Poulami Banerji is my younger cousin and an all-around badass. Although only in her early twenties, she works for an USAID contractor, is an avowed intersectional feminist and volunteers for an organisation that provides free tutoring services to students in DC public schools performing below grade level.
But when asked about her feelings regarding the current state of politics, she answered:
“Exhausted, drained, scared, really want this election season to end.”
It’s a common sentiment I’ve heard from most folks of color.
“It can be so exhausting and draining worrying about the ‘system’ and how these rules and regulations and amendments and laws and so on apply to you or don’t—or who they are in favor of and aren’t,” my friend who I’ve known since grad school, Keiana Smith-McDowell explained, “It’s kind of like this…most of what you would consider early politics, you know the writing of the Constitution, etc., all these men who owned slaves and went on to be Presidents—they wrote these words when Black people were considered property, 3/5th of them, etc. How can I consider myself political when this system was built for me not even to understand it—or to be changed when dealing with people of color.”
Although I’m a registered Democrat, and have volunteered for the Hillary campaign and protested at a Trump event, I share my friends’ frustrations and disenchantment with the political parties. I recognise the danger ahead, and the divide growing between us and the white establishment.
WHAT WE’RE UP AGAINST
Critical theorist and attorney, Derrick Bell, believed that race and racism was endemic.
“For years I believed law was the answer, and I still teach law, including civil rights law,” Bell wrote in his famed work Faces at the Bottom of the Well, “Now, though, I’m convinced that racism is a permanent part of the American landscape.”
One could misread Bell’s politics as nihilistic. Rather, I view it as being pragmatic, especially when cognizant of American history.
In political science (the field I’m studying in), there are competing theories about democracy, all of which claim that political parties move to the middle of the ideological spectrum, in an attempt to gain more votes. Essentially, parties want to represent the masses.
Missing from this analysis is the reality that party politics often ignores people of color. Or worse, they are used to appeal to conservative white voters.
In Uneasy Alliances: Race and Party Competition in America, Paul Frymer, a political scientist at Princeton, explained that the national parties have either played into the fears of white Americans about black people, or in the case of Bill Clinton, distanced themselves completely from black communities. Over time, black Americans became “electorally captured”, limited in different eras to either voting for the Republicans or the Democrats.
As for Latino and Asian Americans, the two parties continue to make sporadic appeals to them, causing many not to align themselves with either side. Instead, there are still major portions of the Latino and Asian American electorate that remain undecided, according to research done by social scientists, Hajnal and Lee.
Finally, the forces that consistently opposed civil rights, suffrage, and more egalitarian policies continue to fester and find voice in the political system. For instance, the Tea Party movement (which I would argue has now formed the base for Trump’s support) shares the same level of angst and reactionary perspective as did prior right-wing groups such as the John Birch Society or even the KKK of the 1920s.
In Change They Can’t Believe in: the Tea Party and Reactionary Politics in America, researchers described its supporters as members of “relatively advantaged groups” who “tend to earn more money on average, are less likely to be unemployed, are overwhelmingly white, and predominantly male.” Further, non-Hispanic white Americans, according to Abrajano and Hajnal in White Backlash, favor cutting social services and taxes in states with large Latino populations.
Whiteness still reigns and we, as POC, must not be led to believe that somehow, it’ll fade on its own. What should be evident by now is that what we’re facing are institutions created to oppress us and consequently, elevate positions of whiteness. And those who benefit from the current hierarchy will not let go of their privileges without protest and us demanding a complete dismantling of racism, patriarchy, and corporatised economics.
WHAT’S BEEN LEARNED
Since the settler colonial project began, there has always been resistance. Black Americans who were enslaved persisted to lead rebellions against the plantation. Native Americans fought with whatever they had, managing to hold onto their culture despite attempts by Europeans to completely obliterate them. Even South Asian immigrants during the early 1900s formed radical anti-colonialist groups before they were silenced by the U.S. and British. Time and time again, our ancestors strove for independence, and did all they could to retain some semblance of agency and freedom.
Before the rise of Reagan, civil rights organisations united around an agenda of liberation and the formation of black pride. It took years of hard work and sacrifice for these organisations to start experiencing some positive change. Through sheer resilience, they survived the bombings perpetrated by domestic white terrorists and political elites that condemned them as collateral. In the end, they succeeded by relying on institutions outside the established order, connecting the resources they accumulated among black college students, church members, and SCLC, SNCC, and CORE.
“Their success in doing so enabled insurgents to retain the indigenous resource strength mobilised during the emergent phase of protest activity, even while putting the movement on a more permanent organizational footing,” sociologist and expert on social movement literature, Doug McAdam writes in Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970, adding, “Thus, the indigenous institutions and the resources they supplied—leaders, members, etc.—were not sacrificed in the process of institutionalization. On the contrary, these institutions and resources remained vital to the success of the movement during the early 1960s.”
Protests and non-violent direct-action (i.e. rallies and marches) are effective in applying pressure to the system outside of party politics.
“In the end, racial and ethnic minority political protest has proven an incredible tool for citizens to elicit a response from national government officials,” Daniel Q Gillion concluded in his study on activism and public policy.
Of course, strategies are never perfect and plenty of fellow POC are disconnected and excluded from the process. However, there is a bounty of social science research that speaks to what those of us who are brown and black and yet, perhaps more economically advantaged than our peers, can do to make others believe in themselves as agents of political change. I speak specifically to works such as Mobilizing Inclusion: Transforming the Electorate through Get-Out-the-Vote Campaigns by Bedolla and Michelson or Civic Hopes and Political Realities: Immigrants, Community Organizations, and Political Engagement by Ramakrishnan and Bloemraad.
For this article, I did what I could to understand what friends of mine were thinking because A) I’m tired of writing just about myself, and B) as one of my colleagues in the PhD program at Rutgers, Zainab Alam, reminded:
“For me, the personal is political and politics stems from these very personal acts and ways of interacting with other ideas, individuals and institutions.”
Although Zainab doesn’t consider herself an activist and admits that issues important to her (like foreign policy) won’t necessarily be debated by the political parties, she volunteers for what she describes as “peace building-related NGOS” and for local Democratic candidates.
Similarly, Faizan Wajid, whom I’ve known for over a decade, while not overly enthusiastic expressed his connection to local groups and organizations.
“I have been a member of Amnesty International for about 4 years, and work in public outreach and community improvement with the Muslim Student Association on the UMD campus,” he told me, “I believe it’s critical to help build communities and promote social justice, and to make the playing-field equal for all people(s).”
In opposition to the rising tide of cynicism, racism, and hate, everyone I interviewed recognised that it was still necessary to remain engaged with one another and to our communities.
Even Roshni Bhambhwani, who artfully summarised the current political season as “Total shit,” understood the value of being plugged in. “The politicians are the ones making the decisions that affect our world, whether or not we feel it on a daily basis, and if we are not informed and involved, we cannot let those politicians know that we agree or disagree with their decisions. The Politicians are supposed to represent us, we need to make sure they do,” she said.
POLITICS BEYOND PARTIES
It is important not to romanticise our current political climate. Again, through my interactions with other POC of my millennial generation, whether they be Latino, African American, or Asian American, it’s obvious that we do not feel represented. That most of us are consumed by disappointment and anger.
When I asked Keiana more questions about issues that were important to her, she responded: “Police brutality is at the top of that list. I’m a black woman, my dad is black, my brother, grandfathers, my baby nephew…I worry about these men because it’s been so easy for them not to have a future at the blink of an eye all because these cops are cowards—and somehow the law doesn’t apply to getting justice for these black men being brutally murdered. It’s been so hard and has literally crushed me seeing so many black men and women have their lives taken right before the eyes of the American people.”
Poulami also stated: “I think none of the political parties that are currently recognised have the right set of solutions that can create the world I want to live in or want future generations to live in. Free of capitalism, racism, sexism, patriarchy, and many of the other structural oppressions that all of the existing major political parties not only recognise but play in to.”
Ultimately, there is no magic solution to any of this. My friends and I will still go out and vote for Hillary based on our fear of a Trump presidency. But as we move forward, the strategy of staying Democrat for decades to come is naïve.
Further, the narrative that as people of color we will automatically unite ignores the divisions among us. For example, as a Hindu South Asian American, I’m aware of the anti-black and anti-Muslim attitudes within my community. In order for us to oppose whiteness, toxic masculinity, and rigid class hierarchy, it’s crucial to resolve our own prejudices and biases as well. Otherwise, we will resort to hurting each other for scraps.
Fortunately, more of us are realizing that politics requires a commitment to not merely elections and voting but to one another beyond conventional institutions. After my friends answered the questionnaire I sent them and I read all their answers, I instantly felt hopeful. Their responses were layered with humor, indignation, and yet, empathy.
So, when you think of politics, do not restrict yourself to the ballot. Join a chapter of Black Lives Matter. Fund and spread the word about Standing Rock in North Dakota. Defend a fellow POC being harassed on the subway. Provide a shoulder to cry on when a friend needs you most, on days perhaps when there is news of yet another police shooting.
Or as my cousin wrote when I asked what it is we should do:
“Fight the power and organise.”
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Sudip Bhattacharya is a PhD student in Political Science at Rutgers University in New Jersey, where he focuses on race and identity in American politics. He is also a staff writer for AsAm news, which concentrates on Asian Americans in the U.S.
Before, he worked as a full-time journalist, writing articles for CNN Politics, the Washington City Paper, Lancaster Newspapers, The Daily Gazette (Schenectady), the Jersey Journal, and The Aerogram (a website dedicated to South Asian American issues). You can reach him @ResistRun on Twitter.