Indo-Caribbean Participation in American Politics

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By Dr Vishnu Bisram

This coming Tuesday is America’s general elections. How widespread is Indo Caribbean participation in American politics? Will the Indo Caribbean vote make a difference in the elections? Based on my interviews and empirical observation, Indo Caribbean political participation is minimal with some of them (less than 50%) voting but hardly involved in campaigns and political activism or donating to campaigns. Mail in and absentee ballots may increase their turnout but historically Indo-Caribbeans have not shown much interest in voting. They don’t see benefits accruing from voting and thus they don’t take the time out of work or domestic chores to cast ballots even when Indo Caribbeans are candidates.

I attended many political meetings and rallies from the 1980s to now and hardly came across (Indo) Caribbeans in political activities. They are easily distinguishable by their physical appearance and speech accents. I volunteered for many campaigns and did not see or came across Indo Guyanese or Trinis as volunteers. I came across Afro Jamaicans and other Black West Indians.  In the 2020 elections, more Indo Caribbeans joined campaigns.

Generally speaking, Indo Guyanese Americans and Indo Trinis are not politically or civic minded. Only a handful of us, inclusive of this writer, are civic minded, attending community meetings, or are engaged in political activism or donating to campaigns. Very few are actively involved in political campaigns like getting out the vote and fewer seek elective office. Indo Caribbean turnout rate in voting is very low. Thus, it is not surprising Trinis and Guyanese do not exert  much influence in American politics except in rare cases as when Indi Guyanese lobbied American politicians for the 1992, 2015, and 2020 Guyana elections that were determined largely through US pressure to bring about change in administration.

With Guyanese or Trinis not being a homogenous group, their political engagement varies by ethnicity. Afro Guyanese and Trinis seem more politically involved than Indians. Place of residency also influence political involvement. Afros seem more politically inclined in Brooklyn than Indians in Queens or the Bronx. There are Afro Guyanese and other Black West Indians elected to office but no Indos. The two groups are settled in their own distinct communities with little social interaction except for some national festivals like Phagwah or Independence Day celebrations and shopping in Richmond Hill. The two groups live and socialize apart not different from Guyana or Trinidad. In fact, they are more segregated in America than in Guyana. Indos have not been vested with positions of political power whereas Afros have held elective office. Issues pertaining to Indos are not attended to (given resources) by American politicians whereas Afros interests are attended. Once I approached the Congressman for my area in Woodhaven on an issue pertaining to Guyana. His staff checked the registered voters list for my name and pointed out I am not registered as a voter. Assistance was not provided. I could not vote as a non-American. So it is important to become citizen, register, and vote.

Community and civic leader Ashook Ramsaran lamented the minimal participation of Guyanese in mainstream American politics. Ramsaran, President of Indian Diaspora Council International, noted that “despite their arrival in the USA starting in the mid 1960’s and being a substantial potential voting block in various districts in Queens, particularly so in Richmond Hill, Indo-Guyanese have significantly lagged other recent immigrant groups politically, such as the Punjabi and Indian communities who are making rapid strides in political consciousness”. There are 2 Indo-Guyanese appointed or elected district leaders Taj Rajkumar and Richard David in Queens. On the other hand, says Ramsaran, Afro-Guyanese in the USA have made much more progress  in politics at the federal, state and city levels. He points to “Shirley Chisholm (former US Congress  Member) and Helen Marshall (former Queens Borough President) who are notable examples. Others include  state senator (Roxanne Persaud) and  state assembly member (Alicia Hyndman)”. Ramsaran advices that “Indo-Guyanese must take bold actions on this front to achieve political representation in order to be a fully established community”.

The paucity of Indo participation in mainstream American politics go back to the 1970s when the few existing Guyanese political groups were involved in issues pertaining to Guyana’s politics and not American politics. This writer joined with other student activists to found a group that championed free and fair elections in Guyana. Because we were not citizens, we were not involved in American politics in the early years of the Guyanese presence. We were more interested in the freedom of Guyana. And almost every Guyanese was caught up with earning a living and establishing themselves in a new society and acquiring a home with little time to engage in civic or political activities or even to be bothered in activism to liberate Guyana. Later, during the 1980s, attention was paid to involvement in domestic American politics. We recognized that without Guyanese involvement in American politics, pressure would not be borne on the Guyana dictatorship by American politicians. Several Guyanese volunteered on American political campaigns. I have not missed an election cycle as a volunteer since the late 1980s.

Since the 1990s, seminars were held to sensitize Guyanese about American political participation. Yet in 2020, Guyanese, Indians in particular, have not exhibited much activism in politics. Their role has remained very submissive and minimal to some of them voting of about 50%. Very few Guyanese attend political meetings or financially contribute to campaigns. And fewer volunteer on campaigns.

Guyanese Americans manifest a resistance to acculturating into American society. This is a result of cultural, religious and ethnic background. They cannot relate with mainstream (White) American culture which is not appealing to them. They feel at home socializing among their own in their secluded communities.  They are alienated from mainstream activities and by extension politics. And because  of political issues in Guyana, that is the principal reason why they find themselves in America, they avoid politics. They find little honor in politics with their experience from Guyana. And, thus they avoid politics except when their leaders from Guyana visit America. Guyanese come out in their numbers to greet, hear, and interact with the leadership from Guyana. Indians in Queens show up in packed halls to meet the PPP leadership. And Brooklyn based Africans do the same when the PNC leadership visits. The two ethnic groups hardly patronize each other political programs. There is virtually no inter-group political interaction to empower each other in America although Black candidates from Brooklyn are known to seek campaign funding from Queens. Every Caribbean politician from Brooklyn has sought political campaign funding from Richmond Hill. Yet not much political benefits flow to Guyanese.

America has been their home since the 1960s. Guyanese and Trinis are not returning to live in the former homeland. Thus, they need to become more civic and politically minded to life in the US. Tuesday elections is critical for their presence in America and also for relations with Guyana and Trinidad. They must come out in their numbers and cast ballots. And where practical, they should join the campaigns and provide assistance to few Guyanese seeking elective office to empower the community. No Indo Trinis have sought elective office.

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