Many South Asians have celebrated Kamala Harris’ vice presidency as a major victory for representation, tenderly calling her “Kamala aunty.” Harris’ mother was a scientist from India and her father is an economist from Jamaica. Her career and middle class background capture the stark divides within the South Asian and Indo-Caribbean community.
Asians have the largest income inequality within any racial or ethnic group in the U.S. “The most privileged have the loudest voice in South Asian communities,” said Stuti Sharma and Niki Heer, members of Chicago Desi Youth Rising which mobilizes South Asian youth to combat inequity. ”[They] celebrate Kamala because they desire proximity to whiteness [and] success in a capitalistic and exploitative way feels like progress.”
Harris celebrates her immigrant parent’s pursuit of the American dream, but for many working-class South Asians, it is nothing but a nightmare. In the final days of 2020, Jasim Miah and Ashraful Hasan were working at a construction site in New York City when a wall collapsed on them. Over 100 firefighters rescued Hasan from the debris, but Miah was killed. Miah left behind his wife and children in Bangladesh.
Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM), which organizes working-class South Asian and Indo-Caribbean youth and adults, argue that the Miah was killed by “the greed for more profits” because the contractors that employed him failed to provide supervision to ensure the workers’ safety. They have organized a fundraiser for Hasan, who will be unable to work again and does not qualify for government assistance due to his immigration status.
Nearly 5.4 million South Asians and Indo-Caribbeans live in the United States. Almost 10% of that population lives in poverty. Motiul Islam, a DRUM member and construction worker, explained the toll of Miah’s death. “For Jasim, his family, and all of us who have come to this country, our families [in Bangladesh] depend on us. We are their source of income. If my life vanishes, my family vanishes too.”
DRUM is calling on the Biden-Harris administration to ensure the working-class can survive the pandemic by canceling rent for tenants and mortgage payments for small landlords, passing universal health care with a robust health education and employment program, issuing a moratorium on hospital and health clinic closures, and providing universal basic income for all during the pandemic, regardless of immigration status.
Many South Asians are taxi workers, constituting nearly half of the over 26,000 members of the National Taxi Workers Alliance (NTWA). NTWA saw drivers who struggled to afford food amidst the peak of the pandemic. Biju Mathew, secretary of NTWA, said “the South Asian community more broadly is so stuck in their middle class status that they almost behave and act as if there are no workers around. That bias is unforgivable.”
NTWA is calling on the administration to ensure the passage of the Protecting the Right to Organize Act to strengthen the rights of workers and unions. According to Mathew, the act would “create new conditions for workers to take control over their own destiny.”
Many meat and poultry workers in California’s Central Valley are Punjabi and represent a large portion of members of the Jakara Movement, which is building a new generation of Sikh leadership through organizing and youth power. They’re calling on Biden and Harris to reverse Trump’s efforts to protect companies from liability while failing to enforce stringent safety regulations to protect workers from contracting COVID-19. A Punjabi Sikh worker was the 12th Foster Farms worker to die from COVID-19 in January.
Harris’ background was irrelevant for Deep Singh, executive director of the Jakara Movement. “We need an administration that’s bold and willing to take strong action against corporate malfeasance. We’re trying to keep tempered optimism for the incoming administration.” While Biden has signed an executive order aimed to increase worker’s safety, it’s uncertain whether the creation of a national emergency standard will actually protect workers.
South Asian members of the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, which builds community power towards abolition of the police state, are skeptical. They emphasized the need for Biden and Harris to not only undo the harms of the Trump administration, but their own legacies as well.
Since the white surpemacist mob stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, Biden has committed to pass new legislation addressing domestic terrorism. For coalition members like Shakeer Rahman, it’s clear that such counter-terrorism policies inevitably harm Black and brown communities. The Patriot Act expanded surveillance capacities of the government and led to the detention and deportation of South Asian, Arab, and Muslim immigrants. It was based upon a counter-terrorism bill that Biden drafted in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing, carried out by white supremacist veterans.
“You can’t confront the ongoing power of white supremacy in the U.S. without attacking the things that really fuel and contribute to recruitment of it,” said Rahman. “So many veterans are coming back ripe for recruitment into these politics [because] the wars we’re fighting are white supremacist.”
The Capitol mob consisted of veterans, police officers, and Indian immigrants, underscoring why many South Asians are calling for the Biden-Harris administration to take a strong stance on Hindu supremacy (Hindutva). “The new administration must make the connections between fascism abroad and fascism at home—the same logic, anti-Blackness, and caste supremacy animates these forces worldwide,” said Thenmozhi Soundararajan, executive director of Equality Labs, which organizes with South Asian religious and cultural minorities for an end to caste apartheid.
Both white supremacy and Hindutva are tied to Nazism. White supremacist shooters have lauded the ruling right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in India and its affiliate paramilitary organization the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The BJP has targeted minority groups through legislation and emboldened violent far-right militias leading to 113 lynchings of mostly Muslims and Dalits (lower caste individuals) since 2016.
A large coalition of South Asian groups are calling on Biden and Harris to stand against fascism by screening all individuals associated with the administration to ensure they support urging India to end mass detentions and restrictions in Jammu and Kashmir and are not affiliated with Hindu supremacist groups. Democrats such as Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi have ties to the RSS, while Biden’s campaign adviser Amit Jani is a vocal supporter of India’s right-wing Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Dalit activists, including Soundararajan, are calling for federal legislation to include caste as a protected category in civil rights laws. “We want to make sure the caste cancer doesn’t spread,” said Anil Wagade, committee head at the Ambedkar International Center of USA, which works to prevent and curb caste-based human rights violations. Most Indian Americans, including Harris, are upper caste Brahmins. This can lead to discrimination against Dalit workers in the technology sector, which is the subject of an ongoing lawsuit against Cisco.
From Dalits to workers, CDYR champions marginalized South Asians, including all undocumented immigrants, regardless of whether they qualify for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), an Obama-era program rooted in rewarding “good immigrants” by granting them temporary legal status.
“We celebrate the wins, like having an easier opponent in Biden-Harris,” said CDYR members Heer and Sharma. “For example, the undocumented South Asians in our community will experience some relief with the expansion of DACA, but we are firmly centered in the fact that the imperialist state will not be our liberators: we keep us safe. We fight for our communities’ freedom.”