I dread seeing South Asian American leaders in the news these days. A few weeks ago it was Ajit Pai, Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, enabling right-wing media to be the sole source of news in many localities. Another day it was Seema Verma, Administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, finding ways to reduce government aid to the poor and the sick. Then there is Nikki Haley, Ambassador to the United Nations, serving as a front for a belligerent, deranged President and the generals who oversee him. These South Asian leaders work in an Administration sympathetic to, if not led by, white supremacists.
What are the responsibilities of South Asians who have ascended to the governing elite in the United States? How might those responsibilities depart from those of others in that elite strata? Do South Asian lawyers have a special responsibility to advance justice?
“What are the responsibilities of South Asians who have ascended to the governing elite in the United States?”
When I think about the state of South Asian American leadership, I keep returning to an old photograph. It is one of the photos from Abu Ghraib, the one in which an American solider is holding an Iraqi man on a leash. For me, the photo surfaces both American slavery and the Trail of Tears in its depiction of cruelty and indifference.
I had this thought when I first saw that photograph: that as people of color in the United States we are both the leashed and the holders of that leash. As South Asians, we are the descendants of colonized subjects and — especially those of us who are lawyers — members of a governing class in the United States.
I do not aim to trivialize the plight of Iraqi prisoners by making an attenuated analogy to a class of privileged South Asians. I connect us to this violent and unjust scene as an act of memory in the face of indifference over time and to think critically about our role — our mission — as South Asians in the United States.
It is possible sometimes to believe that we have ascended the racial hierarchy and now enjoy immunity from subordination due to the color of our skin, our culture, or our faith. It is true that the law enforcement sweeps around the country in the aftermath of September 11 and subsequent FBI surveillance campaigns have targeted most intensively our working-class brothers and sisters.
Again, I do not mean to elide important distinctions of class, nationality, and religion. However, if you are the children of immigrants, then the migration stories of Bangladeshi workers in New York and Los Angeles resemble those of your parents and grandparents, both from rural villages to urban cities in our countries of origin and in their journeys to the West.
The children of South Asian immigrants have a shared history with those who were rounded up, detained and summarily deported after 9/11. We have a shared history with those who are put under intense government surveillance and questioned by the FBI. Most obviously, we have a shared history with those who are prevented from entering the country because of Trump’s travel bans.
“We can never escape our connections, our lineage, our common history.”
Some of us might live in gentrified neighborhoods and within suburban gated communities, we may be educated and have high-paying jobs, but we can never escape our connections, our lineage, our common history. We are reminded of this at random moments: on an airport security line, when we get a second look from a security guard or police officer, or when we are taken by a judge to be an immigrant defendant rather than a lawyer.
What is the meaning that we might attach to the fact that we are simultaneously members of a governing class and linked inextricably to the victims and survivors of American military and economic imperialism? I have been thinking about this question on several levels for most of my life.
My students at the law schools at City University of New York and University of California, Irvine have challenged me to integrate critical concepts into the experiential courses that I teach, and that work has been helpful in working through this inquiry. We have been forced to ask how a critical theory or a critical lens that brings into sharp focus forms of subordination — including by race, religion, national origin, and sexual orientation — might inform legal practice and larger law reform movements.
I have asked myself whether, because of our unique position in both a domestic and transnational hierarchy of race and class, there is a distinctively South Asian critique that we might apply as we engage in legal practice and policy reform.
What do we see in the settings in which we practice because of our complex political identities? What are we avoiding but should be seeing as a result of our life experience and connections, both actual and imagined? How can we interpret our observations, both internally and collectively with others?
“What are we avoiding but should be seeing as a result of our life experience and connections, both actual and imagined?”
It is my contention that when we engage in the pursuit of the public good, we should do so for distinct reasons rooted in our histories as descendants of colonized subjects. We should engage in lawyering for social justice with a commitment to standing in solidarity with oppressed people. Our assimilation into a power structure should not rob us of our shared history and commitments.
If we were to wield a South Asian critique in our work lives, how might we intervene as lawyers to challenge entrenched patterns of injustice? How might we alter our professional agendas in light of our critique of law and society?
First, I think we need to evaluate, critically and with nuance, the assumption of professional roles. Law schools are increasingly focused on having students assume professional roles and form professional identity early in their legal education. I am a proponent of these reforms, especially as a means by which to get students out of the classroom and into practice as soon as possible. However, I am wary of pushing law students and lawyers uncritically into system roles.
All professionals, including lawyers, have sometimes placed the interests of the profession above that of clients and society at large. Lawyers are rewarded for reinforcing entrenched power relations rather than seeking justice. For example, lawyers who prosecute immigrants and criminal defendants have honored positions in our society. They are the ones who go on to become judges and win elected office.
“We need to evaluate, critically and with nuance, the assumption of professional roles.”
I want my students to critically evaluate the role of the prosecutor in a system of justice that disproportionately imprisons young African Americans, Latinx, and Southeast Asians. How do assigned roles entrench power along the dimensions noted above? How might the subversion or outright rejection of these roles advance justice? I want my students to interrogate the meaning of professional identity as they define their own role within a system.
As a community with a shared critique and a complex political identity, we should do the same, especially when any of us have the good fortune to ascend to positions of power.
Second, lawyers need to think critically about the work that we choose to do. What does a South Asian critique of the criminal justice system reveal? Should we as lawyers work on the side of the state or of poor people of color? How about the immigration system — if we take on a pro bono case, will we choose an asylum case or a deportation case involving an immigrant with criminal convictions?
In this respect, I have most benefited from collaborations with political organizers and lawyers in the fields of immigrant and workers’ rights, many of them South Asian themselves. Organizers such as Fahd Ahmed, Nahar Alam, Saru Jayaraman, Subhash Kateel, and Hamid Khan exist outside of the box of liberal legalism and use a critical lens to analyze social conditions and initiate ambitious and transformative campaigns. Lawyers such as Muneer Ahmad, Ahilan Arulanantham, Alina Das, Vanita Gupta, Chaumtoli Huq, Deepa Iyer, Sunita Patel, Paromita Shah, and Purvi Shah collaborate with organizers and advance critical work in the spheres in which they work.
“If we embrace a more complex, transnational political identity, then we might aspire to act as a community in the tradition of Ella Baker, Fredrick Douglass, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rosa Parks.”
All of these organizers and lawyers embrace the complexity of identity and mine their own histories to fuel solidarities across lines of race, religion, national origin, and sexual orientation. If we embrace a more complex, transnational political identity, then we might aspire to act as a community in the tradition of Ella Baker, Fredrick Douglass, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rosa Parks. They believed deeply in the idea and the promise of America while forging incisive critiques of its cruelty and indifference toward people at the bottom.
I am proud to be a member of a community that contains so many examples of people aspiring to extend that tradition. Our community is still young, vital, and pliable. I hope we find a way to draw on our shared history and to use our power to disrupt and overturn rather than reinforce cruelty and indifference.
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This is an adaptation of an address to the South Asian Bar Association of New York Public Service Fellowship Benefit. Sameer M. Ashar is a clinical professor of law and co-director of the Immigrant Rights Clinic at the University of California, Irvine School of Law. Find him on Twitter at @sameer_ashar.