“Hey lady, why do you wear that thing on your forehead? Your husband throw darts at it?”
Radha looked back through the door at the store manager, who kept his head bent over the calculator. The girl who had checked Radha out was close enough to see, but acted as if she enjoyed what was happening … The gang leader pushed the cart through the parking lot, swerving like a drunk driver. She remained calm, hoping the fear didn’t show.
It was simply a matter of time, a matter of letting him do whatever he wanted until he lost interest and let go of the cart. Groceries could be replaced, she told herself. Her forehead throbbed.
-G. S. Sharat Chandra, “Dot Busters”
Radha is a fictional character. And with the help of G.S. Sharat Chandra’s pen, she gets her revenge on the Dot Busters. But Rishi Maharaj was not so lucky. He, unfortunately, was real. The 19 year-old Indo-Caribbean youth was walking through the South Ozone Park neighborhood in Queens in September
1998, when he was set upon by three young white men wielding baseball bats, and shouting anti-Indian slogans. Maharaj ended up in hospital in critical condition. But there was another difference with Radha.
When Radha tells her husband about the Dot Busters, he says, “We must simply tolerate such misunderstandings.” He is reluctant to complain to the supermarket manager. “He’s going to ask for your name and number. Those thugs will know you must be the one who complained. Do you want that?”
But after Rishi Maharaj was hospitalized, the community decided that enough was enough. Within days, a Peace Vigil, and a Unity Rally was organized by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) and a host of other community groups. Describing the rally as a significant step in the political awakening of the community, Tito Sinha of AALDEF says, “We need to become more involved in our communities and build coalitions with other groups to fight all forms of hate, violence, and racism.” The list of groups at the rally was a testimonial to the years of grassroots efforts of people like Sinha in promoting dialogue and awareness. The Federation of Indian Associations had been at loggerheads with the South Asian Lesbian and Gay Alliance for years, refusing to let them march in the annual India Day Parade. But they marched together for Rishi Maharaj alongside the Asian/Pacific Islander Coalition on HIV and AIDS, New York Taxi Workers’ Alliance, SAKHI for South Asian Women, Cricket International, Catholic Cha ties, Association for All Trinidadians and
Tobagonians and many others. “People obviously felt a personal connection,” explains Sinha. “They themselves or someone they knew had experienced some kind of racist violence. Perhaps not to the level of brutality of what happened to Rishi but to some level. Also, I think there was this understanding that these typeso f things happen far more frequently than we admit, acknowledge, or the media reports.”
Across the country in California, Mukesh Advani, founding president of the Indo-American Bar Association of Northern California had been thinking the same thing. On January15, 1998, he helped launch a helpline to assist South Asian hate crime victims: 1-888-99 NO HATE. He was stirred into action when he realized that even the available figures about hate crimes were misleading because hate crimes are hard to prove. “You have to show intent to attack someone because of race. And intent is difficult to prove unless it is accompanied by racial slurs like the Dotbusters in New Jersey. Usually the prosecutor just charges it as simple as assault or battery. Most people don’t know that there are statutes that enhance the sentence if it is charged as a hate crime.” In fact, most people are quite hazy about what constitutes a hate crime. Advani recounts the story of an acquaintance, a Ph.D. student, who was in Shasta county with his sari-clad mother. “A bunch of guys started yelling, ‘Hey you guys, go back to your country and what the hell are you doing here?’ And these people were really afraid for their lives. But they never told anyone. Looking back on it, he said ‘Is this a hate crime?’ And I said ‘Did you fear your life?’ He said ‘Yeah’ and I said ‘That’s a hate crime.”
As defined in California Penal Code section 13023, a hate crime is any criminal act or attempted criminal act motivated by hatred based on race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation or disability. These crimes must be reported to the Department of Justice by law enforcement agencies, and the Attorney General must submit an annual report to the Legislature. The Attorney General’s Hate Crime Reporting Program was implemented in 1994 and issued its first report in 1995. At the federal level, the Hate Crimes Statistics Act became law in 1990, and requires the United States Attorney General to collect bias-motivated crime information. While all of this looks good on paper, the implementation has been spotty.
Advani alleges many law enforcement
Agencies do not have a full understanding of these statues or the sensitivity to look for racial bias. “Lots of police stations still have rednecks running them who think unless people with swastikas, dressed like the KKK come and beat you, it’s not a hate crime.” He adds, “Take someone who doesn’t have much formal education, perhaps does not have all his (immigration) papers, can’t speak English very well, works in a 7-11. If he becomes the victim of a hate crime, he will say “Why go to the police? He will just take the side of the white man.”
Sinha thinks the reason can be political as well. “Right now, a lot of cities show a downturn in crimes. So, I think there is a subtle or not so subtle pressure to show a decrease in crime, to show that things are getting better.” Debasish Mishra of the India Abroad Center for Political Awareness (IACPA), points to a recent incident at a Dunkin’ Donuts near Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. Two employees, Kanu and Mukesh Patel were shot execution style by three youths robbing the store. The youths proceeded to set the store in fire and fled with some money. But they left the cash boxes behind. “Law enforcement has been uncooperative because they are convinced that it was nothing but a robbery,” Mishra says. “How many armed robberies are committed where they robbers have enough time to murder the victims execution-style and commit arson, but don’t have enough time to take all the money?”
Sometimes, more problematically, the finger of suspicion points at law enforcement itself. Charanjit Aujla, a convenience store clerk in Jackson, Mississippi died as a result of gunshot wounds in December 1998 when four to six sheriff’s deputies entered the store and attempted to arrest him for selling alcohol to a minor. The Hinds County Sheriff’s Department did not answer questions about why it has been necessary to shoot Aujla in the head when the deputies were blocking his only means of escape. Nor have they explained why the emergency room reports show Aujla was shot in the back of his head although the Sheriff’s office has claimed he was facing the officers during the shooting.
Aujla’s death may not make it into the official hate crimes statistics. Neither might Kanu and Mukesh Patel’s. But the National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium’s fourth annual audit of violence against Asian Pacific Americans still showed that there was a 17% increase in anti-Asian incidents reported for 1996. 11% of all such crimes were against South Asians. In the same period there was a 7% decline in overall violent crime
according to FBI statistics. Of the 8,049 hate crimes reported to the FBI in 1997, race was the motivating factor in 4,710, or over 50.
The statistics certainly do not paint the whole picture. In fact, Mishra thinks “until recently most Indian-Americans were obscure and mistaken for other minorities such as Arabs or Hispanics. With increasing attention being given to Indian-Americans in mainstream press, think the community will become more vulnerable.” This might come as a shock to many in the South Asian community—especially those ensconced in detached homes in the suburbs, who have changed their names from Bhavesh to Bob, and whose kids win spelling bees. This is the model minority, paying its taxes, and causing no trouble. How could it be affected by hate crimes? That was probably what the Pakistani-American family in Jessup, Maryland thought till their home was spray-painted with Satanic phrases and racial slurs in October 1996.
The model-minority image often makes the community reticent about coming forward. After all, a hate crime is an in-your-face message that says you are second class and do not belong here. Advani points out “Anytime a hate crime is committed, it affects your self esteem. So you want to ignore it, and pretend it did not happen. Because talking about it is really demeaning.”
But the Rishi Maharaj incident showed that members of the community have started to realize that these are not random acts of violence. They are learning to see patterns. In 1982, Vincent Chin, a Chinese-American was murdered by a father-son team of laid-off auto workers in Detroit who said “It’s because of you little mother-f_kers that we’re out of work.” That mentality is still strong in America and it needs only the slightest downturn in the economy to flare into violence.
Like the Chinese, South Asians are lauded for the success of their tightly-knit family-run businesses. The Economic Times estimated in 1997 that Indians abroad earned $340 billion annually, saved $50 billion each year, and owned $100 billion in real estate. The thrifty closely-knit birada? style of functioning has served the community well economically, but has also left it vulnerable to xenophobia. Mishra warns, “We are an affluent community which is largely isolated from the American mainstream, and we rarely give back to the country to which we owe our success. Our success is likely to arouse the resentment of fellow Americans, much as Indians in Africa.”
Many South Asians start small businesses like groceries and liquor stores in economically depressed areas, where they are viewed as unfair competitors. The fact that the stores are often run by family members and distant cousins and cousins of cousins triggers even more xenophobia. The recent INS sting operation that showed how some Indian businessmen in search of cheap, compliant labor force had smuggled in some 12,000 Indians over three years to work in small businesses like Dunkin’ Donuts franchises certainly did not help the community’s image.
Sinha agrees that “if you run a family store, and if someone of a different race comes into your store, you don’t treat them differently than someone of your own race. That’s important for us to learn-how to build better relations with people of different communities.” But he asserts, “l don’t think hate crimes have anything to do with whether we stick together in one community or not, because the Indian person who lives in the suburbs can be the subject of a racial attack just as much the person in the heart of the Indian community.”
Simply put, even today, Asian Americans
Are not regarded as real Americans. As the political flap over the campaign contributions to the Democratic Party showed, surnames like Chin and Hwang were not regarded as truly American. While all donations from chins and Hwangs were investigated one did not hear of similar vigilance about Schwartzes and O’Connells. Many people do not see the link between these perceptions and an actual act of violence. But when a group of Latino youths assaulted a South Asian American man in front of a convenience store and called him a “f__king Indian,” and broke his finger in September 1996, they were doing so because they felt it was OK to attack him.
Sinha explains “The only images of Asian Americans are very stereotypical second-class citizen type portrayals. That contributes to a notion that you can make fun of them, because they are not going to do anything. In New York, when the taxi drivers went on strike, the police commissioner called them terrorists. Comments like that sanction a certain type of mentality to put people down, and that can easily translate into violence by people who are willing to act out how they think.” As waves of immigrants transform the ethnic mix of neighborhoods, the chances of friction between the old guard, and the new immigrants erupting into full-scale violence became much more real, as Rishi Maharaj found out. His attackers were upset at the influx of Indo-Caribbeans into the neighborhood.
But what can be done to fight back? Mishra laments that activism in community usually falls into two cateogories: “radicals who aren’t
Satisfied unless they are holding a picket sign somewhere; [or] wealthy people who are merely looking for photo opportunities with influential people that they can hang in their living rooms. Unfortunately, neither group is very influential in bringing about change. The rest are either too disgusted by politics to get involved, or too comfortable to believe that their lives can be adversely affected.” But he is encouraged by the activism of many young people, like organizing letter-writing campaigns. A group of first-generation immigrants is forming a chapter of IACPA in South Jersey to combat the perception that Indian-Americans are a foreign community.
Activists like Mitra Sen are using innovative tools like films and clubs to help school kids learn to appreciate diversity. Sinha feels that we “should do more proactive work in community educations and build better race relations between communities. We can’t always wait for these incidents to occur before we start building bridges.” He feels we would do well to learn from the lesbian and gay communities. “They are not just waiting for an incident to happen. They are laying the long-term groundwork like establishing anti-violence projects so that these incidents can be minimized through community education and sensitivity training.”
Mishra points to how the Jewish community has mainstreamed itself and monitors not just anti-Semitism but all forms of bias crimes.
Advani hopes that helplines like the one he has started will encourage people to come forward and report hate crimes. The lawyers staffing the helpline will help the
Victims with language problems, counseling, dealing with the police and the District Attorney’s office, as well as access to resources like compensation programs that can help pay medical bills. But most of all, he affirms, people need to come forward and report hate crimes because that is the only way our community can educate itself and let victims know that they are not alone. We need to do it for Rishi Maharaj. For Kanu Patel. For Navroze Mody, killed in 1987 by Dotbusters. And all those who are statistics in hate crime audits. And those who did not even make it there.