I thought Deepa Iyer’s new book, We Too Sing America: South Asian, Arab, Muslim, and Sikh Immigrants Shape Our Multiracial Future, would be about positive and jarring cultural contributions from immigrants, how their literature, music, myths, cooking, clothing, and cultural practices are merging with and influencing wider U.S. culture. I think that would be a good book. Maybe someone’s written it.
This, too, is a good book, and I recommend it. But it is mostly about the all-too-familiar story of post-911 prejudice, racism, violence, and police profiling and abuse, with a particular focus on South Asians. As an opponent of murder in any form, my first response to this topic is usually: Take the guns away! Hatred doesn’t kill people — hatred in people with guns kills people! But of course I’d love to take the hatred away as well and get the gun deaths down to accidents, suicides, and non-hate crimes.
I admit some uncertainty as to how we can identify a gun murder as free of hate. Here’s how Iyer describes hate crimes:
“Hate violence affects everyone in America. A hate crime affects not only the person being targeted but the entire community to which that person belongs. Acts of hate violence can disrupt and affect even those who do not belong [to] the community being directly targeted, as we witnessed in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, where non-Sikhs also experienced fear and anxiety in the wake of the massacre.”
Of course, that sounds almost identical to the effects of a non-hate school shooting. A value to be found in distinguishing crimes motivated by, for example, hatred of Muslims, lies in the consequent ability to report on and know how widespread that phenomenon is. Does badmouthing Muslims encourage shooting them? Does shooting them encourage discriminating against them? We cannot study and address these matters if we don’t identify them. And of course, fearing being shot for living in a country whose government has been purchased by the NRA, is not exactly the same as fearing being shot for being a Muslim and living in a country whose government has been purchased by the NRA. Hatred of part of your identity can make you want to hide that identity and/or resent the suggestion that you should do so and/or internalize the idea of inferiority, etc.
On the other hand, hate crimes laws don’t just produce data. Neither do they do anything to reduce racism or other bigotry or to address underlying insecurities and grievances. What they do, as Iyer points out, is increase long sentences in the U.S. mass incarceration system.
Much of the work that Iyer describes being undertaken by community groups in support of abused minorities and crime victims involves attempting to tweak the flood of sewage spewing forth from the corporate media. She urges reporters not to talk about non-Muslim people having been mistaken for Muslims when they’ve been attacked. Her reason is that this could be taken to imply that it’s all right to attack Muslims. That sounds crazy, but of course she is right that that could happen. Why, then, does locking people up for additional years or decades because they killed while racist not risk implying that it’s OK to kill while not racist? It seems no more crazy.
The permanent U.S. war on the Middle East has fed the streams of both private and police hate crimes, and that war has trained many to believe that, in fact, it is OK to kill only while believing in racism and bigotry. Members of the military cannot avoid thinking that, while killing was wrong all through their childhood, something has suddenly made it acceptable when they are ordered to engage in it. For many the dehumanizing tactic that allows them to obey their orders is racism. Such racism at home, Iyer argues, enables the United States to keep going to war.
And what about the endless FBI frame-ups, the profiling, the deportations, and all the racist abuse by “law enforcement” — why aren’t these hate crimes? Don’t they set examples and influence the broader culture? If someone in Germany proposes immigration policies resembling those of the United States they are immediately denounced for racism and hatred.
Iyer’s book is full of heart-wrenching stories of raging racist hatred and violence, and the suffering it creates. She also proposes some good ideas rarely heard about in the corporate media, including reparations for the victims of post-911 state bigotry, on the model of reparations for the victims of the Japanese-American internment camps.
What really breaks my heart in reading so many accounts of the sort of nastiness that has just helped lead that young man whose school clock project was labeled a bomb to leave the United States for someplace less hostile, is the focus of the corrective work on trying to influence the corporate media. We all know how awful the corporate media is, how little it is turned into a force for good, and what minor partial tweaks are proclaimed as victories by activists.
We need a communications system that ceases to condone hatred or violence, that includes all voices in its communications, and that condemns cruelty — whether public or private — without exception.