Desis Run to The Hill

Over the weekend, the AP did a piece on the record number of Indian-Americans running for office in November, a topic I covered well before the primary season here.

Meet Reshma, Surya, Manan, Raj, Ami, Ravi, Nimrata and Kamala — a new wave of Indian-American politicians. At least eight children of Indian immigrants are running for Congress or statewide office, the most ever. [yahoo]

That’s…

  • Reshma Saujani – New York, 14th Congressional District: She’s still up for her primary.
  • Surya Yalamanchili – Ohio, 2nd Congressional District: He won his Democratic primary.
  • Manan Trivedi – Pennsylvania, 6th Congressional District: He won his Democratic primary.
  • Raj Goyle – Kansas, 4th Congressional District
  • Ami Bera – California, 3rd Congressional District
  • Ravi Sangisetty – Louisiana, 3rd Congressional District
  • Nimrata “Nikki” Haley – South Carolina Governor: She (almost) won her Republican primary. Runoff on June 22nd.
  • Kamala Harris – CA Attorney General: She won the Democratic primary.

The article debates that the perceived assimilation of candidates into white American culture in an effort to get elected.

Yet when Haley’s motives are questioned and some suggest Indians must become less “foreign” to get elected, many of these new candidates are quick to ask: Who are we to judge the mashup of American ambition with an ancient culture?

<

p>

Manan Trivedi, a doctor and Iraq war veteran who recently won a Democratic primary for Congress in eastern Pennsylvania, said he did not view his ethnicity as a handicap: “The American electorate is smarter than that.”[yahoo]

He goes on to ask the question we at Sepia Mutiny ask time and time again….

Christianity is a more critical issue for white Republicans than other groups — could a Hindu who worships multiple gods, or a turbaned Sikh who doesn’t cut his hair, survive a statewide Republican primary in the Bible Belt?[ yahoo]The Democratic candidates that the writer talked to in the article argued against that…

“They can choose to be called what they want to be called, they can worship what they want to worship,” said [Ashwin] Madia…. “I don’t think being Indian-American is this thing they need to strive for or meet some sort of purity test. They are finding the right balance for themselves.” [yahoo]

Candidate assimilation. How much of it is premeditated? How much of it is candidate marketing? I honestly don’t think any of these second generation South Asian Americans were intentional in how they developed their own identities – whether faith, political, or Desi. People take different paths in developing their hyphenated identities as South Asian Americans. Nikki Haley may have married a white Methodist man, but Ami Berra married an African American woman. Manan Trivedi is married to another Indian-American woman. Kamala Harris is half Jamaican. Different people have different faiths, whether they chose to keep the one they were raised with or otherwise.

Who are we to not respect the various paths our fellow South Asian Americans took in the creation of their self identities as a Desi-American? Or do we hold candidates at different standard?

This is not to say that when it comes to campaigning a candidate and marketing of these people that certain messages are used. Campaign managers keep in mind the demographic of the local electorate and what messages will win them them over. Once someone starts running for office, each public step is carefully calculated and marketed.

All the same, the way the article was framed made me feel uncomfortable. It’s a thin line between trying to “look” more assimilated American and “being” American. I got the feeling that the writer was trying to say that the people who are able to pull off “looking American” were the ones who would get further along in politics. People who look Indian would be less likely to win. It kind of ignores the third category – the South Asian Americans that have created their own new hyphenated identity which is a unique cocktail of both sides. We should be at the point where South Asian American voters can run for office just by being themselves – but of course, that would be a bit naive of me to think, wouldn’t it?

As Raj Goyle said in the article:

He said he doesn’t worry about appearing more American or more Indian. “I am who I am, I’m proud of my background and what I’ve accomplished and my family. Kansas voters absolutely will choose the best candidate based on the merits.”[yahoo]

Good luck to the candidates. It should be an interesting five months ahead.

This entry was posted in Community, Identity, Musings, Politics by Taz. Bookmark the permalink.

About Taz

Taz is an activist, organizer and writer based in California. She is the founder of South Asian American Voting Youth (SAAVY), curates MutinousMindState.tumblr.com and blogs at TazzyStar.blogspot.com. Follow her at twitter.com/tazzystar

100 thoughts on “Desis Run to The Hill

  1. Changing names is pretty common in Muslim circles. Would they be subject to such scrutiny? Of course, this can lead to pretty funny situations, such as the discussion of whether a certain famous boxer should be referred to by his birth name, or the name he adopted upon converting to Islam?

    Ali reversed the uncle tom argument. since clay was his slave name, he regarded those blacks who called him as still stuck in the matrix, so to speak. Ali could’ve knocked out ernie terrel and Floyd Patterson but since they refused to use “ali”, he reportedly held back, choosing instead to prolong the punishment for a brutal 15rds, all the while yelling: “what’s my name uncle tom.”

    Frazier too called him clay and ali also retorted with uncle tom, which frazier always resented. ali also went further, calling him a gorilla, which rasies the question who really was still stuck in the matrix. for those protesting nik and bobs name change, thats a question worth pondering, methinks.

  2. Frazier too called him clay and ali also retorted with uncle tom, which frazier always resented. ali also went further, calling him a gorilla, which rasies the question who really was still stuck in the matrix. for those protesting nik and bobs name change, thats a question worth pondering, methinks.

    Actually, Ali would often disparage darker-skinned opponents. Calling Frazier a gorilla was just the most notable example.

  3. 38: bobby’s relationship to his pre-christian past as presented in his writings and testimony seem qualitatively different than that of nikki. personally at this point it’s his business IMO unless he runs for national office, but i can understand why hindus would have something of a beef with him.

    My sense is that it is not so much Hindus who have any beef with him (or her) but the more ‘progressive’ desis – not all of whom are Hindus. ;-)

  4. Razib, is it possible and valid in your view or experience for there to be histories in the plural?

  5. is it possible and valid in your view or experience for there to be histories in the plural

    yes. but in this case you really need to redefine things for me to be wrong. my interlocutor seems to believe that the USA did not have confessional vote-banks. in fact until the 1960s white catholics were a vote-bank for democrats, and that was one reason that between 1840 and 1924 the democrats supported relatively free immigration policies from europe while the whigs/republicans tended to oppose them (this is usually discussed in AP US history classes, or was in the 1990s when i last took those courses, but there are plenty of books on the topic). i also believe that there are facts in a positivistic sense.

  6. Hey! Did you know Ravi Sangishetty is also Christian? We lost one more folks!

    I can understand why people might think of them as sell outs to their culture (sometimes regardless of whether they were running for office or not) but you have to remember – a lot of these people grew up in the South in previous decades. The Hindu identity is already not a very strong one (I don’t know how it is for Sikhs) but on top of that, pressure from society was certainly a big deal for them.

    Hopefully (?) it won’t happen in the future. But I think people need to look inward before blaming others.

    Maybe its the fault of their family and the Hindu/Sikh community at large for not giving them the resources, pride, or self-confidence to interact with the rest of the world?

  7. The Hindu identity is already not a very strong one.

    i can see why you’d say this, but do consider that between 1200 and 1700 the indian subcontinent was predominantly ruled by elites of the muslim religion, and yet the good majority of south asians remained hindu. the best estimates i’ve seen suggest that a majority of persians were muslims within 300 years of the islamic conquest, and no one would doubt that persians have a strong self of self-identity (the same is true for egypt in terms of the coptic majority, but coptic christianity is not as extreme a manifestation of egyptian ethnic identity as zoroastrianism became for persians).

    that being said, i think you’re right that hindus should look inward. as i’ve noted before on this weblog the only way religions like catholicism and judaism have persisted in an american environment is to adopt a ‘protestant’ outlook. in the 19th century the irish dominated hierarchy attempted to reconceptualize the american political establishment’s relationship to to the catholic church on a model more similar to the netherlands, or germany, where the church itself was recognized implicitly or explicitly as a corporate entity which represented its adherents. this attempt failed and the church had to shift toward a more individualistic strategy and not take its monopoly over its traditional market for granted.

    Maybe its the fault of their family and the Hindu/Sikh community at large for not giving them the resources, pride, or self-confidence to interact with the rest of the world?

    but you pointed to the fact earlier that situation matters. i assume it is far different in the south, where even catholicism can be considered ‘non-christian’ (outside of louisiana and texas), than in the pacific northwest or new england, where there is less emphasis on wearing one’s religion on one’s sleeve. at the end of world war ii the chief rabbi of the roman jewish community converted to roman catholicism. if you look into the background of this conversion you’ll see that the details of his life history and situation probably had a huge impact on this decision. it isn’t as if the dude didn’t know anything about judaism.

  8. btw, as a point of fact, at the founding the two dominant religious traditions in the USA were congregationalism in new england and anglicanism in the south (the mid atlantic colonies were pluralistic). today the two largest protestant denominations are insurgent groups which were barely on the map in 1800, the baptists and methodists. this game has been operative in the united states for over 200 years now. it may seem uncouth, but if you don’t play by its rules you’ll lose market share. that’s not a prescription, that’s a prediction.

  9. besides nikki, there is another high-level elected republican politician in the US who changed his religion from sikhism before running, and who has never been featured on these pages, as far as i know.

  10. besides nikki, there is another high-level elected republican politician in the US who changed his religion from sikhism before running, and who has never been featured on these pages, as far as i know.

    that sounds hokey to me.

  11. that sounds hokey to me.

    His democratic opponent thought so much, apparently inexplicably doubting he was sikh, although that didn’t stop her from accused him of worshipping strange gods and referring to sikhism as a cult.

  12. Keshav, why do you seek psychological and sociological factors to understand their conversions? Is it really so confounding that a reasonable and discerning individual, when offered the choice between salvation and eternal damnation, could accept the grace of Christ and reject the wicked and immoral preachments of Hinduism?

  13. could accept the grace of Christ and reject the wicked and immoral preachments of Hinduism?

    I humbly and gratefully accept the grace of my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ without denigrating the faith of my ancestors. Expand. Coexist. Respect. Or troll elsewhere. . . . . . . I wish everyone was as steeped in the vital importance of Kerala’s ancient custom of tolerance as I was. I’m glad my Father was “frozen” in the Sixties if it meant being raised the way I was, and not turning out like “craig”.

  14. nikki haley crushed btw. in fact, she won by a slightly bigger margin than alvin green did in the dem primary in the runoff :-)

  15. I humbly and gratefully accept the grace of my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ without denigrating the faith of my ancestors. Expand. Coexist. Respect. Or troll elsewhere.

    Agreed.

  16. I’m not sure about the numbers, but it does seems like the highest profile desi politicians are Republicans. I have a theory about why this is – although it will no doubt upset progressives here (and please forgive the vast generalizations that will follow, I think there’s more than a grain of truth here).

    I think in fact the supporters of the democratic party are much more conscious about race than republicans. Note how blacks and now hispanics are overwhelmingly democratic. While they are used to voting for whites or their own kind, other races are viewed with suspicion. The few Japanese/Korean/Vietnamese politicians are all local, in strongholds of their races.

    For republicans on the other hand, its not so much race as culture that makes identity. Hence Bobby or Nikki can transcend their origins, because they have embraced the culture to which they appeal. In a way, this is actually closer to MLK’s ideal – they are judged not by the color of their skin, but the content of their character.

  17. rasika, i wish people would just lay off grand-unified-theories like the one you just presented. especially ones with several moving parts….

    (no, i’m not a progressive)

  18. I’m not sure about the numbers,

    Also, the numbers are right there in this blog post. There’s only ONE South Asian Republican running for Gov. compared to seven Dems. Six of the Dems are running for Congress. Only one Desi Republican has made it into Congress (Jindal) and he’s the same one that is actually Governor. Some would debate whether power in Congress vs. power as State Governor has higher “profile.”

    Seems like your theory was shot even before it began. Don’t call it a “numbers” based theory unless you have actual stats to back it up.

  19. In case you have not noticed, Christanity is a religion of Spanish, Blacks and Italians… the rest of the Christian World is quickly becoming atheist.

  20. Some would debate whether power in Congress vs. power as State Governor has higher “profile.”

    Governor definity trumps representative in profile and status. Gov is the stepping stone to the presidency, trumping even senator…2008 notwithstanding. New governors are routinely pegged as potential POTUS noms. Nikki, like Bobby will become a national figure very soon while hardly anyone but wonks and their constituents will know of the others, unless they rise to speaker or some other high-proifile position in the house. but that takes years. Reps are low level by comparison which is not to say they’re low level. after all, I using POTUS-potential as the standard.

  21. I have a theory about why this is – although it will no doubt upset progressives here (and please forgive the vast generalizations that will follow, I think there’s more than a grain of truth here).

    ah. the asinine tunku theory rears its head again. not to mention its ferraro channeling racism in saying that o became prez cus he was black.

  22. Is it really so confounding that a reasonable and discerning individual, when offered the choice between salvation and eternal damnation

    heh heh. i pick the pink unicorn.

  23. i just think you have the empirics off.

    My knowledge about American history is pretty limited (Thanks to the Indian education viewing Science & Math as cooler than Social Science). I was trying to extrapolate what i observed living in India, China & US.

    For all the religious people, chant this 100 times each day “Religion is a man made construct used by powerful & elite to control the masses”(Of course you will burn in hell later but you will be happy here on earth). Also i doubt anyone would convert just for getting enlightenment/Nirvana, because if you are truly seeking enlightenment you would think above the constructs of religion.

  24. Can I just say that I’m loving this discussion? Thanks for existing, mutiny. Razib-love GNXP, btw

  25. Nihilists dont stop with the attacks on religion. “Laws are a man made construct used by powerful & elite to control the masses”. Continue by attacking every institution that holds civilization together.

  26. Nihilists dont stop with the attacks on religion.

    i agree. say what you will about national socialism, dude, at least it’s an ethos.

  27. Also i doubt anyone would convert just for getting enlightenment/Nirvana, because if you are truly seeking enlightenment you would think above the constructs of religion.

    More asinine assumptions and presumptions polluting this blog’s discussions. Maybe if YOU are truly seeking enlightenment, YOU would think that way. All each of us can or SHOULD do is speak for ourselves.

    Some of us are just fine with religion and aren’t narrow-minded about its potential for enlightenment, guidance, succor. I don’t denigrate you, don’t insult people like me, just because we “think differently” than you do.

  28. i agree. say what you will about national socialism, dude, at least it’s an ethos.

    Are they gonna hurt us Walter?

  29. Also i doubt anyone would convert just for getting enlightenment/Nirvana

    i converted to nirvana from the dead because it got me laid in the early 90s. good times. good times.

  30. Nihilists dont stop with the attacks on religion

    I am not a Nihilist & last time i checked Chinese civilization is still doing better than Indian without religion (or at least without religious leaders)

  31. I am not a Nihilist & last time i checked Chinese civilization is still doing better than Indian without religion (or at least without religious leaders)

    Ah the morally exemplary PRC is what nihilists are looking to now?

  32. Do you know how hard it is for me to come up with witty blog titles?!? It’s the most difficult thing about writing these blogs, personally speaking.

    How about “The Hills have Aiyyos”? You’re welcome.

    Mandatory disclaimer: The usernames politics and political are being used by different users. Personally, I think political is better.

  33. Ah the morally exemplary PRC is what nihilists are looking to now?

    That cracked me up :-) ..but they are not any better or worse than US or Israel when it comes to morality.

  34. Razib - You’re absolutely, 100% right. I’ve been saying for a long time that if Hinduism doesn’t adopt a congregational model, it will die out or at least become culturally irrelevant.

    The problem with that explanation is that Sikhs tend to have the congregational model, at least in the West and they seem to be having similar problems (and Punjabis can be sometimes be obnoxiously proud of the themselves).

    But I predict Hinduism will eventually fade away in this country because, while it might sound cliche, Hindus are simply not united or well equipped to handle change. Philosophically, maybe, but structurally, I don’t think much has changed in the past several thousand years so I doubt we’ll be getting the congregational model any time soon.

  35. That cracked me up :-) ..but they are not any better or worse than US or Israel when it comes to morality.

    I suppose that could be true in some parallel universe where cats and dogs live together and Lady Gaga goes out in T-shirt and shorts. I just didn’t know our two dimensions could communicate with each other.

    Fascinating.

  36. Philosophically, maybe, but structurally, I don’t think much has changed in the past several thousand years so I doubt we’ll be getting the congregational model any time soon.

    Historically we’ve had a pseudo-congregational model revolving around the family and kin-networks including caste. I think what makes the adjustment to the West (or more specifically, Anglo-American culture) hard is more the extreme individualism that makes it hard to sustain familial traditions. Religion is viewed as a matter of personal faith rather than tradition or culture. This is a primarily evangelical framing which, when coupled with the way the modern education system undermines the legitimacy of tradition and custom, ends up discourages Dharmic traditions as well as more easy-going flavors of Abrahamic traditions from being able to sustain themselves in the face of proselytization.

    Basically you end up with marginally interest atheist/agnostic/woo-woo-spiritualist types on one end and flaming Bible/Koran/Whatever thumpers on the other with very little space between.

  37. atheist/agnostic/woo-woo-spiritualist types

    oh, please don’t put spiritualists with unbelievers! :-)

    though seriously, the model is plausible, and promoted by “rational choice” theorists. but when i poked around the general social survey i didn’t see that much support for it. the young are becoming more secular, as well as somewhat more theologically liberal (at least not more conservative). IOW, americans are become “more hindu” in their attitude toward universalism and such, even if hindus are becoming more christian in name.

    i do think that the american fixation on individual salvation, confession and selection of religious identity is hard for most people in the world to understand, not just hindus. this includes christian europeans whose faith is more cultural. i have friends in finland who are atheist but pay church tax because they want to support the church’s social services and use its facilities for their kids. that’s an attitude americans, believers and unbelievers, would have a hard time understanding.

    but if it’s hard, it is what it is, and there’s no point in complaining about it. there are plenty of countries to immigrate to where the pressure to convert is much milder. in fact, why the hell are brown people settling in the south if they think it is important that their children not become christian? from what i’ve heard the pressure there in some areas can be intense. howard dean, raised episcopalian, nominally congregationalist, raised his kids jews in vermont. there wouldn’t have been much benefit for haley to be christian in vermont, and no one would have cared if the kids were being raised sikh.

  38. @Keshav (90)

    Im sure a religion which survived a thousand years of Islam will hold out well in America. At most, there will probably be less strict adherence to the traditional beliefs and more of a cultural affiliation with the religion. Furthermore, the fact that the Indian community in the states is still taking in immigrants from the old country will ensure that the religion will not fade away.

    As for Sikhs, I dont think they will have a problem with the religion fading out. The Punjabi ethnicity and the religion go hand in hand and its hard for Sikhs to have one without the other. Unless Sikhs stop identifying themselves as Punjabi, Sikhism in the west will keep going strong.

    I can vouch for this because event though I am a strong atheist, I still identify myself as being culturally a Punjabi Sikh.

  39. You forgot to mention Pia Varma who is running against the heavily entrenched, corrupt Democratic machine in Philadelfia.

  40. The problem with that explanation is that Sikhs tend to have the congregational model, at least in the West and they seem to be having similar problems (and Punjabis can be sometimes be obnoxiously proud of the themselves).

    That one thing that I really like about Haley and Jindal is that they don’t spend every 5 minute talking about how great it is to be punjabi and that what sets them apart from the punjabi’s politicans in Canada. Most of them who only get elected for that reason and running in area with a high punjabi population.

  41. India has a vaunted system if democratic rule but has been quite repressive in many cases

  42. Anna, I humbly and gratefully accept the grace of my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ without denigrating the faith of my ancestors. Expand. Coexist. Respect. Or troll elsewhere.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swami_Abhishiktananda He left France for India in the summer of 1948, never to return to France despite his affection for his homeland. He became immersed in the atmosphere of India, in particular the Hindu perspective of Advaita. He founded an ashram and religious community, Shantivanam, in 1950 and became Swami Abhishiktananda. In his latter years though, he found himself very drawn to religious experience within solitude, spending much time in the hermit caves at Arunachala. But at no point did he disavow his Christianity, and he celebrated Mass until virtually the end of his life.

    Swamini Anna, I heart you!