Why Are There No NY South Asian Electeds?

ny-senate-map.jpgAn interesting piece out of WNYC this morning on the increasing population of South Asians in New York but a lack of political representation.

The Asian population in the five boroughs spiked 32 percent in the last decade, and New Yorkers of South Asian descent had a lot to do with it. Numbers from the Census Bureau show that Indian American numbers alone skyrocketed 77 percent in Manhattan to reach 25,857, and in the city over all there are now 192,209 people who identify as Asian Indian. [wnyc]

So there’s a large population. That we all know. Why are there no South Asians in seats of political power?

There are segments of the South Asian community–particularly those in Manhattan–who are affluent and vote….Other segments of the South Asian population, particularly in the outer boroughs, tend to be less politically active and more economically diverse. But with this spring’s redistricting opportunity, there’s a growing movement in Queens to redraw district lines in hopes that the South Asian population can increase its political power. [wnyc]

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – the civic engagement tools that are in place are disproportionately constructed to marginalize voices of people of color. The access that South Asians have to the electoral process is oppressed by the system in place. It’s not just about voting, but about having access to an electoral system. One of the tactics to dis-empower South Asian communities is in the process of how district lines are drawn.

Part of that momentum is “Taking our seat,” a new group applying for non-profit status. The organization is focused on redrawing the lines of the 31st Assembly district in South Eastern Queens to create a ‘brown district.’ Their analysis of Census Bureau data showed that two of the highest density South Asian American census tracts lie within that district and four other high density tracts–which are split between four other Assembly districts–are located just blocks away….Richmond Hill’s South Asian community is divided into two city council districts and five assembly districts. [wnyc]As important as redistricting is to creating a powerful community – I’m starting to believe the politics of electing a South Asian candidate has little to do with the construction of a Desi block as much as it does in building a community that wants to engage in politics. In research that I’m working on, 20%-50% of the money raised for South Asian candidates came from the South Asian community and almost 90% of that came from outside of the candidate’s voting district. This means South Asians will donate money to a South Asian even if they can’t vote for them. I guess my point is, at the end of the day, where are the local candidates and programs that train South Asian candidates the skills they need to run?

I sent the above article via a tweet to NYC South Asian politco Ali Najmi, co-founder of Desis Vote. If anyone would know the lay of the land of South Asian local politics, it would be him. Here’s his response.

Its a great question, and worthy of asking especially when you have other places like Kansas or Ohio where you have South Asian elected officials in the state legislature from districts without substantial South Asian populations; so why not from NYC which has one of the biggest concentrations of South Asians, especially in a place like Queens?

I think NYC’s politics are more “tribal” than other places, ironic for a melting pot, and ethnic voting blocks are a reality. Unfortunately, the South Asian voting block is not as organized as it could be. There is a lack of grass roots based community organizing with a focus on civic engagement, although groups like SEVA NY are breaking new ground in that area. Voter registration and voter turn out are low and need to increase, better candidates need to run, and the community needs to create coalitions with other voting blocks. Gerrymandering is huge issue, with areas like Richmond Hill in Queens chopped into 7 Assembly districts. [@ali_najmi]

It’s multi-pronged, for sure. Redistricting, registering voters, raising money for candidates, and developing candidates to run. These are all issues that go hand in hand, and come from the ground up. Now the real question is…. so what are we going to do about it?

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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

10 thoughts on “Why Are There No NY South Asian Electeds?

  1. I think NYC’s politics are more “tribal” than other places, ironic for a melting pot, and ethnic voting blocks are a reality

    it’s not just new york. much of the northeast has a more powerful institutional set of systems which channel political leaders up a set of defined ladders. in contrast, the american west is at the opposite extreme, with more focus on direct democracy, decentralization, and independent voting. this is the standard explanation for why the northeast has traditionally elected far fewer women than the west; women are less likely to be ‘career politicians’ who use the system to work their way up the ladder.

    btw, count me against tribal politics. i am against the majority-minority districts too…even though they help republicans by district packing democrat voters (i’m republican for readers who don’t know).

  2. 192,209 people who identify as Asian Indian — out of a population of what, 8 million?

    I think the most notable political run by a South Asian in NY was probably the challenge by Reshma Saujani in a Democratic Congressional primary last year. She’s worth reading up on and maybe trying to interview if you’re interested in South Asian politics in NYC. From what I understand, she seems to have figured out that it’s hard to jump from a Wall Street career directly to being a Congresswoman, and since her primary loss has switched to a public service job. I suspect you’ll see more of her now that she’s working her way up the government ladder. I don’t think this is a bad thing.

    Female politicians even in the vaunted western U.S. also put in years at obscure positions before hitting a national radar. Sarah Palin was on the city council of a tiny town for 5 years, then was its mayor for two terms. She failed in a bid for lieutenant-governor, but loyally campaigned for the guy who beat her because he was on the Republican ticket. She didn’t come out of nowhere; she established herself among Alaskan Republicans (before switching to “I’m busting up the good ol’ boys club” mode once she got appointed to a regulatory commission that allowed her to find out dirt on fellow Republicans — hard to get to such a position unless you’re initially trusted by the good ol’ boys).

    Frankly, unless you have celebrity or money, it’s very difficult anywhere in America to be elected to an important position without having spent some time in the political trenches. This tends to annoy people who want smaller government because they’d like to elect folks like Meg Whitman (who didn’t even vote for most of her life) as “fresh voices” who will chop government down to what they deem an “efficient” size — generally by privatizing as much as possible.

    • “I think the most notable political run by a South Asian in NY was probably the challenge by Reshma Saujani in a Democratic Congressional primary last year. She’s worth reading up on and maybe trying to interview if you’re interested in South Asian politics in NYC.”

      That’s an ingenious idea. Oh wait, I already did.


      She was on the board of the non-profit I started in 2003.

      The point is, it’s not about local candidates – it’s about the systems involved that keep South Asians from having access. And New York, w/ it’s F-ed up state government that cat fights in their chambers and city politics that are literally run by a history of hundreds of years of political machine and old boy’s network – that despite the large South Asian population, they have to work doubly hard to combat machine power. And sometimes they become the sellouts to the machine itself.

      • Thanks for the link. Was there a reason you didn’t disclose your prior affiliation with the subject of your interview (her having been on the board of the organization you founded) in that post?

        I was thinking Ms. Saujani might be particularly worth interviewing now after having completed her first electoral campaign so she could reflect on what might have helped her do better. You’re saying there’s a lack of access. What does she feel that she didn’t have access to because of her being South Asian (rather than because of her being a relative NYC newcomer, without any prior electoral experience, whose whole career had been on Wall Street)?

  3. The reasons they give for the identity/redistricting politics at play here such as “So having a person who looks like them who shares that new immigrant experience will help that person better represent the community” or “Needs like providing halal food in schools for Muslim immigrants, or vegetarian options, for Hindu immigrants” are totally lame.

    My advice to Americans with ancestral roots in the Indian subcontinent (this is the traditionally used term that’s preferable to “South Asia” for referring to the geographic region in question): do not fall for this “South Asian American” identity trap.

    Instead, freely and fully assimilate in the American society, contribute to it by excelling in your education, careers and businesses, and participate in the American political process (such as running for office) first and foremost as your own person and a proud American (but one who is also proud of and relates to his or her ancestral heritage from the Indian subcontinent at a personal level.)

    Besides, why would and why should Indian-Americans rush to share an identity with anti-America and anti-India Jihadists like Faisal Shahzad, Tahawwur Rana and “David Coleman Headly” (Daood Sayed Gilani), who are products/byproducts of the Pakistani regime’s terrorism and never-ending obsession against India?

    • Horus –

      I found what you wrote interesting. I agree that there is no robust South Asian identity but surely there is a Hindu identity? I’ll add that I can’t stand New York and believe a plausible explanation for the OP’s question is that Hindus can do better than running for office in that shithole!

      • Varun
  4. I agree with Horus. A brown face for it’s own sake is dubious at best. Nikki Haley and Piyush Jindal in no way speak to or for me when it comes down to issues. A vaguely common ancestry (thanks, Razib) is not enough. Don’t get me wrong, I fully encourage all brown folks to get involved and active, but pandering along pseudo-ethnic lines will ultimately result in internal fragmentation and seriously dirty tricks from the established machines in the country.

  5. Just when I was going to write a comment about who gives a damn about race in NYC, the NYPD comes through again with another gem. I just read that sidebar story about Krittika Biswas who was arrested without sufficient proof(really, they couldn’t even pinpoint her IP address, just an approximate location!!!). She is an Indian teenager accused of a trivial crime and you would think they would have waited for a couple of days just to make sure she is the real culprit for sure before throwing a HIGH SCHOOLER into jail over a non physical crime. And the principal doesnt even care to send the real culprit to jail when they found out who did it. I would like to see Sepia do a feature blog item on this incident which is far more interesting than some of the recent items we have had on the main page.

  6. Is Harvinder “harry” Singh Anand not considered an elected Mayor in New York? I am wondering what is being considered.