The killing of 32-year-old Srinivas Kuchibhotla in a bar in Olathe, Kan., on Feb. 20 has shaken the Indian American community. And since then, still more Indian Americans have been shot.
Both the Kansas and Washington attacks are being investigated as hate crimes — which, in plain speak, means that the victims were targeted because of perceived ethnic and religious identity based on their physical appearance.
Indian Americans in particular — and South Asians in general — are a highly diverse community. Indians are Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Jains, Buddhists and other religions; they come from very different regions and backgrounds and speak different languages. Their targeting reveals that American racism can lump together people who appear physically similar in particular ways as “suspicious,” “threatening” and “outsider” — interpreting their appearance to mean they are Muslim and Middle Eastern.
Segments of Indian Americans struggle with how to react to the targeting — whether to act in solidarity with the other targeted communities or find ways of distinguishing from them.
Hate violence against South Asians since 9/11
The first post-9/11 hate crime came on Sept. 17, 2001, when an Arizona gunman shot and killed Balbir Singh Sodhi, an Indian Sikh immigrant; fired at a gas station clerk of Lebanese descent, and shot at the home of a family of Afghan descent, all apparently intended as retaliation for the 9/11 attacks.
Very soon after, on Oct. 4, 2001, a Texas gunman shot and killed Vasudev Patel, a Hindu Indian, and Waqar Hassan, a Muslim Pakistani. The Texas gunman said he wanted “to retaliate on local Arab Americans, or whatever you want to call them.”
According to a 2015 Department of Justice report, federal agencies have investigated more than 800 incidents since 9/11 involving physical violence, threat and vandalism against Arab Americans, Muslims, Sikhs, South Asian Americans and those perceived to be of Middle Eastern origin.
This has continued now for 15 years. Whenever there’s a major terrorist incident or when an election cycle includes inflammatory rhetoric against Muslims and immigrants, these communities suffer hate violence.
Hostility and hate violence have sharply increased in the past year
The current climate is especially hostile, including sharp rhetoric blaming immigrant professionals in the U.S. on H1B visas — overwhelmingly, these are East and South Asians — for taking American jobs.
Consider the complaint of President Trump’s senior adviser, Stephen K. Bannon, who lamented that two-thirds or three-quarters of CEOs in Silicon Valley are South Asians or Asians, saying, “A country is more than an economy. We are a civic society.” In Bannon’s formulation, South Asians or Asians cannot build the right kind of U.S. civic society — and so should not have such significant economic roles.
Those verbal attacks trickle down into violence. In the past few months, South Asians have seen an unprecedented spike in the rate of hate violence and speech, much as has happened to other U.S. minority groups. South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), an advocacy group, documented 207 incidents of hate violence and xenophobic political rhetoric targeting South Asian, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Middle Eastern and Arab communities in the year leading up to the 2016 elections. That’s a 34 percent increase over the previous report’s three-year period (2011-14), when the group documented only 157 incidents.
My 2016 book “Desis Divided” examined the political lives of South Asian Americans — Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi. Since 9/11, the community has suffered from “security racializing.” All immigrants from across this broad region (and beyond, including Afghanistan and the Middle East) are treated as potential, or even probable, terrorists.
The people I spoke with came from different religions, nationalities and cultures — but found themselves treated as similarly foreign and dangerous. In public spaces like bars and airports, strangers and law enforcement officials were suspicious of their brown bodies. A number of young South Asians in Los Angeles and New York told me that in the months and years after 9/11, they were uncomfortable going to a bar alone. They feared being yelled at, called racial slurs or even physically attacked — which, in some cases, had indeed happened.
The dilemma: Separate or solidify a common identity?
Some Indian Americans have come to believe that economic strength and professional achievements will give them a secure place in the nation. They also argue that their identities are being mistaken and that as Hindus, Sikhs and Christians, they shouldn’t be targeted as Muslims.
But that approach ignores the fundamental dynamics of racism, which dehumanizes people along crude lines, ignoring any internal distinctions among those with broadly similar looks, treating them all as uniformly suspicious. That’s how racism works: By treating those with particular physical characteristics as collectively guilty of some action or inclination, it erases individuality, distinctiveness and humanity.
Srinivas Kuchibhotla’s murder, and the recent increase in attacks more generally, remind Indian Americans that their status in the United States is deeply intertwined with those of other South Asian, Arab and Muslim communities that have been vilified since 9/11.
Sangay K. Mishra is assistant professor of political science at Drew University in New Jersey and author of “Desis Divided: The Political Lives of South Asian Americans” (University of Minnesota Press, 2016).