When 57-year-old Sureshbhai Patel was slammed facedown to the ground by an Alabama police officer in February, leaving him partially paralyzed, the Hindu American Foundation moved quickly to announce that it was developing a Hinduism 101 training for first responders “to improve the cultural competency of police officers and avoid the escalation of incidents based on language and cultural barriers.”
While a completely understandable reaction, on its own, it is also a narrow and shortsighted one.
What many South Asian Americans do not understand is that the violence perpetrated against them and other nonblack people of color is directly linked to the culture of bias and racism in the U.S. against African Americans. Police only approached Patel because they had received a call that a “skinny black guy” had been seen wandering the neighborhood.
Squad-car footage from the scene suggests that the police officer, who was indicted Friday, knew that Patel was Indian by the time he attacked him. But the fact that he was primed to see Patel as black before approaching him meant that the officer entered the situation much more likely to use excessive or even lethal force. No amount of cultural training about South Asians can eliminate that bias.
South Asians in the U.S. are often held up as part of the wider myth about Asian Americans being a “model minority” in comparison with African Americans. Conservatives and liberals alike perpetuate this myth, essentially pitting Asian minorities against African Americans. As Spelman College professor Jamillah Karim points out, by accepting the label of “model minority,” South Asians inadvertently “bolster fictions about African-American incompetence and laziness.” Trying to distinguish themselves from African Americans is understandable, as historian Vijay Prashad explains: “Since blackness is reviled in the United States, why would an immigrant, of whatever skin color, want to associate with those who are racially oppressed … ?”
In truth, though, we have forgotten our history. South Asians have long been allies of Africans and African Americans in their struggle for justice here and abroad. Indian social reformer, feminist and freedom fighter Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay spent nearly two years in the U.S. connecting with African Americans, and in 1939 “condemn[ed] imperialism and oppression in South Africa.”
Similarly, anti-apartheid activist Ahmed Kathrada, the son of Indian Muslim immigrants to South Africa, was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1964 alongside Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and other leaders of the African National Congress for his work to end apartheid. In the U.S., Indian freedom fighter Ram Manohar Lohia encouraged African Americans to use nonviolent civil disobedience and was eventually arrested for violating Jim Crow laws. In 1964, Pakistani citizen Mirza Hamid Kizilbash (pdf) was attacked and beaten with a club by a gang of unmasked white men shortly after attending a civil rights meeting in Canton, Miss.
Support went the other way, too. Martin Luther King Jr. connected the struggles of the Dalit community in India to those of black citizens in America. Civil and gay-rights activist Bayard Rustin, who helped organize the 1963 March on Washington, also founded the Free India Committee in 1945 to support India against the British Empire.
Without African Americans leading the way for equal rights and calling for an end to segregation in the U.S., the South Asian diaspora in this country would not exist. It was the civil rights era that ushered in the passage of the 1965 Immigration Act, ending the country’s racist immigration policies and allowing the first waves of South Asians to emigrate. The South Asian community’s arrival in the U.S. could not have happened without the hard work of the great civil rights leaders and grassroots organizers demanding that their country live up to its ideals.
As President Barack Obama said in his Selma, Ala., speech, “What a solid debt we owe.”
The mobilization of South Asian communities to improve the cultural literacy of police and to raise funds for Sureshbhai Patel’s medical costs is inspirational and exemplary. These efforts show how quickly and successfully our communities can organize and act. But to prevent future fundraisers or memorials, we need to understand that violence against our communities in the U.S. has roots due at least in part to the bias and racism faced by African Americans. Groups like Desis Rising Up and Moving and Alliance of South Asians Taking Action demonstrate that our communities have started to make that connection. But given that South Asian communities on average include some of the wealthiest and most educated communities in the U.S., we could and should be doing much more. Joining the push to pass the Voting Rights Amendment of 2015 is a great place to start.
As the president said, “This is work for all Americans, and not just some. Not just whites. Not just blacks. If we want to honor the courage of those who marched that day, then all of us are called to possess their moral imagination. All of us will need to feel, as they did, the fierce urgency of now.”
Chattopadhyay, Kathrada, Lohia and Kizilbash understood that. It’s time the rest of us did, too.
The Root aims to foster and advance conversations about issues relevant to the black Diaspora by presenting a variety of opinions from all perspectives, whether or not those opinions are shared by our editorial staff.
Zeba Khan, a Indian-American commentator based in San Francisco, has previously written on race, religion and U.S. foreign policy in outlets including the Washington Post, the Boston Globe and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow her on Twitter.