Dr. Jai Maharaj
2017-05-16 20:50:41 UTC
Northeast Indiana Public Radio, wboi.org
May 16, 2017
Since the February death of Srinivas Kuchibhotla, the
first bias fatality of the Trump era, one question has
been coursing through South Asian-American circles: was
this hate-crime killing in Olathe, Kansas their "Vincent
Chin was a Chinese-American in Detroit who was beaten to
death by two white men in 1982. His death is credited
with sparking a pan-Asian-American activist movement.
In "The Making of Asian America: A History," author Erika
Lee quotes activist Helen Zia as saying, "Suddenly people
who had endured a lifetime of degrading treatment were
wondering if their capacity to suffer in silence might no
longer be a virtue."
Like Chin, Kuchibhotla was an immigrant, and had moved to
the country from India.
Both men were victims of ethnic mis-identification:
Chin's killers thought he was Japanese, and that he was
somehow to blame for U.S. auto manufacturing jobs being
lost. In Kuchibhotla's case, the alleged shooter told a
bartender that he'd killed two Iranians, including
Kuchibhotla's friend Alok Madasani, who survived.
But for all the similarities, there is one important
difference: Chin was working class, while Kuchibhotla was
an engineer who was, in the words of his widow, able to
buy their "dream home" in suburban Kansas City.
This fact, however, may help explain why Kuchibhotla's
death has generated an unusual degree of alarm in the
Indian community, including segments that have not
otherwise been politicized.
Unlike many of the Sikh and Muslim victims of past hate
crimes, including those which occurred after 9/11,
Kuchibhotla was Hindu. He was, in other words, an
everyman figure in the eyes of many in India, and just as
importantly, his death comes against a backdrop of rising
white nationalism and disaffection.
For Bay Area activist Anirvan Chatterjee, the shootings
in Kansas served as "a huge wake-up call" for Hindu
"They thought they were safe," he said. "They thought
their bindis would protect them, they thought their last
names would protect them, they thought their advanced
degrees would protect them, and something changed."
Another factor is wealth. Indian Americans have the
highest median income of any ethnic group, and this
attribute may have helped inoculate the community against
a sense of threat.
"I think there was a sense of 'Look at the tremendous
success' and there was perhaps a complacency that we
didn't have to do the basic building blocks" of
organizing, said Raj Goyle, a former state legislator
from Kansas who now runs a tech firm in New York.
"Indians, We are the white people of brown people," said
Indian comedian Vir Das on a recent episode of Conan. Das
waited for the laughter to die down before adding,
"Because when we get shot there's an investigation,
ladies and gentlemen."
In other words, we're dark enough to be the targets of
hate crimes, but connected enough that the powers that be
actually pay attention.
That paradox explains why even the wealthiest Indian
Americans are now mobilizing: Goyle is co-founder of the
Indian American Impact Project, an organization that is
encouraging Wall Street executives, venture capitalists
and others to invest in progressive political candidates
and civil rights groups, and to align with other
communities of color.
"There are people who have very significant net worths
who I think are willing to now write seven-figure checks,
perhaps even eight-figure checks," said Goyle. "The
resources in the community are there."
Suman Raghunathan, executive director of the civil rights
group South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT),
thinks this is a significant change because, unlike in
the post-9/11 era, the fear is now reaching into every
corner of the Indian-American community.
"There's a blanket sense and understanding among folks
that we are all in the crossfire."
Arun Venugopal is a race reporter with WNYC and a
contributor to "The United States of Anxiety" podcast.
Find him on Twitter @arunNYC.
More news at:
Northeast Indiana Public Radio
Jai Maharaj, Jyotishi
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