My dad went on his first American road trip to the South in 1979, from New Hampshire to Mobile, Alabama. This was his first Thanksgiving and the first time his white hosts had seen an Indian man. Before dinner, he was invited to the grocery store and his friend’s father grabbed a rifle off the shelf and placed it in the bed of his truck. This was the South, my dad was told, and others might not like him because of the color of his skin. So he went to the store and faced a few mean stares, but was ignored. Welcome to America.
Indian Americans are lucky. Police aren’t killing us in unprecedented numbers, and government policy isn’t designed to kick us out. Some of the insults hurled my way growing up—sand nigger, camel jockey, raghead—show a lack of understanding of who we are by clumping us with others who are more persecuted. Our history in this nation is not marked by civil rights milestones. Perhaps because of this, we are often seen as soft, a minority that should be pleased with its good position in America.
I thought about this a few months ago at a Donald Trump rally in Chicago. It was as advertised: a white supremacist fever dream, like a hyper-stylized cartoon version of hate. Mobs of white men and women yelled at crowds of young black and Muslim and Mexican protesters who told me they felt like caged animals on display at the zoo. To first-generation Indian Americans like me, Trump is that racist white guy: a villain in a Bollywood movie making life unsafe for those with brown skin. He’s tapped into a fear that despite growing up in this nation, we still don’t belong. And yet, in a campaign dripping with explicit xenophobia, he’s done all this while mostly ignoring us.
“We are from India,” Trump said in Delaware, pretending to be a call center worker in an accent that was actually not that bad, more Amitabh Bachchan than Kwik-E-Mart. Our only other mention came earlier this year when he said that “India is doing great. Nobody talks about it.” Well, yeah. (Likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton was photographed carrying to-go bags of tandoori and chicken makhani, but that doesn’t count.)
If you listen closely, though, Trump’s said some things. He’s proposed a ban on Muslim immigration (10% of Indian Americans are Muslims, and there are 180 million Muslims in India); mocked a Sikh man in a red turban who was kicked out of a rally (“He wasn’t wearing one of those red hats, was he?”); and answered a town hall question about hate speech against religious minorities like Sikh Americans by talking about ISIS. “I was stunned,” Brian Murphy, a police lieutenant who survived a mass shooting at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin despite being hit 15 times, and who asked Trump the question, told me. “It really had nothing to do with the question whatsoever.”
But for a man preoccupied with size, we’re just not big enough. Asian Americans only made up 3% of voters in 2012, and Indian Americans—despite being one of the largest immigration populations, with 3.2 million people (1% of the nation)—only constitute a fraction of that number. Campaigns are also less likely to court citizens who haven’t voted in past elections, and the overwhelming majority of Indian American adults are first-generation immigrants, who vote at a lower rate than second- and third-generation immigrants. And historically, we’ve been overwhelmingly Democratic: A whopping 84% of Indian Americans voted for Obama in 2008.
Still, Indian Americans possess characteristics that would make them natural Republicans: a high level of income (in 2010, the median income was $88,000) and culturally conservative views. A study by the National Asian American Survey after the 2012 election found that “if either major party made significant investments to engage with Asian American and Pacific Islander voters, they could reap significant advantages over the next decade.” (I’m not including the sort-of-real PAC Indian Americans for Trump, whose leaders told me they don’t raise money, are “loose” with membership numbers, and peddle conspiracy theories about Clinton and Huma Abedin being in bed with Pakistan.)
In another study, Asian Americans were pushed to the left by racial micro-aggressions, or harmless statements that implied that they are not true Americans (“You would love my Indian friend!” for example), or when clumped under restrictive legislation with other minorities (like when reminded of a law that requires immigration checks for both Mexicans and Indians). “The Republican Party could try to capitalize on divisions between Asian Americans and other minorities, emphasizing how Democratic policies benefit other groups at their expense,” the paper concluded. “But doing that successfully would require a level of political dexterity that Republicans haven’t shown much of late.” Neil Malhotra, a professor of political economy at Stanford and one of the authors, told me that Republican rhetoric, especially on immigration, makes Indian people feel unwelcome.
Jay Caspian Kang wrote in The New York Times that immigrant populations like us, who believe they are on the “march to whiteness,” “seldom engage in the sort of political advocacy and discourse that might explain, or even defend, our odd, singular and tenuous status as Americans.” As we defend this fragile position as Americans while also finding our own political voice, the illusion that Indian Americans stand squarely on the side of African Americans and Muslims and Mexicans will be challenged. Was Peter Liang, the Chinese American cop who shot an unarmed black man to death, a scapegoat because he was Asian, or was his lack of prison time an injustice? Is keeping ISIS and jihadis out enough of a reason to racially profile Muslims? Is immigration—where Indians have accounted for more than 56% of all H1-B visas, or visas for specialized jobs like science and tech—a common racial justice issue, or are voters held hostage by Democrats fighting to pass legislation for low-skilled immigration?
What does this mean for 2016? Trump is not the man to win any Indian American voters. But since both candidates stand to gain few votes by engaging us nationally, the best political course is to ignore us. As the saying goes, Indians don’t complain, we adjust and assimilate.
Remember, November is not a referendum on racism. If we consider the Trump campaign as not just a means to the presidency, but an end itself, then he has already made his mark. Sure, he’s damaged the way we talk about race in this country. But he’s also accurately displaying the level of racial discourse in America right now. He has shown us so clearly that a huge portion of this country is stuck in 1916. Black people are thugs. Mexicans take jobs and are rapists. Muslims should be kept out, and Sikhs and Indians look like Muslims. Asians are good and obedient.
In the setting of a Make America Great Again rally, this obedience means shutting up and letting the audience soak up Trump’s vision of exclusivity. It means shaving before to look less Middle Eastern, and thinking that Trump supporters would recognize a “harmless” Indian, when I looked every bit as brown as those there to protest. It means, even for a moment, buying into the idea that any hard-earned progress made in this country will be wiped away by standing up against discrimination that doesn’t include me.
For a people who are at once too “white” and whose self-identity crisis is too inconsequential to be visible in the national conversation about race, Trump has done something spectacular. For the first time in my lifetime, at least, the hate my parents warned of has a name. It’s in big letters on a skyscraper on the Chicago River a few dozen miles from where I grew up. It hung outside a high-rise I lived in years ago by the Hudson River—a tiny one-bedroom apartment turned into two by the construction of a wall that cut the living room in half, blocked the windows, and blotted out the sun. It’s a reminder of how my dad felt at that grocery store 37 years ago, and every single slight since. Soon, it might be in the White House.