These past few weeks have been gut-wrenching for African Americans and other communities of conscience. The execution of black men and forgotten black women by white police officers, and the failure of justice first reemerging in Ferguson and now in New York City, have poured salt into the festering wound of systemic racism that has marred America's history.
They have also been painful for me to watch as an Indian-American immigrant who was brought to this country as a child. This is now my adopted country. Although I was not born here, I found my voice here, found the music of my childhood here, and fell in love here. America is now home in ways that India can never be.
And yet, I cannot be at home in this nation. How can I, in a land where my white brethren routinely kill my black brothers and sisters? Watching this bloodletting compels me to ask what are the obligations of those who are neither black nor white in this fratricidal country? Should we stay out of the fray, mindful of the marginality that comes to many of us because of our status as immigrants?
As a Christian, I am guided by the prophet Jeremiah's words to Judah's exiles in Babylon: "Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon ... Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare."
If God calls an exilic people to work for the well being of their captors, then I too am bound to work for the welfare of this land. But how can this country be well so long as this centuries old racial divide violates the American body politic? Those of us of other hues must make labor with African Americans in order to free America from its captivity to white supremacy.
This country has been largely kind to South Asians in ways that it has never been to its black citizens. African Americans have been enslaved, tortured, lynched and now criminalized, victimized by the New Jim Crow prison-industrial complex, and shot dead by police at 21 times the rate that whites are.
After 9/11, Muslim communities came under suspicion and have been subjected to aggressive policing. After 9/11, Sikhs have been violated by hate crimes and even by mass murder as in the case of the Oak Creek Gurdwara shooting. The reach of white supremacy is long, and South Asians too have felt its sting.
But there can be no question of symmetry; any suggestion of equivalence between the sufferings of South Asians and African Americans would be invidious. After all, agents of the state routinely execute African Americans whereas Sikh Americans have been killed by isolated white supremacists.
Over recent years, I have watched as some have held up the success of the Indian American community to say that the United States is a land of opportunity in which anyone, regardless of race, can make it. The point of this discourse is explicit: see, South Asians have made it here so blacks have only themselves to blame for their own predicament.
When South Asians like Dinesh D'Sousa speak in this fashion, they accept the status of "honorary white" and its attendant privileges; this status is offered on the condition that we keep silent about race and accept our compliant role as a "model minority." Some of the most successful members of the Indian community have accepted this devil's bargain -Governors Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley, for example - and have been handsomely rewarded. The best that Governor Jindal can spout after Ferguson is the stale and deadly rhetoric of color-blindness and victim blaming:
"A young man is dead - this situation is truly a tragedy and our hearts go out to his family ... Some have used this as an excuse for lawlessness, arson and destroying property, but that is not the answer ... I do not care what pigmentation anyone's skin is. Justice is color blind, God is color blind, and I believe we all should be color blind."
To talk about God's color-blindness and his in a country that kills according to color is an exercise in complicity.
South Asians of conscience have a special obligation to speak out when we see uniformed officers snuff out black lives without consequence. Our histories are interlinked because African-Americans and Indians have fought together to forge a global nonviolent struggle to liberate those that W.E.B. Du Bois called the "darker races of the earth."
The pain of the African-American community should bring South Asians of conscience to grief, frustration and rage, not least because we know we are in this country because our black brothers and sisters marched, fought and died to make this country a more just and inclusive nation. The Civil Rights Act passed in 1964, and the Immigration and Nationality Act passed in 1965. The latter Act struck down race-based immigration quotas that prevented Asians from entering the United States. Without the work of Rosa Parks, Bayard Rustin, James Lawson, Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker and Martin Luther King, Jr., without Montgomery and Selma, our communities of color would not be here. The struggles that made 1964 possible also made 1965 possible.
The Civil Rights Movement was itself the fruit of the shared spiritual yearnings of African-Americans and Indians. Therefore, South Asian immigrants are under historical, moral and spiritual obligations to refuse offers of white privilege and join in solidarity with African-Americans. We must remember the long conversation between W.E.B. Du Bois, Benjamin Mays, Howard and Sue Bailey Thurman, Mordecai Johnson and B.R. Ambedkar and Mahatma Gandhi that sought to bind together our peoples in a common struggle for justice in India and the United States.
Next semester, Cornel West and I will co-teach a course on Gandhi and King at Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York. The course will explore the transmission of ideas and energies and the long enduring bond between the United States and India, between African Americans and Indians. That connection includes what Gandhi learned from American abolitionists and Quakers through Tolstoy, who learned about the promise of nonviolence in part by a close study of the American scene.
When an African American delegation led by Howard Thurman and his wife Sue Baily Thurman visited Gandhi, Gandhi famously and prophetically said to Dr. Thurman, "It may be through the Negroes that the unadulterated message of nonviolence will be delivered to the world." We seek by our work to advance Gandhi's hope.
We are also committed to this course because we want to learn again with our courageous, justice-seeking students about the transformative power of radical and disruptive nonviolent resistance, a power that young black leaders are demonstrating again in the streets of Ferguson. We believe strongly that South Asian Americans and African-Americans must bind ourselves together to bring the promise of nonviolent resistance to bear on the work of healing the American soul of the cancer of racism.