When Ricky Best and Taliesin Namkai-Meche boarded a light-rail train in Portland, Ore., on Friday night, they never could have imagined they wouldn’t make it home. The two men were stabbed to death after confronting a man for yelling slurs at a Muslim woman and her friend. A third intervener, Micah David-Cole, is being treated for serious, non-life-threatening injuries. The suspect, a white supremacist known to police, openly performed Nazi salutes and shouted racial slurs at a rally last month in Portland. White supremacist, Islamophobic and anti-Semitic posts were a fixture on his Facebook page.
Communities of color experience hate in every aspect of our lives. It braids through our daily existence, just like friendship, work and family. We encounter it in schools, workplaces and public life. And what we fear most is hate violence, the kind that was on full display in Portland this weekend.
Muslims, Arabs, Sikhs and South Asians are acutely vulnerable to hate. Since the 2016 presidential election, the Southern Poverty Law Center has tracked more than 1,000 bias-related incidents, many against Muslims. It also has reported that the number of anti-Muslim organizations in the United States grew from 34 in 2015 to 101 in 2016. Muslim women often bear the brunt of this mistreatment, especially if they wear a hijab. The slurs uttered on the train in Portland occur regularly nationwide.
In the aftermath of a tragedy like this one, there’s usually an outpouring of emotion and an important set of rapid responses. We decry the violence, raise money for the victims’ families and push local prosecutors to file hate crime charges. Community groups also encourage the reporting and tracking of hate crimes, as reporting remains voluntary, not mandatory. In addition, we ask affected communities to be vigilant and watchful. The threat of copycat attacks is real and can be deadly. Some of these efforts already are underway in Portland.
These are important and time-tested interventions, but they aren’t enough. Hate violence will continue to be a scourge in the United States if we don’t root out the bigotry and animus that cultivate it.
We must acknowledge, condemn and combat white supremacy. The belief that white people are superior to other races is responsible for some of the greatest tragedies in modern history. Manifest destiny, the genocide of Native Americans, slavery, Jim Crow and even mass incarceration are inextricably rooted in white supremacy. This belief system proliferates in the United States, including in places such as Portland, where local community organizations such as the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon and Unite Oregon have fought tirelessly to combat it.
Hundreds of hate groups now champion white supremacy and draw inspiration from President Trump, whose rhetoric and policies have emboldened their nativism and prejudice. The number of hate groups in the nation increased in 2016 for the second consecutive year. Some of these groups skulked in the shadows before Trump; now they bask in the limelight.
In February, a white American allegedly killed Srinivas Kuchibhotla, an Indian American in Kansas whom he had mistaken for Iranian. The attacker yelled “get out of my country” before firing. In March, a known white supremacist allegedly killed James Jackson, an elderly black man in New York City, apparently because Jackson was black. Last week, a white American allegedly killed Richard W. Collins III, a young black man, on the campus of the University of Maryland. The suspect was a member of a Facebook group called Alt-Reich: Nation. And now there’s Portland. These are just a sample. Threats, assault, vandalism, nooses and murder make the headlines almost every day.
Some of what these hate groups say and do is protected by the First Amendment, if it falls short of violence. But there are still plenty of ways to combat their ideology.
In the wake of Trump’s travel ban, people rallied in the streets and airports to condemn what they believed to be prejudice and discrimination against Muslims. This groundswell of support made a difference in the litigation and in the hearts and minds of Muslims and others worldwide. Why can’t the public show the same energy and resolve when white supremacy and hate violence strike our communities?
Many of you will have the opportunity to raise your voice soon. Act for America, the largest anti-Muslim grass-roots organization in the country, recently announced a series of anti-Muslim protests in 23 cities, including Portland. Counter-rallies and other forms of resistance are planned and will be announced soon. Local and national organizations nationwide have been fighting white supremacy for decades. Connect with them, support them and raise your voice. We cannot and must not shoulder this burden alone.
In addition to condemnation and protest, hold teach-ins on white supremacy at your houses of worship and community centers. Invite and center communities affected by hate violence, listen to their stories — and be guided by their needs and leadership. As a Sikh American and a member of a community acutely impacted by hate, I can tell you every intervention matters. Hate thrives in company; it dies in solitude.
Nor should you wait for white supremacists to strike first. Coalitions of diverse professionals, including teachers, coaches, public health professionals, counselors and community leaders, should develop programing and interventions to track, treat and curb hate locally. Networks like this also allow us to more effectively respond to hate violence whenever it occurs. This programming should also include upstander trainings. We must honor the memories of those who were killed in Portland by standing for the same principles they did — courage, sacrifice and justice — not shying away from them.
We must likewise reject government policies that treat our communities as inherently suspect. Such policies foster misunderstanding, fear and bigotry. Muslims, Arabs and South Asians live under a specter of securitization and surveillance. Counterterrorism programs such as watch lists, the recently dismantled National Security Entry-Exit Registration System, countering violent-extremism initiatives and federal profiling guidelines look upon our communities as guilty and dangerous. Other communities are disproportionately affected by police violence, mass incarceration and deportation. Those with multiple identities, such as black Muslims or LGBTQ immigrants, experience a devastating compounding of these policies.
Trump has intensified this second-class citizenship through immigration raids and the specter of bans and walls. He continues to view Muslims as valuable only insofar as they fight and condemn terrorism. His recent statement commemorating Ramadan focused predominantly on violence and terrorism, and only of the sort ostensibly committed in the name of Islam.
An array of elected officials and civic leaders will condemn the Portland tragedy in the coming days. But will they condemn the criminalization and national security policies that cultivate hate and bigotry? Will they help illuminate and dismantle these policies, which inevitably reinforce notions of white privilege and prejudice? If the government sees our communities as inherently suspect and unworthy of dignity and respect, so will everyday Americans.
Finally, the media and public must be held accountable for double standards that mischaracterize violence and terrorism. White suspects who perpetrate mass atrocities are often humanized and described as shooters and mentally ill lone wolves. They’re seen as holding personal grievances and capable of rehabilitation. But when the suspect is Muslim, brown, black or a combination thereof, they are often described as terrorists, who are deliberately evil, inspired by collective grievance, incapable of intervention. This familiar accounting happened just this weekend, when the spokesperson for the Portland police wondered whether the suspect had “mental-health issues.” The result is that we obscure how white supremacy informs hate violence in the United States and lose an opportunity to combat it, just as we would other hateful ideologies.
This racist narrative also diminishes the pain and suffering our communities endure. It means the tragedies inflicted on us sometimes don’t even make front-page news. We fear the Islamic State as much as white supremacy. And so should you. The greatest threat facing our country comes from homegrown white supremacists, not Muslims or refugees. Yet we don’t treat it with the requisite level of urgency, because we dismiss these acts of violence as isolated incidents rather than manifestations of a deeper ideology rooted in hate.
I always celebrate Memorial Day by remembering those who stood for peace and justice. Today I remember Ricky Best and Taliesin Namkai-Meche, the heroes of Portland. Their selfless sacrifice will live forever.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that both women being harassed on the train in Portland were Muslim. In fact, only one was.