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Historical Context of Organizing South Asians

History of South Asians in California

To better understand the current social, political, economic and cultural challenges/ opportunities for organizing South Asians in California, we provide a brief migratory history of South Asians in California.

South Asians migrated to California since the 1800s. While various immigrant communities encounter some form of racism in their “new home,” the response to injustice reflects both a unique experience and the historical context. The first South Asian immigrants were mostly Sikh and Muslim men from Punjab in India, who became farm workers in California.  These South Asian pioneers were no stranger to political activism – they witnessed the nascent nationalist movement in India, lived in proximity to the Mexican Revolution and struggled against the indentured labor system. They also organized protests against legally sanctioned discrimination alongside Latino and other Asian working class immigrants. They also formed the anti-racist, anti-colonial Ghadar Party in San Francisco in 1913, which sprouted branches among Indian laborers in plantation colonies and in India itself.

The second phase of South Asian migration to California and the U.S. spanned 1965 to the 1980s, based on American “social engineering” migration policies designed to attract skilled labor across the world.  These South Asian immigrants, comprised of highly skilled labor and educated professionals, arrived with U.S. civil rights laws already in place.  So, they did not witness or participate in the civil rights movement and missed the opportunity to build solidarities with other people of color. Many even embraced the racist designation of “model minority” and experienced what Toni Morrison (1993) calls the “most enduring and efficient rite of passage into American culture: negative appraisals of the native-born black population.” In many cases, this has meant South Asian Americans’ isolation from, and even opposition to, movements seeking justice.

Most new migrants are not doctors and engineers, but rather refugees affected by corporate globalization and political and religious repression in their countries of origin. Throughout California, recent South Asian immigrants primarily participate in the low-wage workforce as garment workers, cab drivers, convenience store clerks, gas station attendants and other service industry occupations. Unlike some South Asians that migrated before, they regularly face unemployment, job discrimination, workplace exploitation, hate crimes, police brutality, lack of access to adequate health care, poverty and overt racism. Many live and work in proximity to other people of color with whom they share a marginalized existence.

South Asians Post-9/11

In the wake of 9/11, what it means to be South Asian in the U.S. has profoundly changed.  Perceptions of South Asians in the public and private domain have shifted again as culture, religion, ethnicity and language equate “terrorism.” Along with other communities of color, particularly those who are, or appear to be, Arab or Muslim, persons of South Asian origin are bearing the brunt of post-9/11 “backlash” hate and intolerance.

While the blatant violence that occurred immediately after 9/11, such as murder, physical assault and arson, has subsided, more insidious forms of racism and discrimination toward South Asians are on the rise in schools, workplaces, housing complexes and airports. Recent racial and religious bias incidents reported to SAN include wrongful job terminations, hostile work environments, tenant evictions and restricted access to health and human services. South Asians have also been adversely affected by government policies and practices that threaten their civil liberties, such as the PATRIOT Act and Special Registration program. Large-scale criminalization of the entire community has involved FBI surveillance and investigations, detentions and deportations. For the first time in their American experience, South Asians are feeling the impact of racism and discrimination across class, gender, age, national origin, religion, and immigration status.

At this moment in U.S. history, the current climate of fear has the potential to encourage isolation along entrenched gender, class, national, religious and generational lines. Yet, great opportunity exists for South Asians to bridge internal divisions and form coalitions with other marginalized communities for equity and justice.