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The Zone of Danger in the Era of Trump

By Sarika Ram, Boston University '21

On October 11, 1985, civil rights activist Alex Odeh hurried into his Santa Ana, Calif. office, where he served as the regional director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. The night before, Odeh had appeared on local television and spoke about the need for peace and cooperation between Palestinians and Israelis. As a champion for interfaith unity, he  was scheduled to speak at a Jewish synagogue, the Congregation B’nai Tzadek, later that day. But as Odeh opened the door to his office, a pipe bomb exploded. He was killed.


The assassination of Odeh was one of seven domestic terrorism incidents recorded in 1985 and reflected an era of rising hate violence against Muslim, Arab, and South Asian (MASA) communities in the U.S. Documented incidents of hate against these communities spiked in the aftermath of the Arab-Israeli War and subsequent oil embargo of 1973, Iran Hostage Crisis of 1979, and plane hijackings of 1985. This phenomenon is known as the “backlash effect,” and occurs when violence is relaunched against immigrant communities as a gesture of patriotism after an incident – domestic or international – is perceived as a threat to national security. 


A year after Odeh’s death, in a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee on ethnically-motivated violence against Arab Americans, FBI director William Webster declared that Arab Americans were in a “zone of danger.”


The surge in hate crime against MASA communities — and Odeh’s assassination, in particular— became critical to the passage of the Hate Crime Statistics Act of 1990, which mandated that the federal government collect data about hate crimes, which the FBI defines as as any criminal act with the added element of prejudice on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation.


However, at the same time the government was acknowledging the importance of protecting MASA communities, it was also launching Operation Boulder, a visa screening program targeting Arabs traveling to the US; surveilling Palestinian organizations, including the Palestine Human Rights Campaign and General Union of Palestinian Students; and issuing new profiling guidelines allowing ethnic, religious, and racial profiling, which led to the targeting of Arabs and Muslims by law enforcement.


Today, hate violence and xenophobic political rhetoric continues to be directed toward Arab, South Asian, and Muslim people in the United States — but at even higher rates, and by elected officials.


Escalating Hate


According to FBI data, hate crime has been steadily increasing since the launch of Trump’s campaign in 2015. Of the 7,175 hate crimes reported to the FBI in 2017, 102 were anti-Arab, a 100 percent increase from 2016, and 273 were anti-Muslim, an 11 percent decrease from the previous two years, which saw significant increases in anti-Muslim hate crime. 


The FBI-documented decrease in anti-Muslim hate crime in 2017 despite the recent increase in anti-Muslim hate groups points to the poor quality of federal hate crime data, according to an analysis by the Arab American Institute (AAI). 


The lack of political will by the Department of Justice and law enforcement agencies to collect accurate crime data has placed the burden on communities of color to collect their own hate crime data, according to Mahnoor Hussain, policy associate at South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), an organization that advocates for South Asian Americans and maintains a database of hate crimes targeting South Asian, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Middle Eastern, and Arab communities.


In the year leading up to the 2016 presidential election, there were 207 incidents of hate violence and xenophobic political rhetoric aimed at MASA communities, according to SAALT data.


One year into Trump’s presidency, this figure increased 45 percent. SAALT documented 302 incidents of hate violence and xenophobic political rhetoric during Trump’s first year as president. The organization defines hate violence as “harassment, assaults, threats, murder, and property damage that include bias or animus against individuals or organizations in our communities.” 


The current surge in hate violence against MASA communities is a result of the xenophobia, Islamophobia, and white supremacism rooted in hateful policies, like the Muslim ban, espoused by the Trump administration, Hussain said.


“The hate violence that we're seeing right now is not unprecedented per se,” she said. “It’s a direct response to the institutionalized policies that are pushing hate and discrimination towards our communities.”


In the 213 instances of hate violence documented by SAALT, 1 in 5 perpetrators referenced President Trump, a Trump policy, or a Trump slogan while committing the act of violence. 


For example, on May 2, 2017, Alexander Downing verbally assaulted a Muslim family on a Texas beach, spewing comments like, “Donald Trump will stop you. Donald Trump will stop you! Donald Trump got you motherfuckers. My country is the greatest country in the world.”


Approximately 33 percent of instances of xenophobic political rhetoric documented by SAALT were attributed to President Trump or Trump-elected officials themselves. This past month, Trump directed tweets at four women of color in Congress, telling them to “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.”


Furthermore, on the campaign trail and in the Oval Office, the Trump administration has advocated for policies that have enraged MASA communities, such as surveilling mosques, creating a database of American Muslims and Syrian refugees, and banning people from predominantly Muslim countries from entering the U.S. 


Of the 302 incidents of hate violence documented by SAALT, 82 percent were motivated by anti-Muslim sentiment. Women who wear hijab, head scarves that are a visible indication of one’s Muslim faith, are the most frequent target of hate. Additionally, being perceived as Muslim is often enough to be a target of hate violence. For example, many Sikh, turban-wearing men have been the targets of hate crime, often because they are incorrectly perceived as Muslim by perpetrators. 


The National Crime Victimization Survey administered by the DOJ suggests that these numbers severely underestimate the scope of hate crime in America. The DOJ’s Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that there has been an average of 250,000 hate crimes every year since 2004. This indicates that in 2017, underreporting was occurring at a factor of 35.


Chronic Underreporting


The FBI data on hate crimes suffers from glaring omissions. Notably, the federal data from 2017 showed that there were no hate crimes in Olathe, Kansas. However, Srinivas Kuchibhotla, an Indian immigrant, was fatally shot in an Olathe bar for his perceived national origin – Iranian – on February 23, 2017. The killing received significant national press coverage and was prosecuted as a federal hate crime, but did not appear in the federal hate crime data.


These types of discrepancies are a result of inconsistent data collection by the FBI. Though the Hate Crime Statistics Act of 1990 mandates that the federal government collect accurate hate crime data, 120 federal agencies haven’t complied with that mandate, a ProPublica investigation found.


At the state level, reporting hate crimes to the FBI is largely voluntary. Only 23 states have statutes requiring law enforcement agencies collect hate crime data, report them, and publish annual statistics.


According to ProPublica’s “Documenting Hate” project, thousands of local law enforcement agencies opt to not report hate crime statistics to the FBI. Of those that do, 88 percent reported zero hate crimes in 2016, a figure of which organizations including SAALT and AAI question the validity. 


Often, police officers are not trained to accurately identify and tag hate incidents, which further contributes to underreporting. Only 15 states mandate hate crime training for police certification. 


Underlying many of the issues of underreporting that have concrete solutions lies the much broader, systemic problem of distrust between law enforcement and MASA communities, according to Kai Wiggins, policy analyst at AAI. 


“Especially in a post 9/11 context, there's significant fear and distrust of interfacing with federal authorities or state or local authorities, and those fears and concerns and distress are often justified and often based on lived experience with communities,” he said. 


Emboldened White Nationalism


The rise of Trump has coincided with a steady increase in the number of hate groups operating in America. The Southern Poverty Law Center counted a record high 1,020 hate groups in 2018, the fourth consecutive year of hate group growth.


Most hate groups, including the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis, and white nationalists, are organized around some form of white supremacism that is typically anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim. In 2018, the number of white supremacist groups increased by 50 percent. Black nationalist groups, such as the Nation of Islam and Israel United in Christ, have also expanded in recent years. This past year, the number of black nationalist group chapters grew from 233 to 264.


However, unlike black nationalist groups, white supremacist groups have been legitimized by the Trump administration,  Swathi Shanmugasundaram, a senior research analyst at SPLC, said


“A lot of former employees from anti-immigrant groups and anti-Muslim groups either have allies in the White House, or they're in the White House themselves,” she said.


For example, the Director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, Lee Cissna, was the keynote speaker at an event hosted by the Center for Immigration Studies, an SPLC-designated anti-immigration hate group, in August of 2018.


The newfound voice white supremacism has secured in the White House has emboldened hate violence toward immigrant, Muslim, LGBTQ, and black and brown communities, according to analyses by SAALT and SPLC. 


FBI data from 2017 reveals that among the more than 6,000 hate crimes in which the race of the offender was known, over 50 percent of the perpetrators were identified as white. However, when adjusting for population size, hate crime perpetrators were disproportionately people of color, pointing to flaws in the criminal legal system, according to Wiggins. He said that the overrepresentation of people of color among hate crime offenders is likely not based in empirical truth, but rather, demonstrates a “level of bias” within the criminal legal system.


“Police officers might be more ready to report hate crimes against certain communities than others,” Wiggins said. “From the federal data that we have available, we have concerns that there is disproportionate enforcement or response to hate crimes targeting different communities.”


Even when the perpetrator of a hate crime is a person of color, the theoretical framework through which they perpetuate hate is rooted in white supremacism, Hussain said. 


“The concept of white indoctrinated by the institutions and policies that we're embedded in, and it's very difficult for communities of color to escape from that,” she said.


Through fundraising, the ways in which white supremacist groups perpetuate hate violence has become increasingly sophisticated.


A report by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), “Hijacked by Hate,” estimates that approximately $1.5 billion has been invested in anti-Muslim groups by over 1,000 reputed philanthropic organizations, including the Boy Scouts, American Red Cross, and the Salvation Army, between 2014 and 2016. 


The money that has been funneled into what CAIR refers to as the “Islamophobia Network” has resulted in increased efforts by hate groups to lobby lawmakers and radicalize young people through social media.


Since 2010, SPLC has tracked 227 anti-Muslim bills that have been introduced in state and federal legislatures condemning sharia law and creating a civil cause of action against people directly and indirectly involved in acts of terrorism, which could cause mosques and Muslim businesses to be held partially responsible for radicalist attacks. Many hate group leaders have successfully advocated for and even drafted this anti-Muslim legislation, Freedom of Information Act requests made by SPLC reveal.


With the rise of social media, hate groups have capitalized on platforms like Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp, which have become the primary way people are radicalized. Most Internet and social media platforms have not made sufficient efforts to regulate hateful activity, Shanmugasundaram said. Several payment platform, hosting, and advertising technology companies continue to provide services to SPLC-designated hate groups.


This past April, the House Judiciary Committee convened a hearing on hate violence and white nationalism to “examine hate crimes, the impact white nationalist groups have on American communities, and the spread of white identity ideology.” 


SAALT, CAIR, and other organizations representing MASA communities issued a statement of concern in regards to the hearing, saying that Congress has not yet addressed the important link between white supremacist policies and political rhetoric and increasing incidents of hate.


The escalation in hate crimes accompanying the rise of Trump highlights a longstanding and deep seated relationship between state violence and hate violence, said Arjun Singh Sethi, a community activist, civil rights lawyer, and author of American Hate, a collection of testimonials from survivors of hate violence.


“It's easy to condemn hate violence, and we all generally recognize that is unconscionable,” Singh Sethi said. “But so is state violence that inflicts a similar type of harm on impacted communities. If the government thinks it's appropriate to ban Muslims and refugees, cage and separate immigrant families, wage war on women, and double and triple down on mass incarceration, it's going to put a target on our back.”


Looking Ahead


Currently, Rep. Don Beyer is pushing for passage of the NO HATE Act, a comprehensive hate crime bill creating incentives for federal law enforcement to submit an accurate and complete record of hate crimes, funding state hate crime hotlines, and diverting perpetrators of hate crimes from incarceration to education and community service. SAALT, AAI, and the SPLC endorse the passage of the NO HATE Act.


To address the poor quality of both state and federal level data, community organizations have also called upon state legislatures to mandate hate crime data collection by local law enforcement and hate crime training for police certification. 


From his experience traveling the US and speaking to survivors of hate violence, Singh Sethi said there is a critical need to support community organizations that are best positioned to help survivors and provide essential resources they are currently lacking, including mental health resources to address PTSD.


To identify and fill the gaps that survivors experience, he said it is essential to look to survivors themselves for solutions.


“Survivors have so many of the solutions we seek,” Singh Sethi said. “Instead of parachuting into communities and telling them what they need, we should instead be listening to what they need and doing our very best to support them.”


For example, many survivors of hate violence report that they aren’t able to secure a substantial sense of justice following an incident of hate, according to a recent AAI report. This demands stronger hate crime laws, Singh Sethi said, because the recovery period for a hate crime is two to three times longer than it is for other crimes. Furthermore, according to him, stronger hate crime laws are necessary for politicians and the media to understand the root cause of hate in America.


The systemic nature of hate in the United States is most powerfully visible in schools. According to an SPLC report entitled Hate at School, there were 821 school-based incidents of hate and bias reported in the media in 2018. The report recommended that teachers be equipped with the educational resources and skills to combat hate in the classroom and local school boards be held accountable for school climate and student safety. 


“We can't dismiss these incidents of hate as a one- off,” Singh Sethi said. “Instead we can understand them as being rooted in white supremacy, anti-black racism, misogyny, and so many of these destructive forces that have been around ever since this country was created.”

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