My book, Desis Divided: The Political Lives of South Asian Americans, is an attempt to understand the process of collective mobilization and political engagement of Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi communities in the United States. This work, started as a doctoral dissertation project at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, eventually turned into a book after absorbing comments and critiques from colleagues, mentors, and friends.
Coming from India as a graduate student, I was deeply intrigued by the centrality of race and racial hierarchy in American society. I was also coming to terms with the trope of United States being a nation of immigrants and what it meant for non-white immigrants. These two interests nudged me to look at the political lives of South Asian immigrants in relation to racial minorities and other immigrant groups. Given that South Asian immigrants are one of the fastest growing communities with Indian Americans being the third largest immigrant group in the United States, scholarly work on this topic has not kept pace with their growing presence. Desis Divided is an attempt to identify and analyze different modes of political participation and mobilization of a community that is highly diverse but striving to find a cohesive voice in the political arena. For my book, I used systematic interviews I conducted with South Asian immigrants over a period of two years in Los Angeles and New York City, as well as data from public opinion surveys of Asian Americans that included Indian Americans.
How have Indian Americans Responded to Racialization Post-9/11
One of the major themes of the book is the forms of racialization faced by South Asians in the post-9/11 United States. Being brown-skinned immigrants, South Asian Americans felt the gaze of suspicion that constructed them as threatening, outsiders, and untrustworthy.
Islamophobic discourse, now coupled with anti-immigrant rhetoric, has impacted South Asians of different religious, class, and national backgrounds. Moreover, South Asian immigrants are now increasingly being construed as an economic threat. The killing of Srinivas Kuchibhotla, an Indian immigrant working in a technology company on H-1B visa, in an act of hate crime in 2017, symbolized the coming together of Islamophobic rhetoric with strident anti-immigrant discourse. Kuchibhotla’s killer saw Kuchibhotla and his friend as Iranians and wanted to know the kind of visa that allowed them to be in this country. One of the questions that I explore in the book is the manner in which the community has responded to this ongoing racialization. Analyzing the mobilization, or lack thereof, against racial hostility and targeting faced by South Asians in the post-9/11 period, I point to the fractures within the community along the lines of religious identity.
Changing Indian American political representation
Another major theme that I explore is political participation and representation. Nikki Haley and Bobby Jindal, both conservative Republican governors from Southern states, were the only two prominent politicians identified with the Indian American community for a long time. However, we are now witnessing a new crop of political aspirants from the community who are contesting for local, state, and federal elected offices. I look at the new trend of political aspirants from the community where a significant number of Indian American candidates are contesting, and in some cases even succeeding, from overwhelmingly white majority electoral districts. More importantly, what are the implications of such electoral patterns for Indian American political mobilization?
Indian Americans have also come to play an important role in U.S. presidential elections, not necessarily because of their electoral strength but due to the presence of a few select affluent members of the community who act as “campaign bundlers,” bringing in a large amount of money by organizing fundraisers for presidential candidates. I explore this new pattern of political influence that is emerging from the Indian American community and its broader implications. Very often these influential Indian American fundraisers get appointed to important political, diplomatic, and cultural positions creating visibility for themselves and for the community. However, this process also points to particular forms of political visibility within the community that relies on very narrow and elite segments of the community. The potential of this form of visibility and representation to enhance political mobilization of the larger community is an open question.
Indian American engagement with their home country
Of course, no book on South Asian American political lives is complete without looking at their engagement with home countries. I looked at the patterns of political mobilization–specifically among Indian Americans–that are spurred by home country concerns. I found two distinct but related points of mobilization: a campaign for passage of the US-India nuclear deal by U.S. Congress in 2006, and ongoing mobilizations that have been triggered by the emergence of Hindu nationalist politics in India. The nuclear deal mobilization seemed to create a nationalist unity whereas the issue of Hindu nationalism has created fissures within the community along religious lines.
By exploring the larger question of a unified mobilization of the Indian American community on a more conceptual level, I discovered different fault lines along the lines of class, religion, sexuality, caste, and nationality that have the potential to shape our political mobilization in the future.
Sangay Mishra is Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey. Desis Divided, published by the University of Minnesota Press in 2016 and Sage Publications in 2018, was awarded the best book on Asian America by the Asia and Asian America section of American Sociological Association in 2017.