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?”
Tip of the Iceberg
Since the election of Donald Trump in November, reports of such incidents have spiked nationwide, suggesting an emboldening of hate groups and ideologues following Trump’s win.
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% increase from 2014, with 95% 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.
Who Are Hate Offenders?
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.
Hate Incidents Against Indians or Indian Americans reported in the last few months
On February 6, a home in Peyton, CO was vandalized with dog feces, eggs, racial slurs and hate messages. The homeowner, Saravanan, told a local television station that 10% of the messages were: “You brown or Indian shouldn’t be here.”
Adam Purinton, a white US Navy veteran, stands accused of killing thirty-two-year-old Srinivas Kuchibhotla, and wounding Alok Madasani, and Ian Grillot on February 22, 2017, in what is deemed a hate crime. Kuchibhotla and Madasani, both software engineers working at Rockwell Collins, were at Austin’s Bar and Grill in Olathe, Kansas watching a basketball game and enjoying their Jamesons when Purinton began heckling the Indian men asking them if their status was legal. Purinton was then asked to leave by the restaurant staff. But he reappeared a short while later armed with a gun and yelling “get out of my country!” before firing. Grillot, a 24-year-old white man, tried to intervene on behalf of the Indian men and was also shot. Purinton later admitted that he thought the Indian men were from Iran.
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?
Hate Speech vs. 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 Kuchibhotla’s 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.
The line between hate speech and hate crime gets blurred in instances when there are threats made, Gerstenfeld says. “I don’t like you Indians” is hate speech. “I don’t like you Indians and I’m going to beat you up” could be a hate crime. So, in Bhatt’s case, if the men had specified that they were going to beat him up— instead of saying, “Do you think I’m going to beat you up?—that might have constituted a crime.
Taking Away American Jobs?
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. 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 them [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.
One man reported on the experience of his friend’s wife, whom he described as “an east Indian in San Francisco [who] was dropping her daughter to school, [when] a white man came from behind and slapped her in the face and told her she is stealing American jobs and driving fancy cars and she needs to leave the country.”
In another instance, several Indian men along with their families were harassed in a South Lake Tahoe casino in November 2016. “A man approached them and asked them whether they were Indians working on work visas,” an eyewitness to the scene said. “He asked intrusive and offensive questions.”
Then there was the website , created and marketed by Steve Pusher, a 66-year-old computer programmer from Virginia. The site (which has since been taken down) displayed pictures and videos of South Asian individuals, their private residences and vehicles, so as to target those who were thought to be taking away American IT jobs. One video shows a public park in Columbus, Ohio filled with Indian American families. As the camera pans over kids riding bikes and grandparents sitting on benches, Pusher is heard providing commentary. “The number of people from foreign countries blows my mind out here. You see this whole area is all Indian, amazing. It’s an amazing number of jobs have been taken away from Americans. The Indian crowd has ravished the Midwest. It’s crazy.”
In its report, “Power, Pain, Potential,” SAALT pointed out that the Presidential race was rife with sweeping stereotypes and xenophobic characterizations. And this xenophobia seems to be arming and informing our citizens.
An Indian American woman dressed in Indian clothes was sitting at an outdoor patio of a local coffee shop. A group of well-dressed older men were chatting nearby. “[T]he talk turned to the Muslim ban and they started talking about what a great thing that was and how airtight the Donald’s case against them was. ‘I won’t mourn if they don’t make it,’ one of them said. ‘The only good Muslim is a dead Muslim.’ Then all of them chuckled as if such a statement were hugely funny.” The Indian woman believed that the remark was made to “get a rise” out of her and she got up and moved indoors.
But in some cases, non-Muslim South Asians have also been culpable in advancing anti-Muslim rhetoric. “We applaud the Trump administration for taking this decisive move to protect our citizens from Islamic terror,” said the Republican Hindu Coalition’s chairman, Shalabh Kumar, in a January press release following the announcement of the Muslim ban.
Rights advocates say that such divisiveness threatens the pluralism of America. And, by splitting the community into smaller ethnic categorizations, Kumar dilutes its power, potential and collective agency.
Speak Up, Speak Out
In Aggarwal’s case, she contacted a Costco manager, Tiffany, to report the incident. When the woman shopper caught sight of Aggarwal talking to Costco management, she reappeared with her cart challenging Aggarwal to call the cops for her racial comment.
“One member hit the other member with a cart and they were both saying ‘who’s going to apologize?’” was Tiffany’s reading of the situation, when I questioned her on the incident. “We did our best to de-escalate the situation,” Tiffany added. When I asked Tiffany whether Costco had processes in place to handle altercations, Tiffany told me that this was the first time in her experience that something like this had happened.
A Costco associate, an African American woman, accompanied Aggarwal to her car after the incident. Aggarwal recalls the associate saying, “Hey, I’m really sorry this happened. But this happens to me every day. Just grow a thick skin. Feel sorry for her.”
This advice didn’t feel right to Aggarwal. It’s about protecting her children, she said. “Recently, my 4-year-old boy came to me and asked me why we weren’t white.” Aggarwal doesn’t want her son to believe he’s less than others because he’s brown.
When she went home, Aggarwal and her husband filed a police report at the Mountain View police department. Aggarwal’s husband received an email from the police on March 27 stating that the case was closed because: “… the original incident involving the woman pushing the shopping cart into your wife was deemed an accident, it does not meet the definition of a hate crime. Regarding the woman’s reaction after being confronted by your wife, although inappropriate, also does not meet the statute.”
Bhatt, too, filed a police report, and believes that reporting such cases to the police is important, just so that they have a database of hate incidents.
An officer from the Mountain View police department confirmed that they have the means of tracking hate crimes when they are reported. “Obviously, in society there are many kinds of people and not all of them are going to be appropriate,” he said, “First, though, when confronted by a racially motivated person, ignore the person and walk away. Do not confront and challenge,” he cautioned. If you report the incident, the police can figure out if it meets the criteria of a hate crime and take appropriate action, he added.
Ro Khanna, Congressman from District 17, wrote in an email that “[t]here has to be a zero-tolerance policy from law enforcement.” He stated that he had sent letters to the Secretary of Homeland Security and Attorney General asking for resources to be devoted to address hate crimes.
This story was reported using data from ProPublica’s Documenting Hate Project (hyperlink: https://projects.propublica.org/graphics/hatecrimes).This project is collecting reports to create a national database of hate crimes and bias incidents for use by journalists and civil-rights organizations. If you’ve been a victim or a witness, tell us your story here (hyperlink: https://projects.propublica.org/graphics/hatecrimes-form).
Instances of hate against Indian Americans and other ethnic communities can no longer be dismissed as the minor fee of successful immigration. The statistics have begun to substantially populate the wrong side of the equation. There is a mounting sense of inadequacy within the community as to a coherent response to such incidents. It is important to note that while hate incidents are aimed at an individual or a group of individuals, the real target is the community.
If you’ve experienced a hate incident, come forward, tell your story, document it, report it to the police. At this crucial moment in our assimilative history, we must make sure that we participate in the national conversation on race and hatred and rally together as members of a larger immigrant community. One more death at the hands of a bigot is one too many.
Jaya Padmanabhan wrote this story with support from New America Media’s Tracking Hate Fellowship program.
Jaya Padmanabhan was the editor of India Currents from 2012 to 2016. She is the author of a collection of short stories called Transactions of Belonging.