Deepa Iyer: Trump condemned hate violence in his speech to Congress, but that does little to erase his own divisive rhetoric and policies targeting immigrants and people of color
We need to demand the President backs up his words of unity with actions, she says
Editor’s Note: Deepa Iyer is a civil rights lawyer and writer. She is a senior fellow at the Center for Social Inclusion and the author of “We Too Sing America: South Asian, Arab, Muslim, and Sikh Immigrants Shape Our Multiracial Future.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.
President Trump’s speech to Congress on Tuesday began with references to the threats against Jewish community centers and last week’s violence targeting two Indian-American engineers in Olathe, Kansas, which is being investigated as a hate crime.
While important, President Trump’s statement provides little consolation to communities facing backlash and criminalization in America today. A few words of condemnation cannot erase months of President Trump’s own divisive rhetoric and his administration’s policies targeting and stigmatizing the very communities most vulnerable to hate violence.
The two Indian-American engineers came face to face with the type of bigotry that has emerged since President Trump’s election. Srinivas Kuchibhotla and Alok Madasani were dining at Austin’s Bar and Grill when, witnesses said, a 51-year-old white man, Adam W. Purinton, questioned the men about their immigration status and yelled “Get out of my country.” After being kicked out of the bar, police say Purinton came back and began shooting at Kuchibhotla and Madasani. Kuchibhotla died from his wounds. Madasani and Ian Grillot, a bystander who stepped in to help, remain in critical condition.
Sadly, this form of hate violence is far too common. Since the presidential election, organizations have documented upticks in reports of bias and harassment of immigrants and Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Arab and South Asian communities. President Trump’s criminalization policies that target immigrants, Muslims and people of color through bans, walls and raids have only exacerbated this climate. The administration’s actions send a clear message to the public: Certain people do not belong in America. Given this context, it is not surprising that reports of harassment and discrimination at Jewish community centers, homes and mosques continue to rise.
Unless this pattern of government-sanctioned hostility toward communities of color, Muslims, and immigrants radically changes, condemnations of hate violence can only go so far. And Indian-Americans in particular should demand more than words from the administration.
From my work with South Asian communities experiencing hate violence before and after 9/11, I understand how meaningful it is to receive attention from high-ranking officials in the wake of tragedy. After the hate massacre at a Sikh house of worship in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, in 2012, President Obama’s quick response, Attorney General Eric Holder’s remarks at the memorial service, and first lady Michelle Obama’s meeting with family members all conveyed an important message: We see you and we feel your pain.
But Oak Creek families, community members, and national organizations did not stop there. We pressed for changes in federal hate crime data collection and called for interagency task forces to address the ongoing threat of post 9/11 backlash. Similarly, Indian-Americans must now double down on our commitment to address not only hate violence but also the broader policies of the Trump administration.
This is not the time for Indian-Americans or any community of color to remain on the sidelines or take refuge in the notion that “model minority” status will inoculate us from racism. The idea that educational and economic privilege or “legal” immigration status can prevent discrimination has never served us. Think back to the turn of the 20th century when Sikh and Hindu lumber mill workers were chased out of Bellingham, Washington, or to the harassment faced by Indian-American residents and small businesses from a group calling itself the “Dotbusters” or to the post 9/11 targeting of Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus across the socioeconomic spectrum in airports, workplaces and schools.
No, degrees and bank accounts have never saved us. What we must do is connect deeply with other communities of color, critically analyze government policies, and be ready to confront Islamophobia, anti-immigrant bias and anti-black racism, both within and outside our communities.
That means challenging Trump’s proposed “Combating Islamic Extremism” program that will further stigmatize American Muslims and lead to the surveillance of Muslim youth and Muslim organizations. It means raising our voices against the administration’s “law and order” framework that targets black people and strips away civil rights protections. It means supporting undocumented people subjected to raids just as robustly as standing by Indian H1-B workers likely to be harmed by Trump’s forthcoming executive order.
While Indian-Americans stake our claims of belonging from Oak Creek to Olathe, this struggle against hatred and bigotry is not ours alone to bear. Our local and national elected leaders must decide whether they are comfortable with making statements calling for tolerance in response to every act of hate that occurs, or if they will take political risks to eliminate government-sanctioned and institutional racism.
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Industries that employ immigrants and people of color must become more active in civic society and raise their voices against discriminatory policies that affect their employees and families, as many technology companies did in response to the Muslim ban.
All Americans must play a role, whether this means intervening when peers use racist and xenophobic language, reaching out to neighbors and co-workers from different backgrounds, or demanding inclusive and equitable policies from school boards and city councils.
These are the actions that will go much further than mere words to curb hate violence. To counter the scourge of American backlash, we must continue to demand that our government aligns its actions with its words – and that starts with respecting people in all of their humanity.