Over the past three months of witnessing Indian mobilisation against xenophobia in the United States, I have noticed a common theme: that Indians in America feel newly vulnerable in the Donald Trump era. Long vaunted for their professional success, Indian-Americans are now presented as a news story because they, too, are victims of hate crimes. We are asked to feel sympathy for the shattering of an idyll.
This narrative of new vulnerability frustrates me for a few reasons. First, Indians in the United States include Muslims and Sikhs who have been dealing with hate crimes for at least a decade and a half. The first victim of a hate crime in the wake of the 9/11 attacks was a Sikh man, Balbir Singh Sodhi, who was murdered on September 15, 2001. Countless Muslims have been subjected to hate crimes as well as increased surveillance under the National Security Entry-Exit Registration system inaugurated in 2002. So, xenophobia is not a new problem for Indian-Americans however ramped up it may be in Trump’s America.
Second, I long for more frequent mention of how the current targeting of Indian-Americans is linked to a longer problem in US history. The animosity that fuels nativist attacks on Indian-Americans who supposedly “take away jobs” has been previously directed at other groups - Mexican, Chinese, Japanese. And the nativist notion of the US as a white country erases the economic role of enslaved African-Americans and Native American and Chicano counterclaims to white settlement of the continent. Many of us who express rightful worry and organise against hate crimes can do more to mark how old white supremacist ideology is in the United States, and how much it has affected other racialised groups. Trump did not invent so much as give vent to such thinking. There are older struggles for racial justice to plug into and coordinate with.
I saw an admirable model of exactly such cross-racial organising this past weekend. I was at the National Summit of South Asians in Washington DC that had convened members of over 50 progressive South Asian organisations from across the United States. While the smaller panels at the conference focused on issues specific to South Asians, such as how to tell better histories of South Asian immigration or how to blend one’s religious identity with social justice activism, the plenary speakers came from organisations that have mobilised across ethnic and national origins such as United We Dream and DC Justice for Muslims Coalition. (The invited speaker from the Movement for Black Lives was unable to attend.) They represented networks of community-based activism that have gathered enormous momentum in the last few years. The audience members and speakers spoke stirringly of weaving together a common movement for immigrant rights and racial justice.
One question discussed was how to respond effectively to the increased crackdowns on undocumented immigrants, including on working class people of Indian origin. Several speakers explored how temples and mosques might serve as sanctuaries in the same way that churches have resisted deportation efforts of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Shaanti Bhavan Mandir, a Hindu temple in Queens, New York, has taken the lead in declaring itself a sanctuary space for those who are in danger of being deported, not only those of Indian origin but other racial or ethnic groups as well. There has been a fraught effort to turn some mosques into sanctuaries as well.
Another creative suggestion was that those with the security of citizenship could behave like “less assimilated” immigrants — not revealing their citizenship, speaking languages other than English, wearing non-assimilative clothing — as a means to confuse the clear divide that is being drawn between insiders and outsiders, because it is a divide that sustains this chilly climate for immigrants. Such actions would be especially helpful at borders and airport checkpoints.
A third effort focused on the spread of Hate Free Zones, a neighbourhood-based system for defending community members who are susceptible to hate crime and deportation. Workshops by groups such asDRUM, which spearheaded efforts in New York City, focused on how to build such a zone in one’s neighbourhood. As declarations of Hate Free Zones spread across the country, multiracial and Indian ethnic enclaves in US cities are especially important sites of such action.
Such activism might not strike an immediate chord with those whose priority is preserving access to H1-B visas, which Trump’s latest executive order threatens. The current fragility feels upsetting because it overturns an arrangement that has long felt relatively secure. Its subtext reads: “this should not be happening to good people like us; we are educated and we took the proper routes to migration.”
Think, for a moment, though, of how such fragility is borne of class and caste privilege. Many Indians who arrived in the US after 1965 and especially in the 1990s were able to access preferred quotas for highly skilled workers in the US immigration system thanks to training in institutions subsidised by the Indian state. The Indian state supported such institutions for decades because upper caste planners prioritised higher education over primary and secondary education. The principal beneficiaries of these policies have been upper caste students who sailed into elite institutions thanks to accumulated cross-generational investment in learning and private school preparation.
I share this reminder about inherited caste and class privilege because so much of Indian-American success is framed as a matter of hard work and personal drive. These qualities have mattered, of course, but there is so much else. If we recognise the boosts some of us received at birth, might it spur affinity with those who also seek better lives but through paths less paved by good fortune? Their efforts are also being savaged by current immigration policies. The need of the hour is a struggle against white nativism across class groupings.
How powerful the anti-xenophobia movement might become if, as many South Asian activists are showing us, immigrants refuse to divide themselves into worthy and unworthy victims.
Ashwini Tambe teaches in the Department of Women’s Studies at University of Maryland-College Park, US.