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Where Are The South Asians?

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By Romi Mahajan *

What is harder to understand is why working-class South Asians seem also to be absent from so many social and political formations in the United States (with notable and laudable exceptions.) On this matter I am not even remotely an expert but I have some opinions that I’d love to be dissected by those more in the know than I am

My family and I went to an MLK-Day rally in Seattle on January 19th of this year; the speeches were moving and the energy in the rally quite amazing. Many people, myself included, had tears in their eyes when recounting not only the life of MLK Jr. (and the fact that he was mowed down at the tender age of 39 ) but also of the clear and present danger of racism in America circa 2015. Black lives do indeed matter as do the lives of the poor and needy.

Events such as these are electrifying. Despite being torn apart by stories and analyses of racism and its offshoots, one feels a sense of power and optimism. When hundreds of people get together to assert their rights (and those of others), reject business-as-usual, flout illegitimate authority, and celebrate community, one feels a liberating and creative energy.

Would that more South Asians feel that energy; to be blunt, I didn’t see even one person of South Asian origin at the rally (perhaps there were a few but I didn’t see them if so.) It’s not only disappointing and painful it’s also portentous.

So how did this omission come to be? Why such apathy and non-engagement with other minorities and that too on the birthday of a person whose insanely hard-work made it much easier for all non-white people to live their lives in the US of the last 5 decades? And how, strangely, does this absence cut across class and creed among South Asians?

Understanding the absence of elite South Asians from rallies for social justice is simple – most people expend their energies (and resources) in activities that support their own interests and creed, according to their own understanding of what these interests are. Rarely are the rich marching with the marginalized. Of course there is more – elite South Asian immigrants clearly associate themselves with the white majority or with others “like them.” In the case of the Seattle-area, much of elite South Asian community is centered on the technology industry with the result that even work-associates tend to be non-US minority (several studies about the race and gender gap in technology hiring have been brought to light recently.) The well-off also tend to be effete, much more interested in talking about issues than putting their own time and resources in affecting change. I myself am an upper-middle class Indian associated with the technology industry and find that I fall into the arm-chair far too often.

Elite South Asians carry a fundamental racism and classism that is not only a product of their economic success in the US but of the culture and attitudes of the types of South Asians who want to and get to leave South Asia and of a set of both clearly-stated and insidious beliefs about “our place” in society (including an intense South Asian racism against darker peoples.) Couple that with their ahistorical perspective and you get a strange brew of purposeful non-engagement with the vast majority of the people in the US who do not figure into our mindset. Worse, one gets an active alignment with the “indigenous” elite of the US with the attendant condescension towards racial minorities and the working and poor people of the country.

Now, one can argue that the elite consciousness is a false one, that in fact it is in our “own interest” to make common cause with people struggling for their rights and for respect. Sure even the most elemental appreciation of humanity suggests that we make common-cause and that anyone’s struggle is our struggle. But such thoughts have been branded “idealism” or, for many South Asians “Gandhianism” and thus dismissed as silly, impractical, and too lofty for the real world. On the other hand, anyone with even an iota of historical sense knows that the struggle particularly of African-Americans before, during, and after the Civil Rights era made the US a far more fair and just place for all minorities and people of color (more fair and just in some senses, but with a bad case of regression in the last fifteen years.) The logic of communities suggests that injustice anywhere is our struggle everywhere but that logic has been so rarefied by atomic and capitalist American society that most of us make personal calculations and individual deals with the market, irrespective of the wider ramifications of such behavior. Of course, in an ironic twist, the elites of society always seem to be the “free riders,” benefitting from the struggle of the very same people they think of in condescending terms while being conspicuously absent when the tear gas is deployed, the fines administered, or the guns drawn and fired.

Elite logic is easy to understand because it’s clean and simplistic howsoever hypocritical.

What is harder to understand is why working-class South Asians seem also to be absent from so many social and political formations in the United States (with notable and laudable exceptions.) On this matter I am not even remotely an expert but I have some opinions that I’d love to be dissected by those more in the know than I am.

Hypothesis 1: Many immigrant communities tend to be insular and somewhat distrustful of other communities who they feel might sully the perception of them being “good immigrants.”

Hypothesis 2: South Asians tend to have condescending and racist attitudes.

Hypothesis 3: Many communities tend to coalesce around their “unique” needs as opposed to their shared needs. Solidarity is a function of the latter often and in the absence of a perception of shared needs, solidarity never takes root.

Hypothesis 4: Working-class fatigue: People in the US work harder than ever before and earn less. The ensuing fatigue works well for the elite because it enervates the working class.

Hypothesis 5: Public propaganda works: Teach-ins, rallies, protests, marches and the like have been cast as narcissistic indulgences and meaningless rhetorical theater by the media and in popular culture; most people in the US (South Asians or not) simply do not think of political agitation as a sensible route to gaining results.

Hypothesis 6: Lack of historical knowledge: Few people in the US today engage with a reading of history; few understand how in fact progress has been made and how the elite only make concessions kicking and screaming. In this regard, South Asians are no different than any other group.

I am sure I am missing some analysis and that the real story is some combination of factors.

Irrespective, however, the paucity of South Asians in progressive politics is distressing, even alarming. I hope one day to ask the question “Where are the South Asians?” and to be laughed at by the teems of them fighting, living, loving, and struggling alongside others.

History is replete with cases of both struggle and apathy. The latter often leads to massive difficulty for the apathetic but in order to appreciate this, one has to be of the mindset that solidarity matters. In the absence of that feeling, apathy is sensible, howsoever destructive. That is indeed the ultimate irony and one that I hope is not lost on South Asians.

* Romi Mahajan is the founder of KKM Group a marketing firm, an author, an investor, and an activist. His career is a storied one, including spending 9 years at Microsoft and being the first CMO of Ascentium, an award-winning digital agency. Romi has also authored two books on marketing- the latest one can be found here . A prolific writer and speaker, Mahajan lives in Bellevue, WA, with his wife and two kids. Mahajan graduated from the University of California at Berkeley, at the age of 19. He can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


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