Activist & Writer, Navigating the New American Racial Landscape

Gov Jindal Might Be Tanned and Rested, but He’s Not Ready to Court Communities of Color

Following Governor Jindal’s announcement that he’s running for President, Indian Americans have had a gamut of responses. Here’s my take on his readiness from a policy standpoint:

Governor Bobby Jindal’s announcement last week that he is running for President prompted a string of critical responses from progressive South Asians and Asian Americans who are skeptical and even ashamed of him for many reasons, not the least of which are his apparent denials of his culture, heritage, and racial identity. Given our recent national conversations on the fluidity of racial identity sparked by Rachel Dolezal, the questions around whether Governor Jindal is Indian enough or whether he has assimilated into Whiteness are timely ones that merit further discussion (and some well-intentioned humor, thanks to #BobbyJindalisSoWhite and #Jindian, the comedic creations of Hari Kondabolu and Aasif Mandvi). Governor Jindal’s racial identity is not the best litmus test or standard to assess his candidacy for President. Instead, we should take a look at his viewpoints, policies and rhetoric, which have been harmful and divisive, especially with respect to immigrants and communities of color.

Please read the rest over at The Huffington Post.


Dear Governor Haley: #TakeItDown

Images and symbols matter. Remants and reminders of racism, Jim Crow segregation, and slavery matter. That is why it is hard to fathom why the state of South Carolina would continue to tolerate, defend and proudly display the Confederate flag. It continues to fly despite the fact that nine Black community members were murdered in an act of domestic terrorism by Dylann Roof on June 17th at a historic Charleston church. It continues to fly despite the fact that Roof’s hateful actions were premised on his own words which reflect the hundreds of years of White supremacist thought that have plagued our nation: “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have got to go.” As Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, “Roof’s crime cannot be divorced from the ideology of white supremacy which long animated his state nor from its potent symbol—the Confederate flag.”

Still, the Confederate flag continues to fly above the Confederate Soldiers Monument on the grounds of the Capitol building in Columbia, South Carolina. And one of its staunch defenders has been South Carolina’s governor, Nikki Haley. Governor Haley has even used her own ethnicity (she is Indian American) to try and dispel any doubts that racial problems continue to exist in South Carolina. In an October 2014 debate, she stated: “But we really kind of fixed all that when you elected the first Indian-American female governor.” (Video clip here; Governor Haley’s comments begin around the 1:15 mark).

Really, Governor Haley? Clearly, the hate violence in Charleston this past week demonstrates that racism in the most violent of forms exists in South Carolina. It also shows up in other ways, including the cycles of multigenerational poverty that lead to disparate educational and economic outcomes for Black children and youth in the state – and that are not being adequately addressed by state policies.

South Asians in particular must send Governor Haley a message. Our ethnicity should not be trotted out to justify racist symbols or actions. Governor Haley also misses the point about being elected to office as an Indian American. Just because Indian Americans are elected to political office, just because the halls of political power look more diverse, does not mean that racial injustice simply disappears. It doesn’t work that way. Instead, when Indian Americans and South Asians are elected into office, they have a responsibility and duty to understand the role of structural racism, to call it out, and to “fix” it through equitable policies and practices.

Send a message to Governor Haley. Tell her: “I’m an Indian American/South Asian and I am saddened and outraged by the shootings in Charleston. I understand that you have defended the display of the Confederate flag on the grounds of the statehouse in Columbia. Please take down the flag which is a symbol of racist ideology and actions targeting Black communities. As an Indian American/South Asian, I stand against racism and inequity. I hope you will too.”


What Does Race Have to Do with the Spelling Bee?

It’s #NationalSpellingBee time! Tonight, two winners prevailed over the 285 contestants who sought to become national speller-in-chief. Congratulations to Vanya Shivashankar, 13, of Olathe, Kansas, and Gokul Venkatachalam, 14, of Chesterfield, Missouri, who are dual champions in the 88th annual National Scripps Spelling Bee.

So what does race have to do with the National Spelling Bee?

Inevitably, everytime the Spelling Bee comes around, there are two misleading and damaging race-based narratives that swirl around it. I explore them – the myth of cultural exceptionalism, and the reality of xenophobic responses to winners – over at Colorlines. Below is an excerpt, with the full piece here:

The Scripps spelling bee shouldn’t be a justification for cultural or racial superiority. But it is most definitely an apt benchmark to assess our national appetite for diversity and inclusion. In recent years, for example, the public response to Indian-American national spelling bee champions has been nothing short of racist and xenophobic. An article in The Times of India recounts the various reactions:

Another reader said, “How is it that foreigners who are new to America are able to win the spelling bee like this?” while another reader posted, “First they took our beauty queen title then they take our bee. Whats [sic] next they take away our jobs…”

Another said, “The kids in the spelling bee should only be AMERICAN”.

Another tweet said “Shocking that neither of the Spelling bee champs have names that sound American #Sriram #Ansun.”

These remarks give us a sense of the racial anxiety that is pervasive in America, a trend that is becoming more visible and pernicious as the country’s demographics dramatically change. With a population of nearly 4 million, South Asians are the fastest-growing race group in the United States. As South Asians become more visible in sectors perceived as “American”—the Scripps National Spelling Bee or the Miss America pageant (won by Nina Davuluri in 2014)—the backlash rears its head, with portrayals of South Asians as un-American, as undesirable immigrants who seek to corrupt the nation.  These perceptions are not new. The notions that South Asians are forever foreigners, worthy of suspicion, or job-stealers are ones that community members have contended with for over 100 years in the United States. Even today, despite accepting South Asian success in some arenas—cab drivers, domestic workers, computer programmers, and even CEOs of startups—there are others that are reserved for “real” Americans (read: white, Christian, citizen).  Being a hardworking child of immigrants, even with the title of spelling bee champion, does not automatically mean that one belongs to this country.  For South Asians in particular, the struggle for racial justice must include the dismantlement of the cultural exceptionalism myth.


Remembering Judge Heyburn

Today, at his funeral in Louisville, Judge John G. Heyburn II, the Senior District Judge for the Western District of Kentucky, will be fondly remembered by so many of the people who worked with him or interacted with him – lawyers, clerks, and administrative staff. Judge Heyburn had a lasting impact on my own life and career as well.

Judge Heyburn actually gave me my first legal job – as a summer volunteer clerk in his office after my first year of law school, one that had left me demoralized. I didn’t think that I had the chops to really be a lawyer, but that summer in Judge Heyburn’s office at the Gene Snyder federal courthouse in Louisville transformed me. Judge Heyburn and his two full-time law clerks gave me substantive work that improved my analysis and writing, and, perhaps more importantly, my confidence. I remember how Judge Heyburn took the time to sit down with me and ask me, in his gentle manner, to back up my legal analyses about the cases that came before his court. I realize now that he was giving me the space to practice articulating my opinions, unformed and amorphous as they were. As I went onto other legal internships and jobs, I understood even more how significant it was that someone of Judge Heyburn’s stature would take the time to engage me directly in this way, while I was barely getting started on my own legal path.

I also learned from Judge Heyburn that beyond the facts and precedent of the law are real people’s lives, and that legal decision-makers must keep that in mind, front and center. That is why Judge Heyburn’s opinions on two cases last year, related to same-sex marriage in Kentucky, came as no surprise to me. Judge Heyburn invalidated Kentucky’s constitutional amendment that barred same-sex marriage and the recognition of same-sex marriages performed legally in other states. He ruled that Kentucky’s constitutional amendment violated the equal protection clause by treating LGBTQ communities “differently in a way that demeans them.” Judge Heyburn’s decisions were reversed on appeal and are now pending review before the United States Supreme Court.

At a debate with an anti-gay marriage activist last year, Judge Heyburn stated his views on the importance of abandoning traditional legal frameworks, especially when they deny rights to certain groups of people. “History is littered with traditions that we have later decided weren’t very good ones,” he said. “Without judges, who knows how long would it have taken for the state of Connecticut to decide it couldn’t deny contraceptives to women? How long would South Carolina have waited before it did away with segregated schools?” As someone who works on issues of justice and equity today, these words are deeply meaningful to me.

A lasting memory I will always treasure is a small but significant gesture on Judge Heyburn’s part in 1996 when my parents and I became naturalized citizens. When he realized that our naturalization ceremony would take place at the federal courthouse in Louisville, Judge Heyburn ensured that he presided over it. Having the oath of citizenship be administered to us by Judge Heyburn made the naturalization moment even more special for my family.

I will miss you, Judge. I am proud to be part of your family of law clerks. Your legacy lives on not only in the opinions you offered to shape legal jurisprudence in Kentucky – but in the lives you touched, including mine.


Outraged About Purvi Patel Case? Four Things to Do Now

Update: Thanks to the groundswell of support around the country, more people are aware of the Purvi Patel case and its implications on the well-being of all women. The RhReality Check petition has over 20,000 signatures. Over $11,000 has been raised to support Purvi Patel’s family, and Apna Ghar is ensuring that these funds reach her family directly this week. I’ve updated some information below in the “4 things you can do”. Thanks to everyone for your support.

On Monday March 30, 2015, an Indiana judge issued Purvi Patel a 41 year sentence, with 20 years to be served in prison, for the crimes of feticide and neglect of a dependent. Patel maintains that she had a stillbirth and sought medical care.

Prosecuting, charging, convicting, and sentencing Purvi Patel is wrong for many reasons. The feticide law was intended to protect pregnant women – not criminalize them. Punishing a woman who suffered a miscarriage and sought medical attention sets a dangerous precedent for women in Indiana and around the nation (38 other states have similar feticide laws).  The potential impact on women of color and immigrant women –Purvi Patel is the second Asian woman to be charged under the feticide law in Indiana – is frightening.

Four Things You Can Do Now:

1. Sign the petition at RhReality Check: Send a message to Indiana leaders about Purvi’s case and the feticide law. You can also sign a petition here (at which asks for a full pardon for Purvi Patel.

2. Support Purvi Patel’s Family: Patel was the breadwinner and caregiver in her family. Donate to support her family.

3. Raise awareness:  Share articles and resources about the verdict with your own networks; write blogposts and opeds; and tweet using #Justice4Purvi to raise awareness about the implications of this case on the rights of all women.

4. Send a note of support to Purvi Patel: You can send cards to Purvi Patel c/o The Indiana Religious Coalition for Reproductive Justice (IRCRC), PO Box 723, Lafayette, IN 47902. They will deliver them to Patel on their visits to her in prison.


*Check out the work of organizations such as the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, the National Advocates for Pregnant Women, Apna Ghar, South Asian American Policy and Research Institute and the Indiana Religious Coalition for Reproductive Justice  for resources, talking points and additional information.

*You can also join the Facebook page, Justice for Purvi Patel, here.

*Additional articles to read/share:

*Why Purvi Patel’s Indianness Matters by Ashwini Tambe

*Purvi Patel Could Be Just the Beginning at the New York Times

*Various articles in India Abroad, which reaches Indian American families around the U.S.


Why Laws Alone Won’t Stem Hate Violence

In the wake of the North Carolina shootings, the families of the victims and community-based organizations have rightly demanded that they be characterized as hate crimes and prosecuted as such. But hate crimes laws and prosecutions alone cannot stem the hate violence that has targeted Muslims, Arabs, South Asians and Sikhs in the fourteen years since 9/11. That is because the climate of hostility towards these communities exists cannot be dismantled through the justice system alone, and in many ways, national security and immigration policies have reinforced this climate. I wrote about this at Al Jazeera America and provided recommendations on how we might dismantle this climate altogether:

Without systemic solutions and practices that challenge and change the culture and climate of hostility toward Muslim, Arab, Sikh and South Asian communities, efforts to counter hate violence through only legal solutions will not stick…Fostering a climate based on mutual understanding and respect of the multiracial communities we are fast becoming in America will take vigilance from each of us. It starts with a better understanding of one another’s stories, histories and experiences, with the intention of finding common threads and identifying one another’s humanity. Civic, faith, education and business leaders, in partnership with artists and cultural bridge builders, can create spaces and opportunities that allow people to engage in dialogue with one another. We can learn from movements such as #BlackLivesMatter that have allowed us to have honest national conversations about how people of color experience violence and discrimination.

Read more here.


Counter The Narrative of the “Countering Violent Extremism” Framework

On February 16-18, the White House held a national summit on “countering violent extremism” (or CVE). Since it has been implemented by the federal government, CVE has almost exclusively been focused on American Muslim communities. Many advocates around the country responded with harsh criticism of the Summit’s focus and the architecture behind the CVE framework generally.

Over at The Guardian, Linda Sarsour (@lsarsour) and I wrote a piece asking why the federal government did not have a similar focus on other forms of violent extremism such as the rise in rightwing extremist groups. We write:

The threat of right-wing domestic extremism is not far-fetched. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), since the year 2000, the number of hate groups in the United States has increased by 56%; they now include anti-immigrant, anti-LGBT, anti-Muslim and anti-government “Patriot” groups. The federal government too is aware of the threats from these groups. In April 2009, a report by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) on right-wing extremism was leaked and then withdrawn. It revealed the government’s assessment that “white supremacist lone wolves” posed the most significant domestic terrorist threat in the US.

Yet, despite this complicated and growing landscape of domestic right-wing groups, the Obama Administration’s Countering Violent Extremism programs continue to focus on the threat of radicalization in Muslim communities.
Read more here.

More Resources on the CVE framework:

*Basic Information from the Brennan Center for Justice

*Questions about the CVE framework compiled by Darakshan Raja, Washington Peace Center, Dr. Maha Hilal, National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms, and Ramah Kudaimi, Washington Peace Center

*Why civil rights concerns should be addressed: an oped by Hina Shamsi, ACLU

*Why the CVE framework is inherently flawed: an oped by Faiza Patel, Brennan Center

*Linda Sarsour weighs in on the CVE Summit and POTUS’ remarks–  on the Rachel Maddow show

Find tweets about CVE under #CountertheNarrative


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