Indian-Americans Push Back Against Hate Crimes

Jaya Padmanabhan


From India Currents and republished by our content partner New America Media:


This story was reported using data from ProPublica’s Documenting Hate Project. This project is collecting reports to create a national database of hate crimes and bias incidents for use by journalists and civil-rights organizations.


SAN JOSE, Calif. -- On March 19, 2017, Shivani Aggarwal decided to make a Costco run to pick up supplies for her son’s birthday party planned for later that day. She had just about finished and was headed to the checkout counter when a cart slammed into her from behind. “Oh, my goodness! That hurts!” Aggarwal recalled saying as she crouched over her bruised and bleeding foot. “Geez, it couldn’t have hurt that much!” the woman shopper responded.


The woman shopper then peered at Aggarwal’s bruised foot and said dismissively, “You have a scrape! You need a band aid.” Aggarwal had been expecting the woman to apologize, so she reminded the lady that she had been hurt. At this lesson in civility, the woman became aggressive and told Aggarwal that she was making a big deal of the incident and to “go back to India.” She then wheeled her cart away calling Aggarwal a crazy person.


Leela, Preeti, and Maya were talking animatedly as they hiked up a trail at Rancho San Antonio County Park on March 10. Walking three abreast, they spied a man and a woman coming down from the other side so they moved closer to each other. But Maya still occupied a portion of the wrong side of the trail. The woman brushed past Maya to which Maya turned around and apologized as she walked on. The woman called out, “Wait a minute!” The three friends stopped and turned around. The woman came up to the three women and said fiercely, “I’m American, show me some respect!” “What do you mean?” Maya asked, sounding stunned. At that point the man, who hadn’t participated in the conversation, called his partner and they walked away.


On March 5, as he got out of his Mercedes at a farmer’s market parking lot, Jeet Bhatt (name changed) was questioned by two men in a van about the car he drives and why he doesn’t drive an American car. He was then told to “go back where you came from if you don’t like America.” When Bhatt called 911, one of the men taunted him saying, “Do you think I’m going to beat you up?”


The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) reported a total of 867 hate incidents in the ten days following the election. The national advocacy organization South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), meanwhile, recorded 207 hate or bias-related incidents aimed at South Asian, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Middle Eastern, and Arab communities in 2016.


The SAALT figures mark a 34 percent increase from 2014, with 95 percent of the reported cases motivated by anti-Muslim sentiment.


What is more troubling, however, is that official figures may not in fact accurately reflect the true scope of the problem.


Brian Levin is director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. He recently published a study showing that police reports and FBI tracking regularly undercount hate crimes. Issues of language and culture barriers, as well as mistrust between communities and law enforcement, can often dissuade victims of hate crimes from reporting. Also, lack of training can mean police officers do not accurately report incidents of hate or bias as such.


As a result, while the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ 2015 Crime Victimization Survey showed some 293,790 reported incidents of hate or bias, the FBI report for the same year contained only 6,573.


Moreover, in June 2016, the Associated Press reported that 2,700 city police and county sheriff’s departments had not reported a hate crime for 6 years in their jurisdictions. That amounts to 17% of all law enforcement agencies nationwide.


Most hate offenders perceive a palpable threat to their livelihood, way of life, or life and hence commit acts of hate, whether verbal or physical. In all the cases cited above, the aggressors tended to be ordinary individuals unaffiliated with hard core hate groups.


Aggarwal described the woman with the cart as white, dressed in sweats, black hair in a ponytail, about medium height and probably in her 40s. The woman who confronted the three hikers was also white and in her sixties, according to one of the hikers. In Bhatt’s case, the men in the van appeared to be thrill seekers.


The profiles match what researchers say is typical for a majority of reported hate crimes.


“Hate crime assailants include thrill offenders with more shallow prejudices,” say researchers at California State University, San Bernardino. Most commit hate crimes for excitement and social engagement. Some, in reaction to events, like terrorist attacks. Very few are “hardcore hatemongers.”


But they also point to anecdotal reports that suggest a growing number of older white women—influenced by campaign rhetoric and the proliferation of fake media reports—are becoming part of the trend.


On February 26, single shots were fired at Star India restaurant and Asaab Eritrean restaurant on Geary Boulevard in San Francisco, shattering glass and terrifying diners and staff.



Late evening on March 2, Harnish Patel, the owner of a convenience store in Lancaster county, S. Carolina, was killed in front of his home. The investigating authorities have not admitted to the incident being a hate crime.


On March 3, a masked man accosted Deep Rai, a Sikh citizen, in his driveway in Kent, Seattle. He scuffled with Rai and yelled, “Go back to your country,” before pulling out his gun and firing. Rai sustained injuries to his arm.


As more and more brown bodies are made the target of hate, the response will inevitably move from one of surprise at being assailed to more proactive steps. But just how do communities and individuals respond? And what exactly is a hate crime?


Writing nasty comments on websites, using ethnic slurs, exhorting people to leave America, distributing racist flyers, saying something that disparages ethnicities, religions, and races is categorized as hate speech. “They [offenders] can’t be punished, even though it can be very harmful to the victim and other people exposed,” says Phyllis Gerstenfeld, criminal justice professor at California State University, Stanislaus. Hate speech is typically protected by the First Amendment.


“Hate crime is a criminal act committed because of a victim’s group,” Gerstenfeld explains, but hate speech is “exhibiting hate without an underlying criminal act.” A hate crime is an addendum on a criminal act. The offender would have been punished anyway, but the hate motivation adds to that punishment. In other words, there is no hate crime unless there is first a crime.


Aggarwal’s and the hikers’ cases likely fall under the purview of hate speech, but Srinivas Kuchibhotla’s, who was killed in a Kansas bar by an attacker who later admitted he thought Kuchibhotla and his companion were from Iran, was a hate crime. Purinton is standing trial for murder, and additionally for a hate crime, since he yelled “get out of my country” and identified just the two Indian men for his violent outburst.


While a cloud of fear and anxiety has descended on a number of immigrant and ethnic minority communities alike in the months since the election, certain factors set Indian Americans (as well as other Asians) apart.


Indian Americans are visibly different from white and black America. These visible differences act as signals to a less informed or selectively informed populace. Indians are targeted for being illegal immigrants, Middle Easterners, Muslims and Arabs. And Sikhs are too often mistakenly identified as terrorists because of their turbans.


In a study by the Sikh Coalition released in 2014, it was estimated that two-thirds of Sikh kids get bullied in school because of their visible artifacts of faith: their turbans.


But bias against Indian Americans is often contextualized by several factors beyond the lens of Islamophobia, including the general success of many in these communities; weaker assimilation patterns; race, color and religious differences; and H-1B abuse as related to appropriating “American” jobs.


Recently 60 Minutes did a segment cementing that narrative. One of those interviewed for the segment was Craig D’Angelo, who recently lost his job to an H-1B visa holder.


Despite the experience, D’Angelo expressed some understanding of the situation. “You don’t want to have any animosity towards [Indian workers on H-1B visas] because they’re looking for a better way of life,” D’Angelo says at one point.


What the segment failed to cover was the long history of manipulation by outsourcing companies who’ve exploited their workers as well as the H-1B system. D’Angelo’s message of empathy also became lost in the larger framing of the story around Americans losing jobs to foreign nationals from India. The result, as seen in numerous instances, is an uptick in resentment meted out at the Indian American community.


Read the rest here.


From India Currents and republished by our content partner New America Media

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