South Asian American political lives: Beyond ethnoracial solidarity

South Asian American political lives: Beyond ethnoracial solidarity

Sangay Mishra speaking at UCLA on February 6, 2017. (Photo: Kevin Sprague/UCLA.)

Post-September 11, Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and many others found themselves divided from the mainstream, lumped into a new group of “Muslim-looking” people.

"Being ‘Muslim looking' is a new concept. In many places around the world you can find ‘Muslim-looking' people and not a single Muslim.”

by Kevin Sprague (UCLA 2018)


UCLA International Institute, February 22, 2017 After September 11th, Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and many other South Asians in the U.S. found themselves divided from the American mainstream, lumped into a new group of “Muslim-looking” people. On February 6, Sangay Mishra explored this divide and political inclusion among South Asians during a presentation at the UCLA Center for India and South Asia.


Mishra, visiting assistant professor of political science at Drew University, theorized that if and when various South Asian ethnic groups were lumped together as one by the American public, as they were after September 11, 2001, there was a possibility that these ethnic communities could have mobilized together in response. However, the interviews he conducted with members of Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities in the United States suggested that little such coordination actually happened.

Communities respond differently to Islamophobia

Every respondent interviewed by Mishra reported experiencing aggression in the five years following 9/11, based on Muslim stereotypes. Muslim members of these groups bore the brunt of the aggression, as U.S. law enforcement bodies implemented a deliberate and systematic focus on Muslim communities in the form of heightened police presence and surveillance. Yet those who were not Muslim also faced scrutiny.

Many communities responded by distancing themselves from Islam. “I have seen Sikhs with posters saying, ‘We are not Muslims,’” said one of Mishra’s interview subjects. “It was shocking, actually, but I guess I could understand. They were the ones targeted most. Everybody tried to distance themselves from Muslims within the community,” recounted Mishra.


Another respondent, he added, explained that he didn’t “see any way that Pakistanis, Indians and Bangladeshi can meet. Religion is a big divide —  it really is.” Mishra predicted that this “big divide” will only grow as resentment towards Muslims and the grouping of South Asians into one category by the American public continues.

“The idea of ‘Middle Eastern’ or ‘Muslim’ as a racial identifier emerged post-9/11,” Mishra explained. “Being ‘Muslim looking’ is a new concept. In many places around the world you can find ‘Muslim-looking’ people and not a single Muslim.” This new concept, he argued, has shaped the focus of South Asian community groups that are organizing in response to prejudice and harassment.

Some Indian community organizations considered asking women to wear a bindi, a dot-shaped mark on the forehead associated with Hindus, to identify themselves as Hindi and differentiate themselves from Muslims and Arabs. Of course, Hindu groups were not the only groups to launch such initiatives in their communities, said Mishra, nor were all groups focused on disproving that they “looked Muslim.”

Many Sikh organizations, for example, focused on combating attacks and hate crimes against Sikhs by promoting education on the Sikh identity in local communities. Muslim advocacy groups in New York City mobilized against profiling by using religious institutions such as mosques. Mishra theorized that the use of mosques as an organization framework increased the participation of local Muslims in responding to and raising awareness of harassment and thus enhanced their impact.

While some groups simply sought to help their respective communities, others called for broader coalitions among South Asians in order to rebuild and develop a far-reaching South Asian identity with which they could fight discrimination. “They drew on long traditions of civil rights work, modelling themselves on the framework of Black, Latino and Asian civil rights groups,” explained Mishra.

Political inclusion without identity, but voting in a bloc

According to Mishra, there are no electoral districts with a predominant South Asian population in the United States. However, he observed that a growing number of South Asians are running for state office as “non-ethnic candidates” with deracialized electoral strategies that downplay their race and ethnicity.

Most successful candidates are from overwhelmingly white districts, explained Mishra, a trend that suggests that while not all candidates succeed, there are growing attempts among South Asians to gain representation without actually mobilizing their respective communities or reaching out to nontraditional voters. A total of 78 percent of the South Asian candidates examined by the speaker who ran for office in contested districts did so in districts whose population was more than 60 percent white.

Approaching this research, Mishra assumed that South Asian candidates would reach out to their respective coalitions or peers to mobilize votes in order to win office. However, considering the mostly white areas where they are running and winning seats, that was not the case. The only real form of co-ethnic mobilization observed by Mishra was campaign contributions given to South Asian candidates by their ethnic community members.

While there may not currently be an influential South Asian voting bloc, there is some solidarity in how these communities are currently voting. A statistical analysis of Asian American voting patterns in the U.S. compiled by Mishra indicated that South Asians vote together at a much higher percentage rate than many other Asian nationalities and ethnicities.


“They are voting as a unified front,” said Mishra. “[South Asians are] deeply racialized, and race is in many ways shaping the political preferences of this group.”

Mishra cited the Indian community’s response to President Trump’s recent Executive Order on travel — the “Muslim ban” — to be a particularly interesting case of solidarity. “Given the current emergence of Hindu nationalist politics in India, one would assume these communities would take the Islamophobic approach,” said the speaker. Instead, he noted that Indians in the United States were among those most opposed to the order.

Mishra ended his talk by reiterating his point that while there is ethnic mobilization among South Asians, it is often specific and differentiated, such as the public backlash against Trump’s executive order by the South Asian community in Silicon Valley. Yet “while [South Asians] are voting together,” he said, “it is important to acknowledge that we don't see unified mobilization for political incorporation.”

Published: Wednesday, February 22, 2017