US, which have burst into riots in some places, and yes, even looting, are at their core about racism against African-Americans, from the time of emancipation in the 19th century to the present (please see Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th on Netflix if you have any doubts about this). But these protests are not the sole responsibility of African-Americans – hardly. The struggle is all of ours, and one to take on fully. The justice they are seeking – real democracy – must be the justice we are all seeking. Without it, “America” is not just a dream, it is a lie.
The stakes are this high and heightened because of our current presidential administration and the Republican Senate that backs it; because of a pandemic that has created unprecedented hardship for those in society who can’t just work from home. The fact that it has worsened unemployment, racial disparities in health outcomes (the fact that African-Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans are dying from COVID-19 at a much higher rate than others). These protests are a chance for all of us to be called on and be held accountable. Masks on, we are in the streets, together.
Rashmi Sadana is an associate professor of anthropology at George Mason University.