Author, activist, attorney, organizer: These are just a few of Deepa Iyer’s job titles. An immigrant from India, Iyer has been working on civil and immigrant issues in the United States for the past 16 years, particularly advocating for South Asian communities through her leadership as the director of South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT). There, she has stood as a witness to the backlash experienced in South Asian, Muslim, Arab and Sikh communities after 9/11.
In her book “We Too Sing America: South Asian, Arab, Muslim and Sikh Immigrants Shape Our Multiracial Future” (New Press, $25.95), Iyer ties together the lived experiences of many people with background information on policies that have significantly impacted these communities. She emphasizes the need for a multicultural effort to effect change for all communities of color.
Real Change had the opportunity to speak with Iyer about her efforts to help bridge the gap of understanding and dismantle the dangerous climate that has sprung up in a post-9/11 America.
Would you consider this a watershed moment in terms of discriminatory treatment toward these communities?
Certainly our communities of South Asian, Muslim, Arab and Sikh immigrants have experienced discrimination well before 9/11. Everything from anti-Asian riots that occurred at the turn of the 20th century that also targeted Indian immigrants, for example, or hate violence that Arab communities suffered as a result of wars in the Middle East that the United States was engaged in. It isn’t a new phenomenon in terms of experience with discrimination, inequity and injustice. But certainly it was a turning point in the community in terms of the unprecedented level and scope of discrimination.
I write in the book that in the post-9/11 environment there are three different forces that have created sort of a climate of suspicion and fear about these communities: We had misleading media narratives that basically conflated people from these communities as being involved with terrorist activities; we had government policies around profiling and surveillance of these communities that also kind of built upon this drumbeat of suspicion; and thirdly, we had individual acts of violence and discrimination that occurred as well.
What has it been like to be a part of South Asian, Arab, Muslim communities since 9/11? How do you balance retelling other people’s stories while having your own experience as well?
I think often times the narratives in our communities don’t get told, and either they are told about us, but not necessarily by us, or with our voices in mind. For me, I think a core aspect of community-building includes being able to lift up and have communities speak for themselves. That’s why the book is so focused on profiles of community members and activists, and campaigns that they have taken part of, so there’s a lot of policy language in the book, but it’s really grounded in the experience and voices of community members, especially young people. Being able to tell these stories is a critical way of building community as well.
Do you think enough is being done to address the impacts that hate crimes and racism have on the psyche of these communities?
No, I don’t. I think we need to be doing a lot more to address the “othering” of these communities and, quite honestly, I think that we can see how much work there is to do just in the last few weeks. There has been a tremendous amount of backlash directed at these communities in wake of the horrific attacks in Paris. I think that we have to pay closer attention to how those three forces that I mentioned earlier are working to create this climate.
There’s certainly been a lot of good progress as well. For example, the community organizing and infrastructure that many of these communities have been able to build since 9/11 has been important. The ability to disrupt and intervene media narratives has been important. I think more people in the United States are aware of how these issues are affecting the psyche of these communities as well. I do think there have been some bright spots.
But at the same time, what we really need to push on [are issues] around structural racism and structural anti-Muslim sentiment that show up in terms of government policies or in terms of the xenophobic, political rhetoric where you have elected leaders or people running for office talking about registering Muslims or surveilling Muslim neighborhoods. I think there has been some important cultural shift in terms of the narrative in these communities, but we have a lot of work still to do around really addressing the systemic and institutional ways that the othering is occurring, primarily from the standpoint of government.
Statistically, more people have been killed in the United States by white Americans rather than jihadists since 9/11. Why do you think there’s this narrative of terrorism as coming only from a certain pocket of the world?
As you mentioned, the real threat to all Americans is the rise of right-wing, domestic white supremacist groups. There is data on that, and people are aware of that in the government. But there isn’t the sort of urgency in response that we should be seeing from government actors, in particular around the threats.
Why is the threat more focused on Muslims, Arabs and South Asian communities? Because I think that historically we have othered different communities of color, and this is sort of the new community of color that is under scrutiny. We’re missing, in many ways, addressing the real issue because we’re so focused on these communities and not really realizing the impact on civil liberties and constitutional rights. The United States is implementing a war on terror and that has domestic implications. The war on terror: The target of that looks like someone from South Asia or the Middle East and is Muslim. So there is a lot of resources and energy that have been put into creating and manufacturing this narrative.
We really need to start focusing in on the threats that we are seeing in this country, particularly in organized hate groups that are responding to the demographic changes in the United States and the migration into the United States. That’s really what we need to focus on instead of continually engaging in the cycle of suspicion and fear of Muslim communities and those who are perceived to be Muslim.
What can be done immediately, on a policy level and beyond, to put a stop to the hate crimes, domestic terrorist threats and the xenophobic rhetoric we’re seeing? Particularly on the heels of the Paris attacks.
First, I think there’s a messaging issue that a lot of people have been bringing up. When you have someone like a Dylan Roof — who killed African Americans in a church in Charleston, S. C., `earlier this year — when you have people like that who belong to white supremacist groups and are affiliated with them, there is this tendency from a messaging standpoint to call them a loner or someone who might be mentally disturbed. We don’t use words like domestic terrorism to actually describe and characterize events like that. However, we do when someone is a person of color or Muslim, South Asian or Arab. I think from a messaging standpoint, we shouldn’t be categorizing people differently for their acts of criminality based on their religion, their belief or their country of origin. That’s an important disruption and intervention we should all be making.
From a policy standpoint, in the book I talk a bit about a program that the Obama administration has been implementing called Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) that looks at threats of violent extremists in this country. This particular program has for the most part had an exclusive focus on the Muslim community, again continuing that cycle of fear and stigmatization of those communities. But if a program like that actually expanded to look at that of domestic right-wing, organized hate groups, that would be one policy intervention that could be made.
More broadly, in the book I talk about a lot of policies we implement in this country on the basis of national security, like ethnic mapping of particular neighborhoods that our communities have been caught up in lately, as well as surveillance policies. The setup of joint-terrorism task forces all around the country, where state, local and federal law enforcement are working together to identify “suspicious” behavior. Many of these policies don’t have a lot of civil rights safeguards put into them. They basically use immigration laws as well in order to detain and deport many of the people that they are surveilling, watching and interrogating. We need to put a stop to those sorts of policies and the way in which the government is increasing its power and resources to extend its policies into these communities.
It’s important to consider communities of color, immigrants and refugees when talking about policy, but in your book you also specifically focus on young activists within these communities. Why the distinction?
The young people that I talk about in the book really are at the frontlines of organizing and advocating on behalf of their communities, and I believe their experiences need to be lifted up, and we can learn a lot from the way they are doing their work. Many of the people I speak about in the book are really working and organizing along intersectional identities and intersectional lines. For example, there’s a chapter on undocumented youth, and I talk about a number of undocumented young people who are also queer. They recognize and acknowledge how their multiple identities [are impacted] by government policies around immigration. These young people are able to draw linkages to other movements to change in this country. In the book, I talk about the movement for black lives, the undocumented Dreamer movement [that advocates for granting undocumented immigrants conditional, and eventually permanent, residency status]. These are all ways in which young people are able to draw these links with other young people in these movements.
It seems to me there’s still hope, and you touch on that by bringing up solidarity of multicultural activists. Why is it important to collectively navigate the anti-racism within black and brown communities?
I talk a lot about the importance of South Asian, Arab, Muslim immigrant communities to dismantle the racial ladder that exists in this country, where black people have been placed at the bottom and whites are at the top. I focus specifically on South Asians because I think South Asians are vulnerable to being used as a racial wedge, and [they have the] opportunity to climb the ladder and aspire to honorary whiteness. Part of what the book talks about is a call to action to the communities: We have to be in the practice of dismantling the racial ladder all together, and that includes understanding the role of white supremacy and anti-black racism, which is entrenched in many of the systemic and cultural narratives and policies of this country. Having that analysis and framework is critical.
From there, the next step is working to understand how our own communities have been affected by injustice and inequity, and also working within our communities to address anti-black racism and implicit biases that our own community holds toward black people. That’s also an important aspect of multiracial solidarity and then, the next natural extension from there is to build across communities of color or immigrant communities, because many of the ways in which we are affected have similar roots in white supremacy and anti-black racism.
For example, the system of law enforcement in this country: It targets black people in terms of the criminal justice system and the systems of incarceration; it targets Latinos and Southeast Asians in terms of [the] detention and deportation system; it targets South Asians, Muslims and Arabs in terms of surveillance. The outcomes and ways in which our communities are affected at the end of the day look similar. How can we understand how the system and institutions play a similar role in our communities, and how do we intervene and disrupt that by working together?
You’re sparking an opportunity for dialogue with this book, with the “race talks,” that includes information on how to speak about some tough issues. Can you tell us a bit more about these, and why you felt it was important to include in “We Too Sing America?”
Generally speaking, Americans have a hard time talking about race and immigration and Islamophobia. But I think it’s really important to lean into some of those messy conversations and dialogues, and I’m hoping the book can be a conversation-starter because it places different sorts of communities at the center. And it’s happening: I know of book clubs that are taking up this book and using it as a conversation-starter to better understand how these particular communities are being affected by racism in the last 14 years. So I’m hoping that these race talks will be a start, but I also think that we need to do more: We need to take action.
There are ways in which people have been telling me how they plan to take action, so it ranges from teachers and educators wanting to include in their curricula information about these communities or the impact of 9/11 on these communities. It includes everyday people saying they’re going to have a hard conversation with their family members about anti-blackness and how to recognize and address it, to people who want to think about connecting with their elected leaders in terms of the passage of affirmative policies that affect these communities. The first step is to have these race talks and to understand what our individual points of entry are into what the book talks about and how these communities have been affected. But I think it’s also about the next steps: What do we do within our own communities, workplaces, neighborhoods and the like?