Communities of South Asian and Arab Americans have experienced backlash in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, said author and civil rights lawyer Deepa Iyer at an event Monday evening at the Indiana Memorial Union.
Iyer spoke to a crowd of about 60 students, faculty and Bloomington community members in the Frangipani Room of the IMU as part of her national book tour. Iyer’s book, “We Too Sing America: South Asian, Arab, Muslim and Sikh Immigrants Shape Our Multiracial Future,” about the experiences of those religious and ethnic groups in the United States, was published in November 2015.
The book details the history of what South Asian and Middle Eastern communities have dealt with in the aftermath of the domestic war on terror, Iyer said.
“It’s just a result of a 15-year cycle,” she said. “When we’re thinking about the criminalization of Muslim, Arab, South Asian communities – this isn’t something new.”
Iyer said that government policy following 9/11 – such as the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS) – was particularly effective in criminalizing Arab and South Asian Americans.
“The domestic war on terror ends up sending one message: this is not your country,” she said.
Bloomington resident Diane Legomsky, 63, is the chairwoman of the Bloomington Refugee Support Network. She said that she attended Iyer’s talk because she is concerned about prejudice against immigrant, refugee and Muslim communities in America.
“It’s just a horror – it’s making you wonder what this country is turning into,” she said. “It’s hard to recognize our own country anymore.”
The Bloomington Refugee Support Network was supposed to help resettle nearly 20 refugee families in 2017, but because of recent federal immigration limits, Bloomington won’t get any refugees for a while, Legomsky said.
“We’re advocating for it, we’re still trying to, because we think we could really do this in a very cost-effective way,” she said.
Iyer moved to Kentucky from Kerala, India when she was 12 years old and went on to graduate from the University of Notre Dame Law School and Vanderbilt University. She said that her childhood experiences as an Indian immigrant prompted her to begin examining the plight of Asian Americans.
Iyer said that Asian-American participation in solidarity movements such as Black Lives Matter is a powerful way to be vigilant against race-based violence and discrimination.
“We’re not going to take a racial bribe – that is, we’re not going to aspire to whiteness,” she said.