In New Jersey, racial politics loses big on a new cricket pitch

The attempt to project cricket as a symbol of hate has rattled Edison’s Indian Americans, who form one-fourth of the town’s population.

Written by Sriram Veera | Mumbai | Updated: November 10, 2017 9:01 am
New Jersey’s Pine Grove Elementary ground got a cricket field after 10 years of advocacy

In New Jersey’s Edison town, a vicious political campaign that saw racism piggybacking on cricket has fallen flat with the targeted Asian immigrants going on to win the local elections. On Wednesday — weeks after thousands of anonymous mailers coaxed residents to vote against the Chinese and Indian “takeover” of the town and cricket’s encroachment of open spaces — Falguni Patel, an Indian-origin attorney, and Jerry Chee, an incumbent Chinese candidate, made it to the influential local school board, a body which, apart from its role in education, also funds and allocates parks and grounds.

The attempt to project cricket as a symbol of hate has rattled Edison’s Indian Americans, who form one-fourth of the town’s population. Many in the area fear that the game, which has been historically used positively to build national identities, be it India or Australia, is now being used as a tool to segregate and target the ‘Little India’ in New Jersey and several such sub-continental suburbs of America.

Venu Palarparthi, an Indian American in New Jersey, says he saw it coming, as he recalls the recent incidents of offensive graffiti at the cricket ground and cases of “pitch watering”. “They had peed on our mat, and written barely legible stuff on our wall. It would happen once a year, and it’s on the rise these days.” According to Venu, the 3,000 to 4,000 registered cricketers in the townships of Edison and Franklin suddenly find themselves on a sticky wicket.

The reason these episodes of vandalism, or laddish pranks, are being revisited is because of the nameless divisive postcards that Edison got in their mail boxes before the vote. “The Chinese and Indians are taking over our town,” the postcards read. “Chinese school! Indian school! Cricket fields! Enough is enough.” Many commentators see this as a post-Trumpian affair — “the fringe emboldened by Trump,” as a Somerset county councilman Rajiv Prasad put it.

However, New Jersey — not quite a redneck state — has people from 125 countries. The dominating Indian Americans are surrounded by pockets of those with roots in Japan, China, South America and Italy. It’s this demographic diversity that makes the anti-immigrant campaign puzzling.

“It was a nasty shock,” says Sergio Bichao, digital editor with the radio station NJ101.5. “In the past, say 20 years ago, there was tension between the Indian population and police department. Now it’s coming out again — some people think because of Trump, anti-immigrant feeling is on the rise,” he adds.

Why is cricket such a big identifier, and what role does it play in the community at large? Playing cricket in America is to be part of the political process in some ways. “If you want a cricket ground, you need access to land,” says Venu, who is the CEO of Dreamcricket, a cricket academy. “It’s a political process. Anytime you need a ground, you have to approach the government, which can be either a township or council, the parks department, and the board of education. In New Jersey, as anywhere else, it’s the law of numbers. If you have a sizeable number of people and can influence decision makers, you have a better chance of getting a ground.”

Not that it has always been that straightforward. Prasad, the councilman from Franklyn town, a 15-minute drive from Edison, which has 22 per cent Indian-origin population, knows what it takes to get a cricket ground. Two years ago, he found himself in the middle of a raging row that involved accusations and counter-accusations of racism.

The issue was a proposed 25-acre Catalpa Park, a $4.5 million project that would feature two cricket pitches, which faced opposition from some residents who started a Facebook group headed by Brian Ulrich. Prasad said it was racist, termed Ulrich and his wife as “Neo-Nazis” and sought an FBI investigation into the group, which also opposed a proposed temple. Prasad later apologised for his remarks, and all parties arrived at a compromise. This year, the ground plan has come to fruition. “Franklin will now get two more cricket pitches,” says Prasad.

Over the years, cricket in the US has grown. With 45 recognised leagues and thousands of players, the US cricket association has organised national tournaments for Under-15, Under-19 and the seniors. It even has an ICC-approved cricket stadium in Broward County, Florida. They have turf wickets in New York and Los Angeles. There are eight regions with 35 leagues spread across them. In an effort to tap the market, the BCCI is keen to make India vs West Indies limited-over series an annual affair.

The issue of flyers has another angle too, as voiced by conservative pundits. Bill Spadea, a radio show host who has a morning show at NJ101.5, said they were probably done by people who wanted to portray Republicans as bad. Unless they catch those who were responsible, it will never be known, but there are other issues too in the community — some of it is due to the apathetic Indians, feel some observers.

Indians aren’t fully absorbed. The federal government needs to do more on the citizenship front and the Indians too,” says Sergio.

Prasad observes that they need to have a political voice and maybe, the racist flyers would galvanise them. He throws in an old example too. “Indians are here for the money — it didn’t help Jews in Germany. They had all the money there but it didn’t save them from the gas chambers. It won’t help the Indians too if they keep staying away,” he says.

But he concludes with a stern warning: “They are looking to make Edison white again — that’s not going to happen.”

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