At first glance, Oak Tree Road in Iselin, New Jersey, looked deserted. Cars were parked along the sidewalks but no one was outside, as the wind slammed against walls and rattled trashcans.
Located in central New Jersey, Oak Tree Road is a hub of South Asian American culture. Pakistani, Indian, and Afghani restaurants line the streets. Saree shops and Halal meat markets are at every corner.
“Where to next?” my friend Akin asked as I led him through the neighborhood, shivering.
We entered a nearby restaurant/sweet shop. Akin, whose parents are from Nigeria, remarked that the food reminded him of his own family’s cuisine, and so, we sat and shared Gulab jamun and kabobs. Between bites, I’d look around at the other people also recovering from the cold, also eating and laughing and debating in Urdu, Hindi, Gujarati, and Punjabi.
— Karen Rouse (@rouse_karen) October 25, 2017
According to NJ.com, New Jersey has the “third-largest number of South Asians in the nation.” South Asian American communities have flourished in places like Iselin and Jersey City. The community’s size has translated into South Asian Americans feeling more empowered. The New York Times noted, in an article titled, “South Asians in New Jersey Are Flexing Their Political Muscle,” that “the rising political profile of South Asians, who tend to vote Democratic, has made them an increasingly sought-after voting bloc.”
Further, this past election has witnessed the historic election of Ravi Bhalla, a Sikh American, as the next mayor of Hoboken, and the stunning upset of a long-time Republican by Democrat Vin Gopal, also a South Asian American.
However, the growing influence of South Asian Americans has led to some backlash. Days before voters would go to the polls, racist fliers were distributed, insinuating that Bhalla was a “terrorist.” In Edison, fliers were spread across town, urging residents to “deport” the two Asian Americans candidates (an East Asian American and a South Asian American) running for the local school board.
Despite the fliers, both candidates won, joining Bhalla and Gopal as examples that there are now more opportunities for South Asian Americans to join the political mainstream.
That said, the fact that certain South Asian Americans are able to influence domestic politics shouldn’t be a reason to feel satisfied. After all, it wasn’t long ago when Bobby Jindal was elected Governor of Louisiana and currently, there are those like Nikki Haley who serve the Trump administration. Although both are South Asian American, their politics are harmful to millions, including other South Asians.
Therefore, we must force ourselves to examine whether South Asian American politicians and voters are invested in radical social change, or are instead, perpetuating toxic policies and narratives reinforcing the status quo.
THE ART OF REPRESENTATION
In political science, understanding what it means to be “represented” remains a never-ending debate. Usually, the debate is shaped by two main conceptions of representation. One is called “substantive,” which is when an elected representative shares the same beliefs as their constituents. The other is known as “descriptive” in which the representative shares the same race, gender, or sexuality as those they represent.
Prominent social scientists such as Hanna Pitkin believed that descriptive representation wasn’t important. Others, like Jane Mansbridge and Katherine Tate, disagree, explaining that a) people become more politically engaged when someone who looks like them represents their community and b) descriptive representation empowers racial minorities, especially African Americans. Hence, in places where the population is mostly black or Latino, it is best to have someone who is also African American or Latino, to serve as their passionate representative who understands their experiences on a personal level.
However, there are no majority-South Asian American districts in the U.S. In fact, most South Asian American representatives, as Sanjay Mishra details in Desis Divided: The Political Lives of South Asian Americans, are from districts that are majority-white. Therefore, South Asian American candidates have to “moderate” their message.
“Most South Asian American representatives…are from districts that are majority-white.”
For instance, Vin Gopal ran on a campaign that was balanced between causes such as “restoring funding for women’s healthcare” while also, winning the endorsement of local police unions. Similarly, Bhalla is a big proponent of affordable housing but was careful in downplaying the racist flier incident, stating to the NYT “It is not what Hoboken is about, it is not reflective of our community.”
It is understandable for candidates like Gopal and Bhalla to construct campaigns that won’t upset a majority-white electorate. But after running successful campaigns, will they now confront problems they hadn’t in the past, such as hate crimes or police brutality?
Most importantly, since Gopal, Bhalla and others like them are but a handful of South Asian Americans holding public office, they will now be viewed as role models by South Asian Americans and people of color across the country. Will they accept this responsibility and speak up on issues like Islamophobia or be willing to challenge the anti-immigrant politics among Republicans who might be living in the districts they represent?
These are important questions that need to be answered.
Social programs are constantly being undermined. Income inequality has grown substantially, not to mention the millions of working class people of color who are mired in dead-end jobs, barely surviving.
In order to counter white supremacy and the consolidation of power by economic elites, it is necessary for South Asian Americans, especially those with political influence, to advocate on behalf of the marginalized. As voters, this means reminding politicians like Gopal and Bhalla to fulfill their campaign promises and to raise their voices for police accountability and increasing the minimum wage.
“It is necessary for South Asian Americans, especially those with political influence, to advocate on behalf of the marginalized.”
Again, it is not enough for South Asian Americans, especially those of us who are middle class and caste-privileged, to simply believe in electing South Asian American candidates as our main objective or to accept the mainstream political discourse.
For instance, when the fliers in Edison were shared, the reaction among mostly middle-class South Asian Americans echoed what I heard after the tragic killing of Srinivas Kuchibhotla. In both instances, economically privileged South Asian Americans were “shocked” and were quick to express that the U.S. has been a welcoming place for immigrants and should remain that way.
By echoing such narratives, South Asian American voters and elected officials help to cover up the truth: that the U.S. has always been where racial minorities, especially African Americans and Native Americans, are targeted and kept from power. And for many immigrants, like Bangladeshi Americans, achieving the “American Dream” is difficult, due to discrimination and obstacles placed in front of most Americans who are poor or working class.
For the majority of Americans, our social and political system is cruel. Hence, now is the opportunity for South Asian American politicians and voters who claim to be fighting for progress and for those who are realizing how they too can be mistreated, to go one step further in their actions and beliefs and advocate on behalf of the powerless across communities.
“Gaining power is only the first step toward creating a society where many types of people can live with dignity and respect.”
This includes standing in solidarity with other black and brown peoples. This includes elevating South Asian Americans who are undocumented, Dalit, Muslim, and Sikh into the center of our conversation about what issues matter most within our communities. This also means challenging hierarchies of power, including our current economic system. In a day and age where the income gap between the average CEO and worker has swelled to a disgusting ratio of 335:1, we must find ways to take away power from executives and managers, even if they are South Asian American.
Ultimately, gaining power is only the first step toward creating a society where many types of people can live with dignity and respect.
While Akin and I explored Iselin, I spotted an elderly South Asian man hunched over on a bench, his wool hat pulled over his head. I also caught glimpses of workers, South Asian and Latino, rushing to stuff shelves at local supermarkets and dragging garbage bags between alleyways. Their hands wrinkled. Their faces grimacing. One man plodded outside, and smoked a cigarette. A cold gust of wind swept through.
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Sudip Bhattacharya is a Rutgers University Ph.D. student in political science who focuses on race and social justice. He has a Master’s in journalism from Georgetown University. His work has been published at CNN, The Washington City Paper, The Lancaster Newspapers, The Daily Gazette (Schenectady), The Jersey Journal, Media Diversified (Writers of Colour), Reappropriate, AsAm News, The New Engagement, and Gaali Gang.