Years ago, as a newly arrived student in America, my introduction to the hierarchy of race was short, succinct and brutally honest.
The head of our local Indian Students Association warned us not to live on the east side of our little university town even if rents were cheaper. That was where all the “blacks” lived, he told us. He would have bristled if anyone called him racist. In his mind, he was just dispensing commonsensical advice.
This was many years before we heard of names like Trayvon Martin and Alton Sterling and Philando Castile and Freddy Gray and Michael Brown. All African American men who died in an encounter with police or a gun-wielding private citizen. They died because someone was suspicious of them. For wearing a hoodie. For a broken taillight. For selling CDs in front of a store. Out of their deaths came a movement known as Black Lives Matter.
But it does not matter so much to desis in America. Of course, many do care. Many are actively involved in racial justice issues. Many fear for their friends. But it’s also true that many desis just avoid the issue — just as that Indian Students Association did when it told us to avoid the “black” part of town.
South Asian Americans have their own battles to fight. However, the reality of race in America is that while desis might have once faced Dotbuster attacks in New Jersey and might still be the butt of Apu jokes or bear the brunt of outsourcing jibes from nativist politicians, they do not and cannot comprehend the kind of racism that African Americans continue to face on a routine basis, especially in poorer parts of cities. It’s as writer Nayomi Munaweera calls it, a “long arrow from the history of this country which is one of genocide and slavery.”
After the deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, two black men killed by police within days of each other, a crowdsourced letter is doing the rounds addressed to Asian immigrants, to parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts. It started as one Asian American millennial’s draft letter to her parents. Now it’s a letter that’s being translated into many languages, including Indian ones like Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Gujarati. And it’s trying to tell these communities that you cannot avert your eyes from what’s happening around you. Nor can you create a false equivalence between the history of slavery and the history of immigration.
Even as we hear about the dangers Black Americans face, our instinct is sometimes to point at all the ways we are different from them. To shield ourselves from their reality instead of empathizing. When a policeman shoots a Black person, you might think it’s the victim’s fault because you see so many images of them in the media as thugs and criminals. After all, you might say, we managed to come to America with nothing and build good lives for ourselves despite discrimination, so why can’t they?
Writer Mira Jacob says she was at a family wedding and she overheard her older relatives discussing exactly what’s above. It infuriated her enough to post a status on Facebook. She wrote:
“Indian Americans, if you think for a moment that the Black Lives Matter movement has nothing to do with you, if you think saying things like, ‘We came here and became successful!’ represents anything besides your own smug ignorance of the difference between institutionalized slavery and the immigration acts of 1965 and 1990, then know that you have enlisted as foot-soldiers in a war against yourselves, your children, and your children’s children.”
Now, after the killings of five policemen in Dallas by 25-year-old Micah Johnson, another narrative is pushing back. #AllLivesMatter. The Dallas killings allowed former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani to say Black Lives Matter is “inherently racist” because “Black lives matter. White lives matter. Asian lives matter. Hispanic lives matter. That’s anti-American and it’s racist.”
This is rhetoric that is quite appealing to many desis. Of course All Lives should Matter. But #BlackLivesMatter makes the point that if all lives matter, black lives should not be expendable. A ProPublica analysis of federally collected data on fatal police shootings finds that young black males are 21 times as more likely to be shot dead by police than their white counterparts. In this year alone, over 500 people have been killed by police in America. As many as 25 per cent have been black even though blacks make up only 13 per cent of the population.
Desis might says that’s not our problem but as Jacob put it, “You cannot buy into a system that values white lives over black lives and be surprised when your own brown skin becomes a liability.”
It’s tempting to use the Dallas as a ‘gotcha’ moment, as a cover for a racism that political correctness will not otherwise allow. “Clearly the rhetoric of Black Lives Matters encouraged the sniper that shot Dallas police officers,” tweeted Bill Zedler, a Republican. Texas’s Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick blamed Black Lives Matter protesters for putting police officers’ lives in danger. The National Association of Police Organizations said in a statement: “While we mourn and grieve and commit ourselves to supporting the survivors, we must also stand up and speak out against the senseless agitators and gutless politicians who helped bring about these murders.”
There is a move to ensure that Black Lives Matter must be made to bear the responsibility for what happened in Dallas. No one can condone that killing but as always it’s a one-sided expectation. As Hari Kondabalu tweeted after the police killed Castile, “Are any cops planning to publicly renounce police brutality or do only Muslims have to do that after every terrorist attack?”
The great moral conflict America faces right now is whether to use the horrendous killings in Dallas to sweep the deaths of the likes of Sterling and Castile under the carpet or to look into the mirror and admit to the dark inseam that keeps ripping it apart.
And desis will have to decide whether they can afford to keep sitting on the fence.