On the Hate Crime in South Hills Village Mall

By Kollengode S Venkataraman

e-mail:  ThePatrika@aol.com

On November 23, in a violent incident that can only be called a hate crime, Ankur Mehta, an Indian-American, was attacked by a 54-year old Caucasian, Jeffrey Allen Burgess. This happened during lunch hour at Red Robin, a restaurant in the South Hills Village Mall. Burgess hurled ethnic slurs against Mehta, mistaking him for a Middle Eastern man of Islamic faith. Unprovoked, he attacked Mehta, elbowing him on the head and punching him. Mehta needed medical attention.

Bethel Park is not in the rural boondocks. It is a bedroom community (95% white population) to Pittsburgh with a median annual household income of $70,000 (for the state it is $55,000), and a population better educated than the state average. An ethnicity-based hate crime in such a bedroom community is bad enough. What makes this scarier is that we have people in urban America today who have not learned to show respect to people of other faiths such as Hinduism, Sikhism, and Islam. Talk about the cultural illiteracy of people in these United States!

One wonders if this hate crime is a random event. This happened in the wake of the poisoned atmosphere in the 2016 presidential campaign. The GOP candidate Trump then, now our President-elect, used provocative languages appealing to working class White voters. They believe they bore the brunt of the economic fallout of globalization with stagnant wages eroding their lifestyle, while professionals and the wealthy made huge gains. This is true. But all working class Americans suffered in this transition, with working class Blacks and Hispanics suffering even more. But Trump succeeded in polarizing voters in terms of ethnicity (mainly against Hispanics) and faith (mainly against Islam). If such hate-crimes can happen in Bethel Park, you can imagine the attitude of less-educated rural Americans toward immigrants.

Before we react defensively about such attacks on Indian-Americans  because of the way we look and of our faiths, we need to know the US history towards immigrants. Ever since the nominal ending of slavery in 1863, race relations in the US have always been a work-in-progress. Later, race relations only got complicated. With the arrival of the Irish, Italian, East European, and Jewish immigrants in the 19th and 20th centuries, the mainstream “native” Whites expanded their hatred to these new immigrants. Irish immigrants were not even considered White.   Indians and people belonging to faiths outside the Judeo-Christian religions are the latest ones exposed to this hatred by those among the Whites who are ill informed. Paradoxically, among these haters one would find the assimilated Whites, who, two or three generations ago, were at the receiving end of this ethnic hatred. Sadly, all new immigrants’ attitude—including Indian immigrants’ attitude—towards Blacks is nowhere near what it needs to be.

In this milieu, the good news is that many in the US mainstream are aware of this history. Sheldon Ingram of WTAE reported that a few Indian-Americans and several mainstream activists from the South Hills area were present at the preliminary hearing for Burgess in court, showing support for Ankur Mehta.  But many Indian-Americans are unfamiliar with the history of immigration in the US. They may instinctively retract into their shells out of fear or apathy as a defensive, convenient response.

But this is not only immature, but exactly the wrong course of action. While we let the law takes its course and deal with Jeffrey Burgess’ hate crime, we need to set our view on a longer, wider horizon. Wherever we live, we need to frequently interact with people around us in our individual capacities. This takes time and effort. But this is our best bet to integrate ourselves into the American mainstream.

Given our fragmented social groupings here, it is unrealistic to expect our temples or other social groups to take a stand on, or even comment on, hate crimes against individual Indian-Americans like Ankur Mehta. These organizations are traversing in their own orbits far removed from ground realities.    ♣

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