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Race and Beyond: Upping the Presence of South Asian Americans on the Political Stage

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SOURCE: Center for American Progress

Samir Paul, one of the inaugural fellows in the Center for American Progress’s Leadership Institute, with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

My friend Samir Paul is a first-generation American, born of parents who immigrated to the United States in 1982. “Like so many others, my parents came to this country from North India with two suitcases, a newborn baby [his older brother, Jacob], $73, and a dream,” Samir explains.

Over the course of one generation, Samir’s parents—his father, an executive at IBM Research who came to this country with a doctorate in engineering, and his mother, a public health analyst who trained in India as a physician—clawed their way into this nation’s middle class. But getting there wasn’t easy.

“My parents had no money, no social supports, and no experience with American ways,” Samir said. But in just one generation, the Pauls sent Samir to Harvard and Jacob, now a Washington attorney, to Yale.

That was a generation ago. Today, according to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, Asian Americans, such as Samir’s family, “represent the highest-income, best-educated and fastest-growing racial group in the United States.”

I got to know Samir as one of the inaugural fellows in the Center for American Progress’s Leadership Institute. He has just completed his tenure with Teach for America as an inner-city Washington high school math teacher. He currently works as a field organizer with the Obama campaign in Wisconsin, a real-world learning opportunity in politics for him as he prepares to enter the New York University School of Law in the fall of 2013.

While the Pauls’ story may sound like a prototypical immigrant-in-America success story, Samir refrains from embracing this notion. Despite rapid population growth and economic affluence among many Asian Americans (and Indian Americans, in particular), Samir frets over South Asian Americans’ nearly nonexistent representation in U.S. politics.

“Maryland, my home state, has one of America’s largest concentrations of affluent, highly educated South Asians, but the Old Line State is served by exactly zero state senators of Indo-Pak descent,” he said. “Just a few hours north on I-95, district boundaries divide core concentrations of the South Asian American community in New York, shutting us out of the state legislature. And Edison, New Jersey, has so many Indians that it’s practically a visit to the motherland, but its entire delegation to the state legislature is white.

“Where are all the South Asians in leadership?” he asked.

It’s a great question, one that defies simple answers and one that Samir is striving to resolve. For every Neera Tanden, who is President of the Center for American Progress, there are hundreds if not thousands of other South Asian Americans who are on the sidelines. “In the decade since September 11 and its aftermath, my political consciousness has awakened,” he said. “Each election cycle has brought some small measure of progress as I’ve waited for more people who look like me to take elected office.”

In a series of conversations over the past year, Samir has helped me understand a dimension to the United States’ racial and melting pot ideal to which, frankly, I hadn’t paid close enough attention. As the Pew study makes clear, Asian Americans trace their origins to dozens of countries in the Far East, Southeast Asia, and the Indian subcontinent. But each national subgroup has “its own unique history, culture, language, religious beliefs, economic and demographic traits, social and political values, and pathways to America.” Generalizations and stereotypes simply fail to capture the complexity of Asian American experiences. And collective political power in the United States continues to escape their communities.

Samir explained to me that there is a double-edged sword both within and outside his Indian family and community, which can emphasize academic success but not exposure to U.S. politics. Samir said that within his family specifically, there has been an expectation of academic success, which drove him and his brother to excel in their studies. In part, it also directed him to Teach for America, where he hoped “to equip my classes with the knowledge and skills they’ll need to deliver their city from its hidden depression.”

But Samir feels piecemeal efforts are less than sufficient. “The work of fixing urban education often seems crushingly futile, like mending a pocket watch while riding a roller coaster,” he said. “Thousands of tiny, moving parts have to come together perfectly, or we just thrash about hopelessly frozen in time with the same apparent problem.”

The notion of Asian Americans as the model minority is equally frustrating. Material wealth and high academic achievement are all well and good, but in the United States something else matters just as much: political representation.

“Political power does not directly reward objective success, such as credentials, grades, meritocratic dominance, so it doesn’t draw risk-averse, achievement-minded Asian American immigrants,” Samir speculated. “But I think we’re learning as a people, and I know I’m learning as an individual, that my people will never cross the threshold into full representation unless we embrace the fuzzy, subjective, and unpredictable nature of public leadership.”

This is Samir’s calling, his cause, and his crusade.

“As a brown-skinned man with a beard and a foreign-sounding name, I am sensitive to the dynamics governing the treatment of people who share my background and appearance,” Samir said with a broad smile breaking his face. “Taking a seat at the table of public power secures a people’s future in a country. South Asians, like me, are just now beginning to claim our place.”

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.

To speak with our experts on this topic, please contact:

Print: Katie Peters (economy, education, poverty, Half in Ten Education Fund, women's issues)
202.741.6285 or kpeters@americanprogress.org

Print: Tom Caiazza (foreign policy, health care, LGBT issues, gun-violence prevention, the National Security Agency)
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Print: Chelsea Kiene (energy and environment, Legal Progress, higher education)
202.478.5328 or ckiene@americanprogress.org

Spanish-language and ethnic media: Tanya Arditi
202.741.6258 or tarditi@americanprogress.org

TV: Rachel Rosen
202.483.2675 or rrosen@americanprogress.org

Radio: Chelsea Kiene
202.478.5328 or ckiene@americanprogress.org

 

This is part of a regular column: Race and Beyond

For more from the same column, click here