Systemic Racism: Why Indian-Americans are not immune from it
On Memorial Day, May 25, 2020, an unarmed black man, George Floyd used a counterfeit $20 bill in a convenient store in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Police were called and the officers handcuffed Floyd. He resisted being taken to the police vehicle. A white police officer kept his knee on the neck of Floyd for a full 8 minutes and 46 seconds while the victim repeatedly said, “I can’t breathe” and he probably died during that period. George Floyd had a criminal record while in Texas and according to the autopsy report, he had drugs in the system. However, it was the mannerism of the officer and the length of time he kept his knee on the neck that prompted Americans to come out in thousands to express their outrage. This was not merely a response to the death of a single black person. It was an outburst of pent up anger compounded by numerous incidences of police brutality and systemic racism prevalent in the society for too long. During the first few days, stores were broken into and looted and police stations and vehicles were set on fire. The Army National Guard and law enforcement agencies used force, tear gas, and rubber bullets to chase away the protestors. The demonstrations led by the Black Lives Matter movement spread to all parts of the U.S. and around the globe. They were mostly peaceful. Then on Friday night, June 12, 2020, another black man, Rayshard Brooks was shot multiple times from the back and was killed by another white police officer in a Wendy’s parking lot, in Atlanta, Georgia. Brooks also had a criminal record. He too resisted arrest, grabbed a Taser from the police officer, and was running away.
Much of the news coverage focused on vandalism and looting which were mostly carried out by opportunistic individuals and groups who were trying to take advantage of the situation. I have come across several posts on our social media groups accusing African Americans in general and the victims in particular as lazy, dependent on welfare payments, food stamps, and complaining about the loss suffered by businesses without ever mentioning the underlying issues of police brutality and denial of justice to the victims and their families. This is an attempt on my part to provide an alternate explanation based on historical facts. I also explain how it all matters to the Indian-American community.
Rioting and looting occur in American cities when their teams lose championship games and even when the teams win. My fellow Keralites, think about the land reforms, education reforms, equal pay for equal work, and other social reforms that occurred in our small state in India. None of those reforms would have happened but for the sit-ins and demonstrations by workers and students. Stone-throwing, destruction of police vehicles and buses, rioting, and police shootings happened. Youth organizations played a major part and some of us were active participants.
What happened to Floyd and Brooks are not isolated incidents. Four years ago, Philando Castile, another black person was shot to death by a white cop during a traffic stop in a Minneapolis suburb. The officer was tried and the jury acquitted him. Convicting a police officer for killing a colored person is nearly impossible. NBC News has reported that since 2015, officers from the Minneapolis Police Department have rendered people unconscious with neck restraints 44 times. Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir, Rice, Trayvon Martin are just a few of the recent black victims of police brutality and racism. The black CEO Jide Zeitlin of Tapestry, whose stores include Coach that was looted, in a message posted on LinkedIn stated, “We can replace our windows and handbags,” after which he mentioned the names of several black victims and said, “Each of these black lives matter.”
This time around, the protestors were not blacks only; they were a representative sample of what America looks like. They included young and old, doctors and nurses, lawyers, and clergy. Many of them were white and there were other ethnicities too: Hispanics, Native Americans, South Asians, Southeast Asians, and Middle Eastern women wearing hijabs. They carried signs that read “Stop Killing Us”, “Racism is the Real Virus” and “No Justice, No Peace.” There was even a sign in Malayalam that said, Malayalees for Black Lives.
A brief history of African Americans: The first group of African slaves was brought to the Americas in 1619 and for four centuries, they and their descendants suffered through harsh working conditions, racial segregation applied through Jim Crow Laws, and lynching in the hands of the Ku Klux Clan.
Even after the Emancipation proclamation and the 13th Amendment that abolished slavery, the blacks were still counted as three-fifths of a person when determining the number of seats in Congress. The civil rights movement of the 1960s led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was instrumental in the adoption of the Civil Rights Act (1957 and 1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965). Despite these achievements, the vast majority of the African-Americans remained poor and lived in segregated housing with limited opportunity for upward mobility. Their schools were underperforming because of a lack of resources and most of the young were unemployed or underemployed. These unemployed youth resorted to dealing in drugs, guns, and human trafficking to make a living. When George Floyd died by asphyxiation, the once subjugated black community decided that they could not take it any longer and erupted.
Black Lives Matter vs All Lives Matter: We hear the argument more often made by some whites that All Lives Matter, not just Black Lives. Consider the oppression suffered by African Americans for four hundred years. They did not have the privileges and opportunities that the whites enjoyed. When arrested and convicted, they receive far longer sentences than whites do. According to Pew Research, in 2017, blacks represented 12% of the U.S. adult population but 33% of the prison population. Income inequality in the U.S. is the highest among the developed nations. The median household income for blacks was 61% of that of the white households in 2018. Then Covid-19 happened and exposed the health inequality among the African Americans who suffer from several underlying conditions, inadequate health care facilities, and lack of health insurance. Covid-19 disproportionately affected and killed African Americans (Medpage report May 1, 2020). Black lives have not mattered as much as white lives because their situations have not been the same. Saying black lives matter does not mean that other lives do not matter. If the fire department responds to a call by our black neighbor, they spray down the house on fire; not all houses in the neighborhood.
Why all this should matter to the Indian-American community? A small number of Indian nationals have been in the United States since the 1770s along with Chinese and Japanese immigrants. As the number of Asian immigrants grew so did the resentment against them. Racism in the U.S. reached a peak with the Immigration Act of 1917, which barred entry to the country for people from the Middle East to Southeast Asia. Later, Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1924, which created quotas for each country and banned immigration from Asian countries altogether. The law that paved the way for immigrants from the Indian sub-continent was the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. It abolished the quota system based on national origin and allowed family reunification. We have to thank the black civil rights activists, some of whom include Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Harriet Tubman, and W.E.B. Du Bois. Indians are one of the most prosperous immigrant groups in the U.S. because our higher level of education and strong work ethics gave us opportunities. We choose safe neighborhoods and better school districts to live and our children gain admission to the most competitive colleges and universities. We are well represented in all professional areas of engineering, medicine, law, and business.
Pause and take a moment to ponder the instances of racial bias and hatred and even police brutality that some of us have experienced. Has anyone among us, our parents, our children, any of our relatives or friends experienced any type of racism in the schools that we attended, at the places that we worked or at the businesses that we owned? Did the majority population made fun of our looks and appearance, taunted and bullied us? Did we always receive fair treatment from a police officer including a traffic cop? We have been denied that promotion and we never got that job for which we were the most qualified. Those of us who have come this far in the academia, in the professions, and the corporate world, had to work twice as hard to get half as far, in the meanwhile making less than what a person who belongs to the majority makes. Our African American neighbors have experienced systemic racism ever since their ancestors were brought here as slaves.
Those of us with opportunity and privilege often failed in our responsibility to look at the Black community and name the system of racial oppression. We often referred to them as Karamban (in Malayalam) or Kala (in Hindi). Yet we know many African Americans who are courteous, helpful, and overall very good persons. To quote John Kennedy, “those who make peaceful revolution impossible would make violent revolution inevitable.” President Obama in an essay published in the Medium wrote this: “if we want to bring about real change, then the choice isn’t between protest and politics. We have to do both.” The council members, mayors, and executives appoint police chiefs. The district attorneys and the state attorney general decide whether to investigate and ultimately charge those involved in police misconduct. Election officials are in charge of voter rolls and mail-in-ballots. These days even the justice system is partisan and elected judges play a role in how cases are adjudicated. All these down ballots are important. It does not matter whether you are Republican, Democrat, or Independent, now is the time to register to vote if not already done and then VOTE.