An American Story?
Anti-Asian Racism in the U.S. and South Africa
By Chandani Patel |
DECEMBER 6, 2018
As was the case with the American government, white South Africans introduced legislation that discriminated against South Asians on a broad scale beginning in the late 1800s. When Mohandas Gandhi landed in South Africa in 1893, he confronted forms of discrimination that marked him as an unwanted outsider. When he realized the severity of anti-Asian discrimination in South Africa, he not only took up the cause, but also planted the seeds in South Africa for his future Quit India movement. During the 1890s, a series of laws were passed that denied the parliamentary vote to Indians and stated that Indians had to return to India at the end of their five-year indenture period.1 If they failed to return, they would either be re-indentured for an additional two years or, refusing these terms, charged an annual tax of £3 –a burdensome amount charged to any Indian over the age of 16. This tax was similar to the head taxes that the US Congress introduced as early as 1882, and which the US Immigration Act of 1917 increased to $8 per immigrant.
Despite his overt racism against black South Africans, Gandhi inspired solidarity among much of the Indian population to agitate against South Africa’s exclusionary practices towards them.4 After the passage of the “Black Act”, for example, mass meetings were organized within days, and the start of an eight year resistance movement was launched. This resistance campaign featured protests and non-cooperation, including refusals to register and a mass burning of passes. While initially labeled the “Passive Resistance Campaign,” Gandhi renamed this movement to satyagraha, translating literally to “truth-force.” He would later use the same term to describe his non-violence campaign against British colonialism on the Indian subcontinent. The satyagraha campaign resulted in the 1913 Indian Relief Act, which successfully abolished the poll tax, recognized marriages of any religion, and made it possible for children of Indians living in South Africa to join their families.
That same year, South Asian activists in the US, primarily migrant workers that emigrated from the Punjab region of India, formally established the Ghadar Party as a political arm through which they advocated for the rights of South Asians on the subcontinent and in the US. Like the Natal Indian Congress, the Ghadar Party was organized around a weekly newspaper called Ghadar, which published news, meeting notes, revolutionary speeches, and poetry that tied together South Asian activists' voices as they agitated for the end of British rule on the Indian subcontinent. By this time, The Indian Opinion, as well as news about Gandhi’s struggles and triumphs in South Africa, was in circulation across the globe, and South Asians residing in all corners of the British Empire were organizing locally and transnationally against British imperialism. Together with South Asian intellectuals and other activists, the Ghadar party fought simultaneously for the end of British rule in India as well as against anti-Asian discrimination and violence in the United States.
As we look back on and learn from historical discrimination against South Asians, we stand to gain a more capacious understanding of interconnected systems of oppression, as well as the collective forms of resistance that took shape to combat racist policies and practices. The comparable racist and colonial systems of the US and South Africa were transnational in scope, but the responses to these forms of state-sanctioned oppression gained strength through their transnational solidarity as well. Much as white Americans drew on transnational examples when drafting anti-Asian immigration policies, South Asians in America connected their struggles to anti-colonial agitation on the Indian subcontinent, which, in turn, was built in part on models of resistance movements first tested in South Africa.
Exclusion has been an American story, but it is also the story of any nation that defines itself by who belongs within its borders and who does not, and Gandhi’s own exclusionary framework warns us about the injustice of fighting for some at the expense of others. As we remember the long, intertwined histories of white supremacy and its attendant forms of anti-Asian racism in both the United States and South Africa, we are reminded of the dangers of the insider/outsider binary as well as of the urgency of our present historical moment. The anti-Muslim backlash across Europe that marks the lives of both South Asian and black Muslim immigrants as precarious, the anti-immigration rhetoric that has brought violence against many communities in the US, and the xenophobia at the heart of recent racial tensions between black South Africans and African migrants to South Africa, all highlight the reality that fear and mistrust are often deployed to turn us into strangers instead of neighbors.
1. I use the term “Indian” to refer to these migrant communities because it is the designation currently used in South Africa.
2. Seema Sohi, “Race, Surveillance, and Indian Anticolonialism in the Transnational Western U.S.-Canadian Borderlands,” The Journal of American History Vol. 98:2 (2011), 425.
3. Desai and Vahed, The South African Gandhi: Stretcher-Bearer of Empire (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2015), 37, 42, 68, & 119.
4. Gandhi also appealed to South Asians’ status as British subjects to distinguish them from black South Africans, whom he deemed of an inferior stature.
AJ Arkin, KP Magyar, and GJ Pillay, eds., The Indian South Africans: A Contemporary Profile (Pinetown: Owen Burgess Publishers, 1989).
Kornel Chang, “Circulating Race and Empire: Transnational Labor Activism and the Politics of Anti-Asian Agitation in the Anglo-American Pacific World, 1880-1910,” The Journal of American History Vol. 96:3 (2009), 678-701.
T. R. H. Davenport and Christopher Saunders, South Africa: A Modern History, 5th ed. (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000).
Isabel Hofmeyr, Gandhi’s Printing Press: Experiments in Slow Reading (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013).
Maia Ramnath, Haj to Utopia: How the Ghadar Movement Charted Global Radicalism and Attempted to Overthrow the British Empire (Berkeley: U.C. Press, 2011).
Seema Sohi, Echoes of Mutiny: Race, Surveillance, and Indian Anticolonialism in North America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).
Chandani Patel is an Assistant Director of Faculty Programs and Services at Columbia University's Center for Teaching and Learning. She holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Chicago, and is a member of SAADA's Academic Council.