A Brown Tuesday

A look at all-things South Asian American during this historic — and heated — Election 2020.

Issue #4

Hi all —

2008 and 2016, in particular, felt like they were each “the election of our lifetime.” But today’s 2020 election feels mountains larger. We are in the middle of an unprecedented public health crisis and pandemic, a growing climate crisis, an economic recession, an overdue reckoning on race and the serious choice between two different visions for how the United States addresses those issues at the national level.

And locally, all across the country, a record number of Asian American candidates are running for office — from the U.S. Senate and House to state legislatures.

This election edition of the Red, White and Brown newsletter features links to the great reporting of folks all across the country, as voters chart America’s path forward. For example, TIME Magazine’s Anna Purna Kambhampaty wrote an important story about mail-in voting challenges for some in AAPI communities.

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Thanks for joining the conversation,

Vignesh Ramachandran (@VigneshR)
Co-founder of Red, White and Brown Media


Brown Politics

Asian Americans Are Not a Monolith
Asian American communities are the fastest-growing racial or ethnic electorate in the United States. It’s a fact I write in articles and tweets way too often — but it’s important. AAPI communities are not a monolith and are socioeconomically and culturally very diverse. Hua Hsu wrote a smart piece in The New Yorker about the booming political power of AAPI communities: “Asian Americans tend not to identify strongly with either of the major parties: nearly two in five Asian American voters aren’t registered as either a Democrat or a Republican. They are the mythical ‘undecided voters’—or, in these rigidly partisan times, they remain persuadable.” While Indian Americans are leaning Democrat in 2020, Vietnamese Americans are traditionally more Republican (though there’s a growing generational divide).

As NBC Asian America reported, about a third of registered AAPI voters (more than two million people), live in competitive swing states and have key power in determining outcomes.

Since AAPI communities are so diverse, we need more data disaggregation to better understand the views and nuances of Indians vs. Chinese vs. Japanese vs. Filipinos, etc. (AAPI Data’s voter surveys are among the most interesting for any fellow data nerds.)

ALSO: Many major news organizations have been reporting something many of us know already — but I’m glad it’s getting the attention: Indian Americans are only about 1% of the population but have a rapidly growing and powerful influence in our political system. Check out interesting pieces that dive deeper in Foreign Policy and on NPR’s “Morning Edition.”

The Fake News of WhatsApp
Please, please be careful what you forward on Facebook-owned WhatsApp. Paresh Dave reports for Reuters on the problematic challenge of misinformation being shared on WhatsApp chats and groups, which are not public or moderated. The grassroots group South Asians for Biden has a five-member team that is joining WhatsApp groups to help tackle fake news with rebuttal graphics and texts. It’s a major issue, considering WhatsApp has two billion users and studies suggest fake news meddled with voters during the 2016 election. Nitish Pahwa also reported in Slate about memes and messages shared across Indian American groups that are sometimes anti-Black, Islamophobic or just flat-out false. The more sensational a news item sounds, the more skeptical you should be, media expert Dan Gillmor had told me for a 2018 ProPublica article about identifying fake news.

The Trump Uncles of New Jersey
Hindu Americans in New Jersey (and other parts of the nation)  were vocal, well-funded and helped create attention for Donald Trump in 2016. Trump then said he was a “big fan of Hindu” at an Edison charity event that year. But as Josh Axelrod for NJ Advance Media reports, it’s not clear the same momentum in New Jersey is happening this year. Axelrod cites the new Indian American Attitudes Survey which found 72% of those polled planned to vote for Joe Biden; 22% for Trump. (Though another poll, APIA Vote, found 28% would vote Trump, 65% for Biden.)

However you slice or dice it, Indian Americans are more likely to vote for Biden compared to any other Asian sub-group (more than Filipino, Japanese, Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese Americans). Reena Shah reports in The American Prospect that even several supporters of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi — a nationalist like Trump — are still Biden fans. “Trump is a blind nationalist while Modi is a compassionate nationalist,” claimed a Texas surgeon who supports Modi and is voting Biden-Harris, in The American Prospect.

Hindu Nationalism’s American Influence
There are some Indian Americans who claim one is “Hinduphobic” if they reject Hindu nationalism. It’s far more nuanced than that.

Sonia Paul’s smart piece in Politico reveals evidence of what many in our community are afraid to admit: Hindu nationalism — or Hindutva — is playing an increasing role in American politics. The article tells the story through the lens of Rep. Ro Khanna (D-California), whose district is the only Asian-majority congressional district in the continental U.S., and how he has to grapple between his identity and condemning Hindutva — and thus angering some Indian American constituents. A key line in the story: “Support for Hindutva in the United States doesn’t necessarily fall along the Democratic-Republican spectrum.” Nitish Pahwa in Slate reports about Hindu nationalist ties in people connected to Democrat Sri Preston Kulkarni, who is running a closely watched campaign for a key House seat in Texas (more below).

Nikki and Donald
Of course the summertime rumors that Trump would dump Vice President Mike Pence for former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley were wrong. But Haley continues to be a strong surrogate for the Trump campaign. Reena Bhardwaj reports for Asian News International how Haley spoke at an “Indian Voices for Trump” event addressing Indian Americans about Trump’s stances on China and cuts to Pakistan financial aid — issues that especially appease some in the first-generation. (P.S. I’m calling it now: No matter who wins today, putting on my pundit hat, I bet 2024 will be Harris vs. Haley, possibly with Julián Castro and Marco Rubio as respective running mates.)

Mindy and Kamala
A year ago when Sen. Kamala Harris (D-California) was running for president, actor Mindy Kaling and Harris appeared in a campaign video together making masala dosas at Kaling’s house. While the video was cringeworthy at times, it got people talking about South Asian American representation in politics. Now in our 2020 pandemic lives, the duo are back for another video. Harris still maintains Kaling’s dosas didn’t taste bad:

Brown Celebs Want You to Vote (Well, for Biden-Harris)
Kaling isn’t the only South Asian American celebrity getting involved in politics this year. In a Biden-Harris video for Indian Americans, Brown celebrities including Padma Lakshmi, Nik Dodani, Aasif Mandvi, Aparna Nancherla, Ravi Patel and Sakina Jaffrey appear.

Shyamala Aunty
Those who raise us shape our lives — whether it’s parents, grandparents, siblings, other relatives or family friends. Rikha Sharma Rani writes for The Atlantic about Harris’ Indian mother Shyamala Gopalan who “spent much of her life fitting in where she wasn’t supposed to.” Gopalan left India in 1958 for graduate school at UC Berkeley — a few years before the landmark Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 triggered the first sizable generational wave of Indian Americans to the United States (my own parents included!). Gopalan was quite the pioneer, getting involved in civil rights activism and becoming a breast cancer researcher. And whatever people say, Gopalan’s Chennai roots are getting some folks to vote.

The Chitthi Brigade
During the Democratic National Convention in August, Harris talked about “family is my uncles, my aunts, and my chitthis.” Chitthi is the Tamil word for a person’s mother’s younger sister (hence, one’s younger aunt). Arun Venugopal of WNYC reports on how that simple word triggered a flurry of responses across social media, including two New York State aunties who decided to create “The Chitthi Brigade.” They said the group — which operates only on WhatsApp — has serious political conversations about voting and issues. Even after the election, the brigade plans to continue work around climate change and gun control.

Biden’s (Surprising) Op-Ed
Biden — or more likely his team — wrote a bylined op-ed in the California-based diaspora publication India West that is targeted to the Indian American community. The op-ed itself isn’t surprising; the placement in a diaspora newspaper is surprising because it’s hyper-targeted, but not high-profile, and I wonder the backstory of how they made this happen.

A Blue (and Brown) Texas?
Will Texas go Democrat this election’ is the question every pundit is asking. Democrat Sri Preston Kulkarni’s campaign has been mired in some controversy, but he is an emerging Democrat to watch running for Congress. Kulkarni, whose father was Indian and mother has strong ancestral ties to Houston, is running to represent Texas’ 22nd Congressional District in the Houston metro area. Kulkarni is up against Republican Troy Nehls, and they’re both battling for a seat held by Republican Rep. Pete Olson since 2009. (Fun fact — Kulkarni, a former Foreign service officer, speaks six languages: English, Spanish, Chinese, Hindi, Hebrew and Russian — which I can imagine is an advantage in Houston, often called the most diverse city in the nation.) Iranian American Sima Ladjevardian, who is running for Texas’ 2nd Congressional District, is another to watch.

Look at the early turnout in Texas — including the Asian surge:

Hate Toward Asian Americans During Pandemic
Rhetoric matters. We know Trump’s and other public official’s uses of the terms “China virus,” “China plague” or “kung flu” to describe COVID have fueled a spike in anti-Asian hate crimes during the coronavirus pandemic. Rhetoric like that leads to consequences, and here are five recent stories that explain the impacts in communities across America:

  1. “Study reveals why some blame Asian Americans for COVID-19” (Ohio State News)

  2. “'Hopefully our dream is not broken.' Asian American businesses hit especially hard during pandemic” (CNN)

  3. “Democratic Facebook ads tell users who voted against condemning anti-Asian racism” (Axios)

  4. “Who are the Asian Americans still voting for Trump in spite of his 'China virus' rhetoric?” (NBC Asian America)

  5. “What it’s like for Asian American candidates during a pandemic marked by racism” (NPR)


Brown People

  • Sabrina Singh is only 32 and is the first Indian American press secretary of a major U.S. vice presidential candidate. Singh has been Harris’ press secretary since August and previously worked for Sen. Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) and Michael Bloomberg. ThePrint

  • Sunil Freeman is running for Vice President of the United States under the Party for Socialism and Liberation. Harris isn’t the only Indian American vying for VP. The American Bazaar

  • Sharmistha Barai and Satish Kartan are a California couple who were convicted last year on forced labor charges after abusing foreign-born housekeepers in their Stockton home. Both have been sentenced to more than 15 years in prison for their crimes. The Record and The Tribune

  • Sonia Syngal, who was born in India and later moved to Canada and the U.S., took over as clothing retailer Gap’s CEO this year. As The Wall Street Journal reports, Syngal has a tough ship to steer at Gap. She used to be CEO at sister brand Old Navy and previously worked for Sun Microsystems and Ford.

  • The Jikaria Sisters in New York — Omi, Rish and Aash — have more than 580,000 followers on TikTok. They’ve become viral sensations for their fusion dance videos, which are representative of both their South Asian and American identities. SheThePeople

  • Deepa Shivaram, NBC News’ campaign embed following Harris, was featured in Harper’s Bazaar as part of a story about campaign reporters covering 2020 amid the coronavirus pandemic. (Political wonks: I highly recommend following Shivaram’s newsy Twitter account.) Harper’s Bazaar


Watercooler Conversations

Names are inherently part of our identities. “The Daily Show’s” Trevor Noah spoke with Harris about this, after Sen. David Perdue (R-Georgia) mocked her first name:

For voters who are mysteriously still undecided at this point, The New York Times’ Sopan Deb puts it well:


WhatsApp Forward of the Week

Talented Bay Area-based Indian classical vocalist Roopa Mahadevan has produced a hilarious parody video that mashes Netflix’s “Indian Matchmaking” with voters’ choice between Trump and Biden. Amrika must make a decision! (h/t Meghna Rao)

(Editor’s note: As a journalistic outlet, Red, White and Brown Media is nonpartisan, does not endorse candidates and the opinions reflected in this video are those of its creators and not Red, White and Brown.)

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Red, White and Brown first launched on Medium back in 2016 before the previous presidential election and was re-focused in 2018 with renewed vigor to spark conversations about culture and politics in the United States through the lens of South Asian American race and identity. Now in 2020, please tell your friends and family to subscribe to this newsletter and follow the latest posts on Medium.

Follow @VigneshR on Twitter.