When so much pop culture codes “Southern” as “white,” or even “Black and white,” we miss out on millions of Southern stories. And it becomes a self-perpetuating cycle: the Southern literary canon is largely white and so many people continue to mainly think of the South as white.
But 24% percent of the country’s Asian American population lives in the South, second only to the American West. That’s at least 5.3 million stories.
Anjali Enjeti could have easily become a Southern writer we never got a chance to know. On this week’s episode of the Reckon Interview, she discussed how her brown skin makes her an easy other, but that she self identifies as a Southerner.
Like many Americans, Enjeti is multiracial with roots in India, Puerto Rico and Austria.
Early on, publishers rejected her manuscripts because they didn’t know how to market to Southern audiences. Enjeti wasn’t deterred and she now has two books out in a matter of months. One, “Southbound,” is a collection of essays published by Georgia University Press, about her identity as a mixed-race Southerner and, genuinely, one of the best books I’ve read about Southern culture in years.
Hub City Press, an independent press dedicated to Southern writers, published her novel “The Parted Earth.” The book follows an Indian woman in Atlanta searching for answers about her family history, one made difficult by the Indian Partition in the early 20th century. For millions of Southerners, her story of lost ancestry and unclear roots is familiar.
On the Reckon Interview, Enjeti discusses her experiences moving from Michigan to Chattanooga at a young age, the obstacles facing Asian Southerners whether looking to get published, invited to a dance or even cast a ballot, why Americans should be paying attention India’s past and present, and the role of the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities in the Georgia elections.
And sign up for The Conversation, a new weekly newsletter to dive deeper into the topics and issues raised on the Reckon Interview.
Below is a transcript of the episode.
John Hammontree: You are having quite a few months between the Georgia elections, which we’ll talk about a little bit later on, and then you have released two books in two months, I think. So, congratulations.
Anjali Enjeti: Thank you so much. It’s been a bit of a whirlwind, although I am very grateful for it.
Hammontree: I think, because one of your books focuses so much on identity, we’ll start out with a pretty easy existential question of: who are you?
Enjeti: I am many things, as all of us are. I call myself a mixed race brown woman. I am, I feel, a child of the deep south. I am the daughter of an immigrant. I am half Indian and a quarter Puerto Rican and a quarter Austrian. I am also cis hetero woman, and a mother, a daughter, a sister, hopefully a friend of many people.
Hammontree: I believe you moved to Chattanooga, originally from Michigan, when you were in fifth grade, and you talk in your book “Southbound,” which is a collection of essays, about that being the age that you really kind of started to be aware of racial differences. Tell us a little bit about your life in Chattanooga, and how it compared to Michigan, and your thoughts on both.
Enjeti: Absolutely. So, I moved from a suburb of Detroit down to Chattanooga at age 10 in 1984, or 85. And I was eight years old when Vincent Chin was killed near Detroit. So, I had started thinking about Asian identity and race and racism at eight but was a little too young to really get a full understanding of it. Until I moved to Chattanooga, where race and racism is a very obvious issue. People are not quiet about what they think about race. Segregation was kind of praised. People living in different neighborhoods. The Confederate flag was everywhere. People were very openly nostalgic for racist times.
And while they would not express particularly that they missed slavery, you could see that part of the reason that they longed for earlier times was related to the fact that they could give so much work to black people. And many people still had black maids, restaurants, there were quite a few expensive restaurants where the servers were African American, and people in the back were African American. And then the people that were the owners were white. So, it was a very wide awakening for me.
And, also, as a Brown person, there were not many brown people at all. Most things in Chattanooga, then were Black and white. And so, when I was in the fifth grade where I started school after we moved down, I was the only visibly brown person in the entire grade. There was a white passing Latinx girl in my class, but I just did not even see anyone, my grade had over 100 kids in it and my school had about 600 kids, and I never saw another Brown child who looked anything like me. Went to sixth grade, and I was in a grade with 50 kids, there was one Black child, and then there was me. And there were no other children of color.
This was different for me than in Michigan where, even though I lived in a fairly white neighborhood, there were still several Black and Brown people that I encountered at school. My parents, we would go into Detroit, and I would see people from all colors and nationalities and speaking multiple languages. So, there was quite a culture shock for me to not even see people who looked like me. Or, if I did see people who looked like me, it was kind of this rare event, right? We would run towards each other and introduce ourselves to each other because you just could not find a lot of people.
I proceeded to go to a private school that was a combined junior high and high school. And when I started in the seventh grade, there were just a handful of brown students and black students. When I graduated in 12th grade, it got a little bit better, but certainly, I felt like I had entered a bit of a of a foreign country, one that was that mainly white had some Black people, but certainly nobody that looks like me, or few people that looked like me.
Hammontree: You write about that leading to a lot of complicated internal feelings. You write very poignantly about a debutante ball there in Chattanooga that you did not get invited to, in all likelihood, because you were a Brown person. And you know, on the one hand, rejecting the idea of debutante balls, but on the other hand, feeling rejected in that moment. Are there other instances where you had to balance those two feelings of wanting to be included, even though you knew the things you would be included in were not necessarily great?
Enjeti: I mean, I would say every aspect of my life was me trying to mold myself to whiteness, because I saw that as success, right? I saw that as being accepted. I wanted to fit in. And what I understood as a child was that to fit in, I needed to sort of reformulate myself. I needed to uphold white supremacy, although I didn’t know the term white supremacy in the 1980s and early 1990s. I’d never heard of it. And so, in every aspect of my life, I took a look at, for example, what my white classmates were doing, what was considered civility, manners, these entities that seem race-neutral on the surface, but which aren’t, right? I mean, I would hear something, a comment from a classmate that would be homophobic or racist and I would, instead of—I would know this when I heard the comments, because I was certainly aware of bigotry then—but I would stay silent.
I would notice that, you know, people would sort of self-segregate, and we’d see teachers say stuff to the kids of color, and to the Black students, you know, not give them as much time to talk in the classroom. And so, I would try to be the model, white student, and I would try not to make any waves. I mean, I was very much upholding the model minority myth. I had bought into that completely.
And so, for example, when the debutante ball came around, if you had asked me, “Is this racist?” So few people of color were ever invited, and there was a separate ball for Black people. And so, if you’d asked me then, I would have said, “Absolutely, it’s racist. I know it’s racist.” And yet, I still yearned to be able to get an invitation in order to reject it. I still longed for white goals. And therein lies the problem. I was still upholding white supremacy by simply desiring being something that I wasn’t.
And I was a pretty confident kid. I mean, it’s not like I ever wanted to be white. I really, I loved myself, I loved my multi-racial background and culture. And I loved that I had a Catholic mother and a Hindu father, and that, you know, I visited family members in both Austria and in India over the years. So, this is a different kind of shame, right? It’s not that I longed to be like my white best friends, it’s that I wanted the benefits of being white. But that is very problematic. That is racist in and of itself. I just didn’t understand it at the time.
Hammontree: You mentioned the death of Vincent Chin in Michigan before you moved to Chattanooga. And I don’t think that that’s a name that’s necessarily as commonly known in the South as say, Emmett Till, for example. Can you just tell us a little bit about who Vincent Chin was and the circumstances that led to his murder?
Enjeti: Absolutely. Vincent Chin was living in Michigan, right outside of Detroit, with his mother, Lilly. He was engaged to be married in a few days. And he went out one night to a strip bar with his buddies, a few of whom were actually also Asian. And when he got to this strip bar, he encountered racial slurs from two men whose jobs were in jeopardy, who had been laid off by the auto industry. This was a time when there was a popularity in Japanese cars. There were talks of a Japanese plant being built on US soil, and a lot of automakers felt very threatened by this.
Now, Vincent actually wasn’t Japanese, but he was Chinese. However, his assailants, Ronald Evans, and Michael Nitz saw him as someone who was Japanese, hurled some racial slurs his way, and Vincent and his friends left. They left the scene. Unfortunately, Evans and Nitz went to the trunk of their car, and, they are stepfather and stepson, pulled out a bat, and went after Vincent and his friends. And they pummeled Vincent in the head in a McDonald’s parking lot, they struck him four times.
Vincent was transported to the local hospital, and he died a few days later. And his funeral ended up happening on the same day that he was supposed to get married to a woman named Vicki. And it was a horrific killing. And it became an opportunity for Federal Hate Crime charges to be filed on behalf of an Asian American person in the US for the first time ever.
Now, unfortunately, Chin’s killers were not convicted. They did not spend a single day in jail, the hate crime charges were dismissed, there was a civil suit filed on behalf of the estate of Vincent Chin, which garnered a reward of millions of dollars, Evans and Nitz have not paid a single dime. So, the family of Vincent Chin has never in any way received any kind of compensation for this horrific killing.
And certainly, if there was any good to come of this, it was that it galvanized Asian Americans in the Civil Rights Movement. This wasn’t the first time Asian Americans engaged in other kinds of civil rights work before Vincent was killed, but for Gen Xers like myself who were coming of age during this time, it really raised awareness for us about anti-Asian hate. And this kind of brutality that many of us had seen exercised against black people, against Latinx folks, and some indigenous folks. But for those of us who were not aware of Asian American history, at the time, it was the first time where we saw such hatred against an Asian person.
And Evans and Nitz, to my knowledge, are still alive. And I know that a few years ago, there was an interview with Evans. And you know, he very meekly offered an apology but really seemed to feel that he was justified in committing the crime, and Nitz’s whereabouts as of now are unknown. So this was a significant moment in US Civil Rights history, in Asian American history.
And sadly, this essay is more relevant now than ever. I mean, when I had to turn in my book it was last summer, the Trump administration was hurling constant racist remarks about Asian folks, especially after COVID hit US shores, and there had been some Asian hate crimes, but not the number that we’ve had in recent months. It’s completely escalated, and there seems to be no end in sight. And of course, in Atlanta, sadly, in March, we had a killing spree by a man who ended up killing eight people, six of them Asian women at two different Asian businesses.
The lessons of Vincent Chin, unfortunately, seem to have not been learned by non-Asian folks, by law enforcement, it’s very hard to get these types of violence against Asian folks taken seriously. And unfortunately, there are too many Asians who still uphold the model minority myth and don’t want to talk about these types of crimes in the community. Either they are traumatized by them themselves, or they simply want to be known as that quiet productive person who is unaffected by hate, which ends up hurting the Asian community even more.
Hammontree: You write a little bit about that gap between you and your father, who certainly felt his fair share of racism but never necessarily wanted to call it by name. I got the impression that that was, at least in his mind, maybe for the protection of your family and for your benefit, even if it didn’t become that in practicality. But, you write that that feeling of being targeted is potentially what led him to be a very strong caregiver and provider for AIDS patients in the 80s and 90s when they were being stigmatized. Walk us through that realization about your father, but then also about, you know, your own identity, and what it meant to you as a Southerner.
Enjeti: Absolutely. I mean, you know, it’s so complicated. And of course, I’m extremely subjective about it, right? That essay was so challenging for me to write because I came at it from a place of judgment of him. I felt very gaslit growing up being told over and over again by my one brown parent, (my mom is half Puerto Rican, but she’s white passing), but I felt very gaslit by my father for saying, “They’re not racist. They’re just ignorant. They’re not racist, you know, they’re just insecure. They’re just jealous,” right? I mean, I heard like, every possible excuse for other people’s racism.
And in Chattanooga, we did experience quite a lot of racism. I talk about in that essay called “Treatment” that I almost couldn’t even figure out what racism was anymore. I was kind of like, okay, somebody dies because of their skin color. That must be racism. But part of me just had trouble really grasping what it was.
When I talk to my father today, he tells me things like, “Well, I thought it was because I was foreign that people didn’t like me, not because I was Indian. And you guys were born here. So I didn’t think you had anything to worry about.”
So the truth is very, very complicated. I have a lot of friends who are the children of immigrants, children of Asian immigrants, Latinx immigrants. They were told very similar things from their own parents, there was something about their immigrant parents of that decade in particular, right, of my generation. My immigrant friends today don’t hesitate to use the word racism to describe racism. But I think in the 70s, in the 80s, even in part of the 1990s, we were told things were not racist.
And so we were trying to form a self-concept. We were being harmed by so many people. And yet, it kind of then made us feel like it was our fault, right? We weren’t good enough. We weren’t smart enough. We weren’t nice enough. And so that’s taken quite a while for me to outgrow, for me to overcome, that I was just striving and striving to be better, so that I would not endure racialized trauma. But I was also thinking the racialized trauma was, in part, my fault. Even if I knew something was racist, I figured I did something to irritate them for them to release that racism towards me.
What was so interesting about that is that my dad was such a champion for healthcare rights for people who had HIV or AIDS at a time in the 1980s when people were just so vicious and violent and hostile, including health care workers. Health care workers were probably some of the worst. Now there were, of course, many loving, caring doctors and nurses. And those are most of the people that my dad worked with. But the ones who were bigots were horrific. And you know, my dad wouldn’t stand for it. So there was always this irony to me that my dad could say so clearly how wrong it was for people to discriminate against people who were HIV+ and had AIDS. And at that time, it was, the attacks were particularly hurled against any member of the gay community, the LGBTQIA community was assumed to have AIDS, right?
I mean, it was just kind of like the Asian thing where like, anybody who looks could possibly be Asian, gets the Islamophobia gets the anti-Asian hate. Same thing was happening then in the 1980s. Of course, that’s true today, too. So I struggled with that, like how can you see this discrimination against the LGBTQIA population and just not really admit that what’s happening to me and my brother and you, is racist. It’s just, I couldn’t put it together.
But I ultimately learned how to advocate for people who don’t share an identity with me through him. And while I never would have called him an activist, he doesn’t call himself an activist, I actually learned some of the underpinnings of what activism is, which is fiercely advocating for a group of people, regardless of whether you have any connection to them and really going to bat for them like really fighting, openly advocating for them, not being silent. And so I learned that from him. And I really feel like his modeling of that was kind of the start of my own activism, was that I saw somebody doing this, who again, wouldn’t admit that what I was dealing with was racism, but my goodness, he was going to bat for this other group of people. And maybe that’s what I should do as a human being too.
Hammontree: In an essay about the book industry, as you write it the “unbearable whiteness of Southern literature,” you know, you argue very passionately and eloquently about the need to expand our definition of what is Southern. You wrote, and I’m paraphrasing slightly, “there are many stories about the South that have yet to be told, and the South is far more racially and ethnically diverse than the publishing industry has ever perceived it. It is a region rich in history, in people, and in the stories indigenous, black, and other writers of color are feverishly writing every day, waiting, hoping that they will someday see the light.”
You obviously have had two books published in the last month, but I know it has been a long, hard road to get to the point where these books have been published. What are a few other recommendations of books that you would have our readers to see some of your favorites and to see different sides and perspectives of the South. And then also, tell us a little bit about your frustrations in getting published yourself.
Enjeti: Absolutely. So I write about in that essay, the book The Atlas of Reds and Blues, which was written by Devi Laskar, and she was raised in North Carolina, and then spent a significant amount of her professional career and raising her three children in a suburb of Atlanta. And hers was one of the first books I encountered by a South Asian author which was about the South. Now, we had many other South Asian authors who were writing fantasy and paranormal stories, children’s books, but we didn’t really have many people writing adult literary fiction. And so, and I feel like the floodgates are maybe opening a little bit, Sanjena Sathian wrote a wonderful novel that came out about the same time as my book Southbound called Gold Diggers. And it’s got some magical realism in it, but it’s really about the Indian community in an Atlanta suburb. And so that book is really Southern. It’s really about the South. And Veena Rao wrote a lovely book that also takes place in India called Purple Lotus. Shelly Anand wrote a wonderful picture book that was published earlier this year called Laxmi’s Mooch. It is about a little girl dealing with her the fact that she has a mustache and asking questions about the hair above her lip.
So I feel like there has been a fairly recent explosion in Southern literature of people who are not white or not Black. So I’m starting to feel very hopeful. But it did take me 11 years of trying to publish seven books before I got my first book contract, and the novel that I wrote before, The Parted Earth, and the title changed so many times, but it was a novel that took place in primarily in North Georgia. And many of the rejections that I got strongly hinted that they could not figure out like, where to put this book, like, what category it fit in, when it was clearly a Southern novel. It’s just that there was an Indian family at the heart of it, living in North Georgia. And there are several Indian families who live in North Georgia, and many of them run the gas stations and the hotels up there. And this family ran a gas station, and they’ve been there for a couple of decades. So not even that new of a phenomenon.
I was told in so many words that this could not be marketed as a Southern novel. And it was really discouraging for me because I grew up reading Southern literature, I came of age in the South, and I feel Southern. I feel like a Southern person in every way, and so I’m hoping, I’m now in the process of rewriting that novel, I’m hoping that the imaginations of editors and agents has expanded significantly in the past few years, and that they’re really going to be open to looking for Southern stories by people that are not stereotypically Southern. Because I do feel like this region of the country is stereotyped and condescended to more than any other region of the country, and it has real world consequences.
So I’m really hoping that there’s an opening and that this will stay open. And that people in the industry are really looking for these kinds of stories because they’ve been here for a while. And there’s certainly no shortage of people writing them, and they’re ready to be published.
Hammontree: Coming up after the break on Anjali Enjeti gives us a quick history lesson about Partition in India. And she also explains the role that Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders played in the Georgia election.
Well, certainly we won’t expand our collective imagination and definition of the South until we are actively reading these stories. You know, if our touchstones remain forever, you know, Atticus Finch, then it’s hard to get beyond that imagination of the South and who Southerners are. I hope that these two books, Departed Earth, especially, you know, lead to more opportunities for you. That book is certainly a Southern novel. It’s also a multi-generational novel. It begins in Delhi, in India, during Partition. I don’t know that that is something that many people in our audience would be familiar with. Tell us a little bit about Partition. It was, I think, at least the way I remember learning it in school, you know, there was British India, and then there was Gandhi. And then that’s it, you know, in the story. That’s how it happened.
Enjeti: Well, I’m super impressed, John, that you even learned that much in school, because when I was growing up, there wasn’t a single word said about Partition all the way through college. And in fact, my own education about Partition began in 1995. When I graduated from college, I decided that I was going to read everything I could get my hands on about Partition because I had, pretty much I didn’t know that much more than you did.
So, the British had occupied India for a couple of hundred years in one form or another. At first, it was the East India Company, then it became the British crown. And in 1947, after a major movement, the Quit India Movement, which was led by among other people, Gandhi, the British decided to leave. One of the last things they did was literally draw a line in the sand on the northern border and the eastern border to divide what was then known as India into two new nations, India and Pakistan.
And until 1947, India, as we know, it was really just the subcontinent. And it wasn’t a country, actually, it was simply a series of kingdoms. And so there were these two new nations, Pakistan was Muslim majority, and India was Hindu majority, Hindu and Sikh majority. And overnight in August in 1947, people who were Hindu and Sikh living in Pakistan had to migrate to India. And people who were Muslim living in India had to migrate to the new Pakistan. And it ended up in tremendous bloodshed, between one and two million people perished. And 15 million people migrated. To date, Partition is the largest human migration in world history.
And you’re absolutely correct. Not many people without any kind of South Asian origin know about Partition. And in fact, a lot of people from South Asia that did not have family living near either of the borders know a whole lot about Partition, simply because the people who were most affected were those who lived closest to the new borders. Of course, there were other cities that were affected simply by the swell of refugees coming into them. But nonetheless, millions and millions of people were affected. And of course, their descendants were affected by their experiences of upheaval and trauma.
And, sadly, there was no formalized, widespread effort to collect firsthand testimonies of survivors of Partition until six decades later, in 2007, when an organization in Pakistan began collecting stories, and then soon after that the Partition Museum was built. And then the first organization I became aware of was the 1947 Partition Archive, which was based initially in Berkeley and of course now has people all over the world, especially in the subcontinent who are collecting the stories of survivors. But it took a really, really long time and many stories were lost in those 60 years. And even for people that survived long enough to tell their stories, many people were too traumatized. They did not share them with their family members. And so there have been a lot of experiences that were never told, and that we don’t have today. And that was, sort of, ended up being the focal point of my book is, what happens to descendants of Partition?
We can think of it on a wider scale, what happens to any descendants of any major historical event? When we don’t know those stories of our ancestors? How did, how does not knowing the stories of our ancestors shape the lives of the present-day descendants? And I hope, if anything, people reading the book take away the importance of asking their family members, their parents, their grandparents, their great-grandparents if they’re still alive, what was your childhood like? What were some of the things that you went through? And if they do not wish to share with them, finding an organization, a historical organization, or university who is collecting stories from a particular time period and a particular country and encourage them to share their stories there, because this is history, and every story that is lost is a lost opportunity for us to have a deeper understanding of our histories.
Hammontree: You know, for anybody listening, it’s clear that Anjali is not only an author, but also an activist. And you played a very important role, I think, in the Georgia elections. I don’t know if it started in 2016 and 2017 for you, but certainly it has escalated each year. I think it’s fair to say that, you know, we would have seen different results in the presidential election in Georgia and also in the Senate and Senate runoff elections in Georgia if it weren’t for, you know, the turnout among Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders there, and you’ve been very active in turning out the vote there, getting people involved, and keeping people involved, even in off years. In your book, a very unlikely blueprint for your success was modeling it off of the Tea Party strategy. And it seems harder than the Tea Party, because you know, the Tea Party is effectively unifying a lot of people who share the same skin color, broadly, I don’t want to say that there weren’t minority Tea Partiers, but certainly share the same language. Whereas the Asian American immigrant population in Georgia speaks a variety of languages, comes from a variety of nations. How did you conceive of organizing them in such an effective way?
Enjeti: You know, first of all, I had a lot of help. We have a great many incredible Asian American activists in Georgia. Many of us, and I like many of them did not get involved, particularly with electoral organizing, until after Trump was elected in 2016. I had been watching and reading about the rise of the Tea Party for years. And I was just fascinated by how quickly they could mobilize. Now, of course, they were they were funded by billionaires, right? The Koch brothers, they threw money at them. And so part of it was funding. But at the end of the day, it was about getting to people who did not feel that they had a voice in government. And the way to engage with them is on some kind of one-on-one level. It’s either having an in person gathering, or calling someone up, or texting someone and saying, “Hey, here’s some issues that may be important to you. We’re trying to elect this candidate because they support these issues. Why don’t you come out to vote?” And so it was a very, very localized grassroots movement.
Many of us in Georgia, many AAPIs in Georgia had not had a lick of electoral organizing experience until Jon Ossoff ran for congress in the sixth Congressional District, which is a district in the northern suburbs of Atlanta. It’s where I live. And that’s where we met one another. And it was about that time, too, that I learned for the first time that Asian Americans had one of the lowest voter turnouts of any other racial demographic in the US, which was shocking to me. I never would have guessed that. I had assumed, wrongfully, that many of the Asian immigrants that I knew were just not citizens, and that that’s why they weren’t voting. And then I would find out that they’d been citizens for 10 years or 15 years and just weren’t getting to the polls.
And so, we got our feet wet with John Ossoff’s campaign. Representative Sam Park, who is still serving in the Georgia legislature, he headed up the AAPI outreach group for the Ossoff campaign, and we held events that were specific to members of the Asian American community. And that’s how we started getting people involved was, “Hey, here’s a meet and greet with John, and it’s just for us API folks. Why don’t you come?” AAPI voters started feeling heard. They started feeling like, “Oh, I’m not being ignored by candidates,” because up until then, at least in Georgia, they did not feel seen by any of their elected officials or their candidates. We still have only a handful of people in the Georgia legislature who are Asian American. And so they started coming out to the polls. And the numbers grew tremendously from that 2017 special election to the fall of 2018, for the midterm election where we came out and supported the Democratic candidates up and down the ballot included, including Stacey Abrams. And then we had a tremendous turnout in 2020 and 2021. And it’s been enormous movement here.
And it’s been such an honor for me to witness people to go, who went from, in 2017 telling me they didn’t vote because they weren’t political, to literally knocking doors and 2021 for the runoff election, to get Asian Americans to the polls. I mean, it was really a very short period of time that this evolution took place. And I hope that Asian Americans in other states can sort of look to what we’ve done here and copy it. And in addition to the Tea Party, we also, of course, had the model of black organizers here. I mean, we had Stacey Abrams, who was doing the kind of organizing that wasn’t really common 10 years ago, which was going out and finding likely Democratic voters who had been ignored by the democratic process, instead of trying to convert people who are Republican voters. You get far more bang for your buck when you go to people more likely to say, “Oh, yeah, I hate that candidate. I like it, I’m gonna go vote for them,” then you do trying to argue with a Republican that they should vote for your candidate. So that’s what we started doing too, we started just finding people we thought would likely vote for Democrats. And we poured our energy into them.
And of course, we still had to sort of combat a lot of misinformation, even within people who were who were planning to vote Democrat, about the election about the Republican candidates. It turns out that driving out the vote in likely Democratic communities works, and we had such a high voter turnout. And, you know, I couldn’t believe that Biden won in Georgia by 11,000 votes. And then for the runoff election, only two days later, we knew for sure, that Ossoff and Warnock won and were going to the Senate. I didn’t even predict that, I thought it would be you know, there’d be all kinds of election challenges, and that would be too close and a recount. And perhaps maybe one of them would win, but not both of them.
I mean, it really blew my mind. To be quite honest, I just couldn’t believe that that worked. This is really a lesson for all of us that even in a global pandemic where people can’t even get together in person, the more personal interaction you have with people in your own community, the more likely they’re get they’re going to get to the polls. And I hope, you know we can repeat this, especially in 2022, when many of us have extremely crucial elections.
Hammontree: There was a lot of speculation about what drove increased Asian American and Pacific Islander turnout. And obviously I mean, you know, that’s such a broad term because it can refer to East Asia and Southeast Asia and the subcontinent. But there was some speculation that Vice President Kamala Harris’s Indian ancestry might have played a role. How much truth do you think there is to that? And then also, historically, you know, the AAPI community has been considered fairly conservative. What led to that that shift in the last four years? I mean, was it just Trump, or was it was there more to it than that?
Enjeti: So even more when Barack Obama ran for the first time, more APIs voted for him, so I would say this shift started towards more Democrats in 2008. But to answer your question about Kamala Harris, I think what happened with her is it’s not necessarily that more people voted for Biden because Harris was on the ticket, I think what happened when she became the nominee for Vice President is that a lot more South Asians began talking about the election and were louder about who they were voting for because they were expressing pride in her South Asian ancestry. And in her mother, Shyamala Harris, who, you know, was this breast cancer researcher, and she was an activist as well and an organizer in California. So I think it really ramped up the discourse, and it made South Asians who might have been a little quieter about their politics, perhaps they didn’t talk about politics at work or with certain groups of friends or at cultural events, but once she was named the VP, I think people just, the conversations just seemed to explode.
People exuded pride. And that is incredibly helpful in getting people to the polls too, when people can identify in some way with the candidate’s ancestry, it gets them talking, and they post on social media, and they post memes, and they post photos, and it encourages others to get excited about an election. And when you increase the excitement about an election, you get people talking about voting. You know, “have you voted yet? Are you going to vote? Who are you voting for?” And so, I think that was really the icing on the cake is that perhaps her, Kamala Harris’s mixed identity didn’t convert anybody, but it got those folks who are maybe quieter Democrats to be louder about their politics, and that might have motivated more people to get to the polls than would have otherwise.
Hammontree: To close, what would you say to minority Southerners, but also people who want to see the South and, kind of the way that you described it, as more than black and white and recognize the South for all of this complexity, how do you keep them engaged for 2022? But also just engaged in recognizing the South for what it really is.
Anjali Enjeti: You know, that’s a great question. That’s a very big question to close with, John. I will try to do your question the justice that it deserves. So, one of the things I tell people as an organizer, I mean, certainly I don’t like to burn people out on the work. But one of the things I tell people is that this is year-round work, and every single year is an election year. This year we all have local elections. And we are going to be electing people to the city council, to county commission, some people will have school board elections, and what we know from COVID is that these, quote, “small elections” actually impact our daily life more than who is President, more than who is your Governor.
And so we’ve got to do what Republicans have been doing from the beginning of time, they have been filling these positions, often running without any opposition, and they have been using these local positions to catapult themselves into offices that have even more power. So, we’ve got to stay engaged, year-round. Certainly, we need to take breaks, and we need to not burn out. But we’ve got to stay involved. Find something that you love, and find something that you feel that you are good at, and try to do it long term, if you can. Because this work isn’t going to end, and the South is really at the brink of something beautiful.
I mean, I felt really bad for Florida and Texas and North Carolina when they could not flip the big seats. But I was so proud of the organizers in those states, even Mississippi too, I mean, they moved the needle, and they moved the needle despite rampant voter suppression, and constant legislation that really hampered their ability to get out the vote the way they wanted to.
And they were dealing with officials, as we were in Georgia, that we’re not putting many restrictions on activity in a global pandemic. And so we were all living in very dangerous states. I mean, Georgia was the last state to close and the first to open four weeks later. So, you know, our COVID cases were soaring. So we had to deal with these elections under such strenuous and dangerous circumstances. But I think there are good things on the way for all of us. And I hope that there can be more, sort of, interstate sharing in the South of things that worked, things that didn’t work. I mean, obviously, every state, every community has its own needs. But just having a conversation with one another.
A lot of these conversations have been happening in online symposiums, on Twitter, you know. Who do you know in this state that I can connect an activist to to help get out the vote? And so I’m really hopeful about what the South is going to do. I mean, we are being punished daily for exercising our voices in government, and as Georgia has too, I mean, our new law, SB 202 is basically punishing us for flipping in 2020 and 2021. But we are also getting more active and more engaged. I’m really hopeful. And I think people are going to be so ready, not just for local elections this year, but I think they’re going to be really ready in 2022. And I’m really looking forward to seeing what happens.
Learn more about Anjali Enjeti and purchase her books at www.anjalienjeti.com.