- Racial Equity
- Talk About Race
By Chandra S. Bhatnagar,
For all New Yorkers, the attacks of September 11th, 2001 are indelibly etched in our collective memory. The chaos, confusion, and sadness that pervaded, the emotional phone calls made and received, the uncertainty about what was yet to happen – all of these recollections are still fresh in our mind’s eye ten years later.
For some New Yorkers, immediately following the horrific events of the day, this sadness and anxiety was amplified by new worries of a backlash affecting Muslims and those perceived to be Muslim (including all South Asians). Sadly, those fears of hate crimes and racial profiling proved to be well-founded. As documented by human rights organizations, including South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), in the weeks, months, and even years following 9/11, there were widespread reports of violent and racist hate crimes targeting South Asians, Arabs, and Muslims in New York, and across the country. Even religious institutions (including Muslim mosques, Sikh gurudwaras, and Hindu temples) were targets of firebombing and vandalism.
Within the South Asian community however, some had even more to fear: low-wage workers. As a result of the tragedy, in addition to the broader backlash against the community, these women and men faced increased exploitation in their already abusive workplaces. As someone who ran a legal services project serving the needs of low-wage South Asian workers in New York City in the years following 9/11, I routinely heard stories of anxiety and trepidation. My clients were domestic workers, day-labor construction workers, gas station attendants, restaurant workers, and street vendors. Some were employed at or near Ground Zero, others had friends or loved ones who had been killed or injured. All were afraid.
One man from Bangladesh told me that he dreaded leaving his neighborhood in Queens to come into Manhattan because he was fearful both of the police and of fellow New Yorkers who might “blame him” for the events of 9/11 and act violently. An elderly Indian woman recalled that while home alone, she had put out a fire in her kitchen all by herself, refusing to call the fire department because members of her family were undocumented and she could not take the risk that the fire department might report them to immigration. A Pakistani woman with a serious heart condition told me that she would not call an ambulance if she had a heart attack, despite the grave medical risk, because it would put her family in danger of having their immigration status discovered.
But within South Asian communities, it was not only the undocumented who were impacted. I also heard from workers with immigration documentation who were not paid properly, had suffered injuries on the job, or had been victimized by racial or religious discrimination, but who did not feel empowered to pursue legal remedies because of the climate of fear in the wake of 9/11. This fear was compounded by the abuse rampant in many of the labor sectors where South Asian workers are represented. For example, some of my clients were domestic workers, who are excluded from basic federal legal protections such as the right to a minimum wage, overtime pay, freedom of association, and health and safety guarantees while at work. Some of my clients were temporary workers or “guestworkers” on short-term visas who arrived in the U.S. deep in debt after paying exorbitant amounts of money to recruiters. Because of fundamental flaws in the U.S. guestworker program, these workers are legally unable to transfer their visas from one employer to another and are left at the mercy of “employer-sponsors” who often exploit them. All of my clients were part of an extremely vulnerable population of workers even before 9/11, yet the horrific events of that day magnified their vulnerability and made it exponentially more difficult for them to assert their rights.
Sadly, ten years after a national tragedy, what continues to unfold in many South Asian communities (and in many other immigrant communities) around the country is an ongoing tragedy of labor abuse and of low-wage workers continuing to toil in the shadows. Just as we never forget 9/11, we should also never turn away from recognizing all those who have suffered silently in its wake.
Chandra S. Bhatnagar is a human rights lawyer and member of the Council of Advisors of South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), a national, nonpartisan, non-profit organization that elevates the voices and perspectives of South Asian individuals and organizations to build a more just and inclusive society in the United States.