15 Years Later: Transforming Our Demographic Power into Political Power

Sep­tem­ber 11, 2016
Con­tact: Lak­sh­mi Sri­daran, lakshmi@saalt.org

It has been fif­teen years since the attacks of Sep­tem­ber 11, 2001, fif­teen years since South Asian Amer­i­cans vis­i­bly joined the con­ver­sa­tion on race in Amer­i­ca, and fif­teen years of poli­cies that have stripped our com­mu­ni­ties of civ­il lib­er­ties. In the mean­time, South Asian Amer­i­cans have emerged as the fastest grow­ing demo­graph­ic group in the nation, at near­ly 4.5 mil­lion strong. While Sep­tem­ber 11th gal­va­nized engage­ment and mobi­liza­tion in our com­mu­ni­ties and seed­ed mul­ti­ple South Asian orga­ni­za­tions across the coun­try, there has been lit­tle progress toward stem­ming the tide of vio­lence against our com­mu­ni­ties. Accord­ing to FBI hate crimes sta­tis­tics released last year, anti-Mus­lim crimes are the only cat­e­go­ry to see an increase. For the first time this year, we will be able to see the results of the FBI final­ly adding cat­e­gories for hate crimes com­mit­ted against Sikhs, Arabs, and Hin­dus. Even this data will only tell a frac­tion of the sto­ry: report­ing of hate crimes by local law enforce­ment is not manda­to­ry. Fed­er­al gov­ern­ment esti­mates indi­cate that the actu­al num­ber of hate crimes com­mit­ted against Mus­lim, Arab, and South Asian com­mu­ni­ties is like­ly 25 to 40 per­cent high­er than what the FBI reports.

In response to the attacks in Paris and San Bernardi­no last year and the ensu­ing back­lash against our com­mu­ni­ties, SAALT cre­at­ed an online data­base to track inci­dents of hate vio­lence and speech tar­get­ing South Asian, Arab, and Mus­lim com­mu­ni­ties and indi­vid­u­als. In just eight months, we have already doc­u­ment­ed near­ly 100 inci­dents of hate vio­lence and almost 70 instances of xeno­pho­bic polit­i­cal rhetoric tar­get­ing our com­mu­ni­ties. This is par­tic­u­lar­ly trou­bling giv­en our 2014 report, “Under Sus­pi­cion, Under Attack” cap­tured 76 inci­dents of hate vio­lence and 78 instances of xeno­pho­bic polit­i­cal rhetoric, over­whelm­ing­ly moti­vat­ed by anti-Mus­lim sen­ti­ment, in a three-year peri­od. In that report, we also found that over two-thirds of the rhetoric came from lead­ers at the nation­al lev­el. The cur­rent rhetoric of white suprema­cy under­pinned by anti-Mus­lim and anti-immi­grant sen­ti­ment has made the 2016 elec­tion year ugli­er than ever. These sen­ti­ments are not mere­ly words alone; they are borne out in a num­ber of poli­cies that rein­force those mes­sages by paint­ing our com­mu­ni­ties as un-Amer­i­can and dis­loy­al, which have very real con­se­quences in our com­mu­ni­ties. The sharp rise in both xeno­pho­bic polit­i­cal rhetoric and hate vio­lence cre­ate an increas­ing­ly hos­tile cli­mate for our com­mu­ni­ties that make us all vul­ner­a­ble.

On the oth­er side of this equa­tion, we have seen the mas­sive growth of a racial pro­fil­ing and sur­veil­lance infra­struc­ture by our gov­ern­ment that sin­gu­lar­ly tar­gets Mus­lim Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ties in the name of nation­al secu­ri­ty. Our com­mu­ni­ties see a mixed mes­sage when the gov­ern­men­t’s poli­cies make us the tar­gets of racial and reli­gious pro­fil­ing even as we face hate vio­lence and ask law enforce­ment to keep us safe. The result­ing and pro­found mis­trust our com­mu­ni­ties have in gov­ern­ment leads to hate crimes going under­re­port­ed and cre­ates a vicious cycle of vic­tim­iza­tion. One case in point is the fed­er­al Coun­ter­ing Vio­lent Extrem­ism (CVE) pro­gram, which has bur­geoned into a mul­ti-pronged effort to spy on Mus­lim com­mu­ni­ties in their places of work, wor­ship, recre­ation, and now even in schools through the ‘Don’t Be a Pup­pet Pro­gram’ in the name of iden­ti­fy­ing “rad­i­cal extrem­ism.” Rather than address­ing the grow­ing threat of white suprema­cy as per­pe­tra­tors of vio­lence, CVE nar­row­ly focus­es on Mus­lim Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ties alone. The South­ern Pover­ty Law Cen­ter has care­ful­ly doc­u­ment­ed the growth of white suprema­cist groups, includ­ing a trou­bling spike in 2015. CVE evokes the Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Entry-Exit Reg­is­tra­tion Sys­tem (NSEERS) pro­gram imple­ment­ed imme­di­ate­ly after Sep­tem­ber 11, 2001. Through NSEERS, more than 80,000 South Asian, Mus­lim, Arab, and Mid­dle East­ern men were required to reg­is­ter with the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment; thou­sands more were sub­ject­ed to addi­tion­al inter­ro­ga­tion, deten­tion, and depor­ta­tion. The exten­sive, expen­sive, and mis­guid­ed pro­gram did not result in a sin­gle ter­ror­ism-relat­ed con­vic­tion. The Depart­ment of Jus­tice pol­i­cy on the use of race by law enforce­ment green­lights pro­fil­ing in the name of nation­al and bor­der secu­ri­ty, rein­forc­ing racial and reli­gious pro­fil­ing every­day in our neigh­bor­hoods, bor­ders, and air­ports. No pol­i­cy address­es the epi­dem­ic of police vio­lence tar­get­ing the Black com­mu­ni­ty, which is the foun­da­tion of racial pro­fil­ing in this coun­try. Final­ly, our immi­gra­tion sys­tem con­tin­ues to cast our com­mu­ni­ties as sus­pi­cious and dis­loy­al. This year, Bangladeshi Mus­lim asy­lum seek­ers were con­fined, force-fed, and ulti­mate­ly deport­ed by Immi­gra­tion and Cus­toms Enforce­ment (ICE) while their cas­es were still being appealed in immi­gra­tion courts. Rather than being pro­tect­ed from polit­i­cal per­se­cu­tion in Bangladesh, these asy­lum seek­ers were denied their civ­il rights in the U.S. and returned home against their will, almost cer­tain to face vio­lence.

The polit­i­cal rhetoric is painful and dan­ger­ous, but the poli­cies that are unfold­ing every­day in our com­mu­ni­ties are even more insid­i­ous. Regard­less of the out­come of the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, the impact of these poli­cies and the ris­ing tide of hate vio­lence will con­tin­ue if we do not demand change now. We have come a long way in fif­teen years because our com­mu­ni­ties are vis­i­ble, vocal, and much more orga­nized. The work ahead of us is about trans­form­ing our demo­graph­ic pow­er into polit­i­cal pow­er. As our nation plans for a future with a major­i­ty peo­ple of col­or pop­u­la­tion, includ­ing South Asian Amer­i­cans at the fore­front of that growth, we must ensure our coun­try’s found­ing prin­ci­ples apply equal­ly across com­mu­ni­ties. Fif­teen years after Sep­tem­ber 11th, lib­er­ty and jus­tice for all remains a dream deferred for Mus­lim, Arab, and South Asian com­mu­ni­ties. On this Patri­ot Day, we are remind­ed that as a nation we can and must do bet­ter.