On Hate Crimes Against Indian-Americans

By Kollengode S Venkataraman

Strikingly, in his very first State of the Union address as President,  Donald Trump started the address by condemning the hate crimes committed in the weeks after his ascendancy to the presidency. He singled out the vandalism on Jewish places and generically mentioned the Kansas shooting. These are Trump’s words: “Recent threats targeting Jewish Community Centers and vandalism of Jewish cemeteries, as well as last week’s shooting in Kansas City, remind us that while we may be a Nation divided on policies, we are a country that stands united in condemning hate and evil in all its forms.” Trump’s speech writers did not mention the ethnic background of the Kansas shooting. Here are the details:

Olathe, Kansas.  February 22, 2017. Adam Purington, 51, a White man, shot two Indian immigrant engineers, Srinivas Kuchibhotla, 32, and Alok Madasani, also 32, killing the former and wounding the other with gunshots. As he was shooting, witnesses said, he shouted, “Get out of my country.” Purington was a US Navy veteran and a former pilot. Purington also shot another White man, Ian Grillot, who tried to intervene.

The Kansas shooting was not an isolated event. Consider these:

  • Last November, soon after the election, Jeffrey Burgess, 54, without any provocation, hurled ethnic slurs and physically assaulted an Indian-American, mistaking him for a Middle Easterner. This happened at a South Hills restaurant. The details were covered in the last issue.
  • Lancaster County, South Carolina. March 2, 2017. Harnish Patel, the owner of a convenience store, was shot dead with multiple gunshots right in the front yard of his home late night by an unknown criminal. The County Sheriff’s office said this (as reported in South Carolina’s Post and Courier): “We don’t have any direct evidence that tells us it’s an ethnically motivated killing… … but we are working hard to find out.”
  • Seattle, Washington. March 3, 2017. Deep Rai, a Sikh, was shot in his driveway by an unknown gunman, who was shouting, “Go back to your own country.”  Rai prefers to remain anonymous.

Coming in such quick succession in the wake of Donald Trump’s victory last November, hate-crimes based on ethnicity and faith cannot be taken as stray events. After all, during the campaign, candidate Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric was shrill, targeting mostly Latinos. Given the economic hardships the less educated, rural and poor Whites face, it does not take long for them to vent their anger on all immigrants who do not look like one of them. People who stand out by their looks (skin tone, color, facial features; or dress codes like yarmulke, turban, etc.); food habits (“ethnic” restaurants, and grocery stores); or faiths (synagogues, mosques, gurudwaras and Hindu temples) become targets.

Educated Indian immigrants in the US and their parents in India see America as the land of freedom, opportunity, reward for hard work and wealth. This is by and large true, particularly in a booming economy as after WW II; or in crisis times (as in the Y2K era). While immigrants’ success stories are widely shared, stories of people who fail for reasons beyond their control are brushed under the carpet.

The other side of the immigrant history is open discrimination and hostility towards immigrants before their assimilation. Blacks were brought centuries ago as slaves against their will. Their assimilation continues to be a work in progress.

Even White immigrants who came later did not have it easy in this Land of the Free. Hostility towards them based on ethnicity (Italians, Slavs, Polish, Irish, etc.) and faith (Jews, Catholics, etc.) is well documented. But the college-educated and anglicized Indian immigrants arriving today seem to have a poor understanding of this immigrant history in the US. They would help themselves by searching the web with phrases like “Historical prejudice towards the Irish,” and then replacing “Irish” with “Italian,” “Slavs,” “Polish,” “Japanese,” “Jews,” “Mormons,” or “Catholics.” What they will see in their search will be a revelation for many.

This will give them a composite picture of the US as “the Land of Freedom, opportunity, wealth, and reward” on the one hand, and a society that is hostile towards new comers on the other; and on the slow, difficult and painful process of getting “mainstreamed.”  This is the pattern in the history of the slow assimilation of immigrants in the US.

What should we do and how do we respond to the hate-crimes against us? As we wrote in the last issue, instinctively retracting into our shells out of fear or apathy as a defensive response is the wrong course of action. While we let the law takes its course and deal with the Puringtons, we need to develop contact with local elected and law enforcement officials in the communities where we live. Remember, in emergencies, you call the local 911 or your neighbors for help, not your Congressman in Washington, or your representative in Harrisburg.

If you get an ethnically offensive phone call, or if someone screams racially offensive epithets in parks or shopping malls, first do not get into any argument with the person or persons who provoke you. Report it to your local police. These acts of verbal aggression, when they go unchecked, have the potential to become acts of physical violence. Mayors and law enforcement officials where we live need to know of these incidents for them to take preventive steps to raise awareness in your communities for people to live in peace.

We also need to set our view on a longer, wider horizon. Trying to get the attention of the national media or elected officials in the US Congress in Washington DC or in the state capitol in Harrisburg is what everyone tends to do. However, this is done after the hate crimes are  already committed and the damage already done. We need to proactively prevent, or at least reduce, the occurrence of these violent crimes.

An effective way to do this is to be in touch in our individual capacities with local communities where we live, and participate in community events, and be seen by mayors, other city elected officials, police and the people at large as responsive citizens. Yet, most of us do not make it a priority to attend (an easy thing to do) or organize local community events. Don’t wait for your temples to take the lead on this. They won’t. Their priorities are different and they are in their own orbit.

Granted, these activities are not newsworthy enough to draw the attention of local or national TV networks, or your Congressman. But this is our best bet to integrate ourselves into the American mainstream.

Are we paying attention to this part of what we need to do?  If the absence of Indian faces in the community event last December in South Hills against ethnic violence is any indication, we don’t seem to see any value in this. See the next article on this.   ♣

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