In-Transit: It’s time for more Indian American representation in politics

Nayanika Kapoor | Daily Trojan

Last Tuesday marked the long-awaited triumph of different identities being welcomed into the political system. For the first time in a long time, it felt like the country was finally celebrating diversity, rather than shying away from it. People emerged from the shadows and even politically apathetic citizens rallied to elect trusted civil servants, and to show those in power that their harmful rhetoric will not be tolerated. Among those who led the resistance against the current administration were Danica Roem, the only openly transgender person serving in a state legislature; Andrea Jenkins as the first transgender African American to be elected to office in Minneapolis; Justin Fairfax, a black Democrat elected as  lieutenant governor in Virginia; and several others. But one victory hit close to my heart: the Indian American Sikh mayor elected in Hoboken, N.J. After being targeted with racist ads, Ravi Bhalla’s victory embodied the values that seem to be commonly forgotten in the Trump era, where white supremacists, hate crimes and exclusionary policy seem to run rampant.

As a millennial studying journalism and politics, it is safe to say that Indian Americans don’t really fit the mold of a typical political candidate. I’ve seen several representations of Indians as IT assistants in an office, or 7-Eleven owners, but I rarely hear about Indians in law or politics — whether in the media or in real life. The two that I grew up with and now hear about most often, Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley, neither appeal to the Indian American communities nor accurately represent my political beliefs. It is frustrating, to say the least, to feel like there is no space for you in the industry of your choice. Indian Americans are a rapidly growing demographic and greatly successful in the United States, but are underrepresented in several fields.

There are currently five Indian American representatives in Congress. Kamala Harris, Ami Bera and Ro Khanna — all representing California, which contains 20 percent of the Indian population in the United States. Outside of California, Raja Krishnamoorthi holds a congressional seat in Illinois and Pramila Jayapal in Washington. Unfortunately, most of these representatives tend not to appeal to the Indian American community in the same way that other minorities represent their community’s interests. I’ve noticed that in my community, we have great pride in the few Indian American politicians who hold elected office, regardless of political stance, but unfortunately, this admiration seldom translates into action. Rarely do Indian Americans phone-bank for their candidates, work on the campaign or even show up at the polls. The Asian American population in general has a serious issue with voter turnout. According to Pew Research. Asian-American voter turnout was 31 percent in 2010, less than both African American voters at 44 percent and white voters at 49 percent.

Art by Shideh Ghandeharizadeh | Daily Trojan

If Indian American constituents felt like their vote made an impact and affected policy decisions, I believe that a far larger portion of the population would make the effort to vote. As one of the most highly educated minorities in the United States, Indian Americans are aware of political issues, well-educated on them and discuss them often. It’s only in the actual “showing-up” that we fall short.

Another problem within Asian communities, which tend to have a higher median income, is that Asian Americans believe the current American system has worked for them, so they don’t need to engage in the political system. Incidents of racism and inequality are seen as a “price to pay” for their relative success in the United States and the community genuinely believes that none of it is going to change — so what’s the point in trying? The “pick yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality prevalent in this culture contributes to its political apathy.

I’ve often been frustrated by the lack of empathy toward social issues I’ve observed in my community. Indian Americans and Asians in general, do not join the forces when it comes to issues that affect other minorities, and trying to get my community to engage has been an uphill battle, to say the least. But then again, why would they? Because the political system ignores them, they hide.

I hope that in the future, Indian American youth like myself don’t feel alienated when they decide that they want to pursue careers in law and public policy. Indian Americans aren’t only necessary in elected office — they are necessary in staffing positions, as policymakers and as lawyers. Having a representative like Harris, even if she might not strongly identify with my community, has allowed me to feel like I might finally have a place making it in the field of my choice. In the next election cycle, I hope to see a shift both within the community and outside that makes us feel like our voices are valuable and inspires more political participation. Tuesday was a wonderful first step, but we have a long, long way to go. 

Nayanika Kapoor is a sophomore majoring in journalism and political economy. Her column, “In-Transit,” runs every other Friday.