Eboo Patel is the author of the books “Acts of Faith” and “Sacred Ground.”
One year after 9/11, the Justice Department established the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System. NSEERS required non-immigrant (meaning present in the United States with temporary papers) males 16 years of age or older to report regularly to the government about their whereabouts and activities. A new, if intrusive, way of regulating immigration? Not if you consider that it applied to people from only 25 countries, almost all of which have significant Muslim populations. Of the 83,000 men who complied, 13,000 were placed in deportation proceedings. Over a third of those were of Pakistani descent.
After the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, several U.S. presidential candidates indicated that they would happily implement similar programs.
Deepa Iyer is not afraid to call NSEERS by its true name: racist profiling. In her powerful book “We Too Sing America,” Iyer links government programs like NSEERS to the overt Islamophobia of mosque protests and the massacre at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis., creating a broader narrative about the experience of South Asian, Arab, Muslim and Sikh immigrant communities in post-9/11 America. Challenging the “model minority” stereotype of these groups as spelling bee champions on their way to Silicon Valley success, Iyer catalogues the toll that various forms of discrimination have taken and highlights the inspiring ways activists are fighting back.
Iyer is an ideal chronicler of this experience. Herself an immigrant from Kerala, India, she trained as a lawyer, served for a decade as the executive director of South Asian Americans Leading Together and now teaches in the University of Maryland’s Asian American studies program. Her ability to travel comfortably between wonky policy circles and the front lines of activism shines through in her book. She is able both to break down the various methods by which the New York Police Department Demographics Unit spied on certain communities and walk us alongside the 27-year-old St. Louis-based interfaith leader Mustafa Abdullah as he organizes Muslim participation during the Ferguson protests.
Along the way, there are several flashes of insight. About the diverging approaches government agencies took to these communities, Iyer writes, “In effect, after 9/11, the state became both a champion for defending the civil rights of South Asians, Arabs, and Muslims and the enforcer of harmful policies that led to the surveillance and detention of thousands of immigrants from these communities.”
There are also more than a few useful provocations. Iyer characterizes the tendency of some South Asians to connect with White people (she capitalizes all skin-color groups) in ways that marginalize Black people as “taking the racial bribe.” I’m not sure that is entirely fair and accurate, but it is a helpful provocation. It reminded me of the alarm in the faces of certain older Indian family members when I started listening to the hip-hop group Run DMC as a kid in the 1980s. Looking back on it now, it is certainly possible to read their disapproval as something along the lines of: “Why are you listening to music that reminds everyone that you are dark? We moved you to the suburbs so you could have the privilege of blending in with the white people.”
Iyer’s view is that such blending in is never going to happen, and anyway, it exacts too much of a cultural price. The various slings and arrows suffered by Arabs, Muslims, South Asians and Sikhs over the past 15 years should prove that beyond a shadow of a doubt. Better, according to Iyer, to stop pretending we can mix easily in the white world and instead build solidarities with people who have known slings and arrows, not to mention whips and nooses, since the beginning. Again, I’m not sure I entirely agree with that, but it is another useful provocation.
The main drawback to this book is the uneven writing. The wooden lefty-isms — umpteen appeals to multi this-and-that solidarity — got old for me fast. Some sentences should never have left the graduate school seminar on post-colonial theory. For example: “How can both Black and non-Black activists center experiences of Black people with law enforcement while also acknowledging the ways in which state violence affects non-Black people of color?”
In too many places, the writing lurches rather than flows. For example, Iyer uses several pages to relate an affecting story of a Sikh family whose mother was killed in the Oak Creek massacre, and then follows it up with brief and scattered mentions of a dozen other actors in the drama, from first responders to the mayor of Oak Creek to a Sikh mental health professional. The challenge of keeping everything straight deflated the emotion of the initial story and detracted from the larger point that several immigrant communities live in fear of what Iyer appropriately refers to as domestic terrorism.
Overall, it is as if Iyer took great pains to collect a bag full of colorful threads, but instead of weaving them into a quilt, she set them down in loose categories.
Because I think the subject matter is of great significance, and because many of the stories and insights in the book are of great value, I was willing to work a little harder as a reader to fashion my own coherence out of the disparate pieces. I hope that there are many more out there like me willing to do the same.
By Deepa Iyer
New Press. 229 pp. $25.95