Posted by Guest on March 23, 2018 in Blog

By Laura Neumayer

“There is a direct relationship between the advancement of a political agenda and the rise of hate and bigotry,” Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) stated Wednesday on the Hill. The defacement of places of worship, physical and verbal assault, arson, and a number of other offenses have increased in number, especially in the wake of the 2016 election. Encouraged by President Trump’s rhetoric and policy agenda, an environment has been fostered in which hate and bigotry, though ever-present in this country, is publicly tolerated, and, at times, encouraged. In support of its most recent report, “Communities on Fire,” South Asian Americans Leading Together, better known as SAALT, gathered specialists from AAI, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the Sikh Coalition and National Organization, and the D.C. Justice for Muslims Coalition, as well as representatives from the House and Senate, to discuss the rise in policies and national rhetoric that are creating a more hostile environment for American immigrants and citizens alike.  

The past few years have seen an increase in hate, crimes and bigotry not only in the United States but across the globe. Nationalist movements have threatened some of the world’s most established democracies, sparking noticeable election anxiety in Germany and France and summoning the ghosts of Italy’s past. These movements, marked by anti-immigrant and xenophobic sentiments, found footholds in the triumph of Donald Trump in 2016 and his continued push for legislation that supports these sentiments. At the heart of the U.S. hate crime crisis lies not just the inconsistency between state and federal reporting, but the schism between targeted communities and law enforcement agencies. In the United States, underreporting is a remarkable and grim factor in the collection of hate crime statistics. AAI’s Executive Director Maya Berry explains, “we have communities whose relationship with law enforcement has been impacted so negatively for a variety of reasons,” which in turn proves to be a hindrance in reporting and collecting accurate data. In the same vein, data shows that of the 15,254 law enforcement agencies participating in the FBI Hate Crime Statistics Program, only 1,775 of them reported data. This mass underreporting means there is a critical shortage in accurate information that could help us address the needs of targeted communities.

Using data from the organization’s most recent report, Rating the Response, Berry highlighted a shocking statistic: only six of the fifty states met all criteria for a strong response to hate crimes. Even worse, hate crimes in the United States are very much on the rise. “The 2016 total of 307 incidents is second only to 2001, in the immediate aftermath of the terror attacks of 9/11,” Berry remarked. With rampant xenophobia on the rise, stories of an Arab American elderly couple verbally assaulted at the grocer have surfaced to the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, where a wife desperately sought mental health resources for her terrified husband. In King County, WA, multiple incidents of violent physical assault have been carried out against the expanding minority communities in the area. In many of these communities, the lack of adequate action by law enforcement is deeply concerning, but also indicative of the current climate. When a Sikh Uber driver was held at gunpoint for his religion and race and law enforcement was slow to act, media, instead of questioning the lack of action, inquired instead as to his status as an immigrant. This blatant red herring on the part of the media not only trivialized the victim’s experience, but framed the crime “as if it was acceptable to commit an act of violence against someone based on their legal status,” according to the Sikh Coalition’s Sim Singh. The lack of scrutiny on law enforcement’s investigation of the incident proves a larger problem is at hand. “Without the proper data and without the proper tracking, how can we ever know the true extent?”

Not even the diverse stronghold of Washington, D.C. is immune to hate and bigotry, and it happens right under our noses. In the DMV area, trends and patterns of bias incidents, hate crime and xenophobia are similar to those nationally and internationally, but, much like any community, vary due to different intervening institutions. The D.C. community, according to Darakshan Raja, co-founder of the D.C. Justice for Muslims Coalition, is fragmented. What’s more, legal institutions are not providing adequate support for targeted communities. When D.C. Justice for Muslims Coalition was approached by multiple Arab women who were sexually assaulted and threatened for reporting by the same man (on grounds that they would be reported as potential terrorists), it organized a meeting with law enforcement. Raja said detectives showed “a lot of apathy” towards the issue of sexual violence and instead focused on the perpetrator, not understanding the importance of community outreach and relations in the situation. Nabra Hassanen, a 17-year old kidnapped and murdered in her home state of Virginia, seems to have been targeted for her identity as a black Muslim woman. This attack on identity does not just impact the individual, but threatens a community with a shared identity. After Nabra was victim-blamed and her memorial set on fire in DuPont Circle, D.C. Justice for Muslims Coalition held a gathering for Muslim women in the area to discuss the personal implications of this violence. As the question of worth and protection filled the room, the organization set up a Muslim Women’s Wellness and Resistance Program to provide a support network, mental health resources, safe space, and organizing space for Muslim women in the DMV. 

What, then, becomes the proper response to the escalating hate crime crisis in the United States? Raja sought to paint a “narrative of resistance.” She said post the 9/11 backlash, the seeds of activism were sewn in young teenagers. These teens, now full-fledged young adults, are now not only in a position to question why policy exists, but to actually demand more from their representatives. The new generation of activists are not passive, but heavily engaged and organizing. “Across the country, there’s some really dynamic leadership emerging at the local level,” Raja noted.

However, change cannot just be made at the grassroots level—organizers and activists need the cooperation of law enforcement and a change in legislation. “We have seen when law enforcement has the opportunity to hear directly from community members that law enforcement officers are willing to step up and change,” reflected the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law’s Becky Monroe. Indeed, the opportunity for police chiefs to come together with the community to learn has helped the International Association of Chiefs of Police recognize its need to do more, especially within relation to the creation of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law’s Action Agenda.

Acknowledging intersectional identities in hate crimes is also fundamental. At a roundtable with the D.C. Council, Raja communicated the need of D.C. local legislators to address sexual harassment not only as a gender issue, but as a religious issue and a racial issue. In turn, WMATA began a campaign against sexual harassment, with a key advertisement depicting a woman in a hijab captioned “sexual harassment is not okay.” Raja found this small success an example of the difference that can be made when legislators engage against bigotry. Where reporting is concerned, states need to get on board with a consistent hate crime response system. “It would really help us if these state policies were just dismantled because they add and create an environment that signals to people that you cannot only target this community, but actually do it with impunity,” Raja concluded. While the climate created by the current administration cannot be addressed by any one individual overnight, addressing state policies, as Berry stated, and creating an inclusive and comprehensive response policy can make leaps and bounds in protecting vulnerable communities, especially where our leaders have fallen short.

Laura Neumayer is a spring 2018 intern at the Arab American Institute.