The Asian population in the five boroughs spiked 32 percent in the last decade, and New Yorkers of South Asian descent had a lot to do with it. Numbers from the Census Bureau show that Indian American numbers alone skyrocketed 77 percent in Manhattan to reach 25,857, and in the city over all there are now 192,209 people who identify as Asian Indian. In the next few weeks we'll have numbers on the Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Nepali and Indo-Caribbean communities which have also been steadily rising. All of which raises an interesting question.
"It's kind of mysterious to me that we don't have a South Asian elected offical in New York. I find it puzzling because one could argue that all the factors are there," said Sayu Bhojwani, founding director of the New American Leaders Project, an organization that trains immigrants to run for elected office.
There are segments of the South Asian community--particularly those in Manhattan--who are affluent and vote. Reshma Saujani, an Indian American with Wall Street experience who unsuccessfully challenged Democratic Rep. Carolyn Maloney for Congressional District 14 in the 2010 midterm elections last fall, represented that constituency.
Other segments of the South Asian population, particularly in the outer boroughs, tend to be less politically active and more economically diverse. But with this spring's redistricting opportunity, there's a growing movement in Queens to redraw district lines in hopes that the South Asian population can increase its political power.
"There's an incredible awakening that's happening in the community right now. They don't care if it's an indian, Sikh, Bangladeshi, they just want to get someone elected who looks like them," Saujani, the former candidate, said.
Part of that momentum is "Taking our seat," a new group applying for non-profit status. The organization is focused on redrawing the lines of the 31st Assembly district in South Eastern Queens to create a 'brown district.' Their analysis of Census Bureau data showed that two of the highest density South Asian American census tracts lie within that district and four other high density tracts--which are split between four other Assembly districts--are located just blocks away. John Prakash Albert, the founder of the organization, maintains that shifting the district boundary six blocks north would not shift the political power balance in Queens, yet it would add almost 6000 South Asian Voters to the 31st--condensing the population.
"The intent is not to displace someone or to have a naked power grab--it's just an identification of where people have naturally chosen to live, to make their homes. Ultimately it would give folks from our community a real choice at the polls," said Albert.
Richmond Hill's South Asian community is divided into two city council districts and five assembly districts. Harpreet Toor, a Sikh Indian immigrant who ran unsuccessfully for a seat in the fall's special City Council election for district 28, which covers Richmond Hill, supports Taking Our Seat's redistricting efforts. Toor is planning to run for the seat in the next election.
"The elected body should effectively show the mix of people living in Queens," Toor said. "Once we are visible that will make a difference, we understand the issues of the community, the needs of the community."
Needs like providing halal food in schools for Muslim immigrants, or vegetarian options, for Hindu immigrants.
Redistricting occurs after the decennial census count in order to reflect the new demographic reality of a geographical area, and the space of ten years has seen South Asian neighborhoods in Queens expand particularly in Richmond hill, Ozone Park, Jackson Heights, Woodside and Bellrose. The census showed that the population in Queens rose only by 1,343 people (though that number is disputed by Mayor Bloomberg, who says that a lot of new immigrants living in sub-divided apartments were missed in the count) but the number of Asian Indians rose by 8,436. The Asian category as a whole rose by 120,287 in Queens and is certainly driving a lot of the growth.
But even though there are fewer South Asians per capita nationally, it almost seems simpler to elect one outside of New York. "Among those who were active political donors in the South Asian community they tend to support national races," Bhojwani noted.
Look at Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, both Republicans of Indian-American descent. Jindal and Haley were elected not by appealing to a large local South Asian population, but by presenting themselves to largely white voting blocks as assimilated first generation immigrants who had achieved the American dream. Albert's group is pushing a very different approach—trying to build a South Asian plurality or majority district that will back a South Asian candidate for the Assembly. That may be tough, considering that South Asians in New York City not only reside in numerous legislative districts, they are also a very diverse group religiously, linguistically and ethnically--groups that have their own tensions and schisms.
Complicating matters is that redistricting is always a contentious issue, and the South Asian population is not the only interest group that will be lobbying Albany for their cause. Furthermore the 31st district's population numbers stayed within five percent of its ideal size, so it doesn't even necessarily need to be redrawn. But Albert says its time for the district lines in south east Queens to encompass the growing South Asian community, not divide it.
"People have chosen to live next to a mosque or a sari shop or a mandir (temple) or an Indian grocery because that is part of their community identity. So having a person who looks like them who shares that new immigrant experience will help that person better represent the community. The goal is to have effective leadership. When the community is grouped together the community will be taken seriously," Albert said.