Posted by Ibrahim Diallo on October 25, 2018 in Blog

On Tuesday, October 23, 2018, the Arab American Institute hosted civil rights lawyer and community activist Arjun Singh Sethi to discuss his recent book, “American Hate: Survivors Speak Out.” The event was coordinated as part of AAI’s monthly Generations Series.

AAI Executive Director Maya Berry began the evening with an introduction of Sethi and his work, stating he has “provide[d] incredible context” to the pressing issue of hate violence in this country. In his book, Sethi chronicles the stories of individuals affected by hate, whom he calls “survivors.” With representation from many different targeted or vulnerable communities, these survivors convey their stories in their own words and elaborate on how damaging political rhetoric and harmful policies have exacerbated discrimination, bullying, and violence against them and their loved ones.  

While the cases described in “American Hate” are diverse, Sethi observed a pattern during his interviews. “So many survivors feel estranged from by their own stories,” he said, noting that survivors are often forced to relive and retell their victimizations—whether in court or in the media. “Many feel like their story is reduced to just soundbites and clickbait, which are soon forgotten or become afterthoughts.” In order to restore agency to survivors, Sethi therefore decided to call each story a “testimonial.” According to Sethi, this language and other editorial decisions encourage readers to see individuals affected by hate as human beings while ensuring against the reductive framing that so often occurs in these cases. Each survivor is heard, and each testimonial shines a light moving forward.

After Sethi concluded a powerful reading from excerpts of his book, Berry led a moderated discussion with input from the audience about the issue of hate violence and how to form an effective response. Sethi noted that “since 2016, there has been an uptick of hate crime across the nation.” AAI Policy Associate Kai Wiggins provided context to this observation with a discussion of the Institute’s extensive work on hate crime reporting and data collection. AAI has conducted research on 2017 state-level hate crime statistics in preparation for the release of our 2019 Hate Crime Index. According to Wiggins, the data suggest that 2017 FBI statistics will show yet another increase when they are published next month. This would represent the first three-year consecutive annual increase since 2001, when there was an unprecedented backlash of targeted violence against Arab Americans and American Muslims, along with those perceived to be Arab or Muslim, in the aftermath of 9/11.

Sethi also discussed some of the barriers to hate crime reporting, citing multiple reasons why hate crime victims do not report their victimizations to police. “There are fears in the undocumented community of being deported, some people don’t want to reveal their sexual orientation or gender identity, others fear surveillance from criminal justice authorities after they report the hate crime,” he said.

Toward the end of the discussion, Berry introduced the notion of restorative justice in hate crime sentencing. Over the course of his interviews, Sethi noticed that despite “pain, grief and suffering, survivors remain optimistic, forgiving, and even understanding. To the point that they are being supportive of restorative justice issues nationwide.”

Sethi then concluded the discussion with the following statement: “If we want to solve this problem, we have to get closer to the survivors. The hope is that we move forward, and we will increasingly center survivors and their focus. They just want their voices to be heard.”

Ibrahim Diallo is a 2018 Fall Intern at the Arab American Institute.

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