Empathy, education, enforcement needed to counter racism, say Bonta, Cortese and Khanna

Ritu Jha-

Face masks off and smiles on, over 200 elected officials and community leaders gathered for the 21st annual Unity Dinner Mar 11, an in-person event at the newly constructed Fremont Downtown Center in Fremont, California.

Attendees at the 21st annual Unity Dinner. Photo courtesy: indica.

The theme of the evening was ‘Unity through Diversity: Democratizing the Digital World – Making Silicon Valley More Equitable’. The guest of honor was California’s Attorney General Rob Bonta[Above photo left] while the keynote speaker was U.S. Congressman Ro Khanna.

The presence of Attorney General Bonta made the Indian American community proud; Khanna’s was like a homecoming.

Jeevan Zutshi, founder of the Indo-American Community Federation (IACF-USA) and the man who started the Unity Dinner in 2002 in the aftermath of 9/11, told indica how refreshing it felt to be at an in-person event.

Zutshi said it brought back memories of 2019, when the IACF celebrated its 25th anniversary at the India Community Center, Milpitas, with 375 people in attendance.

No one knew at the time that events would soon start getting canceled and the world would grapple with an invisible enemy which would take hundreds of thousands of lives.

“All the guests appear to be very welcoming of this live event and quite happy to be connected, a real Unity Dinner,” Zutshi remarked.

Sharing his thoughts on racial inequity and hate crimes, Zutshi said, “As a human being, I feel that we are battling invisible and visible enemies, both within our bodies and our borders, but there is hope if we unite in the belief that the greatest enemy of all is indifference to one another; we should fight our battles as one. I am certain victory will be ours. Lawmakers can play a huge role by engaging the diverse community and reaching out to all shades of opinion.”

Congressman Ro Khanna (Right) at the 21st annual Unity Dinner.  Photo courtesy: indica

Khanna spoke of his long relationship with Zutshi and lauded his leadership over two decades for promoting unity in diversity, which has become the central mantra of the world today.

Khanna, who came in from Pennsylvania after attending an event with President Joe Biden, said he [Biden] was in a somber mood because of the war in Ukraine and the indiscriminate bombing of civilians.

He said that regardless of race, religion or community, what is needed is to strive for the nation. “I am proud of what Zutshi is doing,” the Congressman said. “We need to better understand each other as Americans, we need to lower the temperature of our politics, we need to have more empathy for people who are different from us. It is now that we need to speak clearly for human rights, pluralism and against dictatorship. I remain very, very hopeful about this country.”

Asked about growing hate crimes, California state Senator Dave Cortese told indica on the sidelines of the event that the USA is a great country that was built on the European-American model and culture and the vast ethnicity and religious differences of the world have not been fully integrated in it.

“I see people even in California, which is a very progressive state, that are anti-Asian,” Cortese said. “We have people in our integrated community that are anti-Asian. It’s coming from deep inside of them, and the only way to communicate and respond is to make it clear in our laws and our assembly and city council meetings.

“It is a perception and hard to change because we know it is generational,” he continued, “and we have seen this in the African American community. If children try to make friends with children of color, they are told not to by the family.

“We need to tell children it is not healthy and not acceptable [to shun those who are not like us]. We need to teach parents that racism and hate are not right. But this country has had generations of children who were different from their own parents.”

Asked what can be done to create awareness and end hate crimes, Senator Cortese, who serves on the California Education Committee, said, “We have to educate. We need to correct our curriculum. In the state of California, because the narratives are wrong, racists and the narratives make Indo-Americans or Japanese Americans the other. The curriculum looks like it was built for white European people.”

In his address, Attorney General Bonta said, “We know diversity is our strength and it needs to be embraced. It’s a matter of pride that one in four Californians is an immigrant [like] myself and we are part of the American community.”

Lauding Zutshi, the attorney general said, “It’s a matter of pride that ethnicity, faith and tradition have come together to celebrate unity in diversity.”

“The folks who started Unity Dinner after 9/11 had a vision because it was needed then but it is also needed now, Bonta told indica on the sidelines of the event. “The attacks that were horrific then, unfortunately, some continue even today.”

Referring to the rise in hate crimes, he said he understands racial suffering and his team is working hard to better identify hate crime.

“We are in this fight side by side with all of you,” he said. “No matter where you are from, Mumbai or Michigan or Daily City, or who you are, you belong [here] in California.”

Former Assemblymember and supporter of Indo-American causes Kansen Chu told indica, “The hate crime theme is so important. This is for a good cause. I appreciate that they organize this event and do this year after year.”