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Rising Hate Crimes:TRUST DEFICIT IN US, By Amrita Banerjee, 30 June 2015 Print E-mail

Round The World

New Delhi, 30 June 2015

Rising Hate Crimes


By Amrita Banerjee

Research Scholar, JNU, New Delhi


The mass shooting on 17 June at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, US raised very pertinent questions about the frequency and extent of hate crimes in America. A 21-year old white Dylan Roof's who had earlier posted a racial manifesto online was charged with shooting and killing nine people, including a senior pastor and State Senator Clementa C. Pinckney.

Notably, hate crimes in the US, as a category of deviance has become a part and parcel of American life today. Though it wasn’t the first time that an incident of this kind has happened, Charleston seemed different as the nation led by President Obama rallied together to express their shock and disapproval.

Undoubtedly, the Charleston attack raises many critical issues impinging on the US polity and social fabric. One, the fragile relationship between whites and blacks and the age-old racial fissures which refuse to go away. According to recent FBI statistics, there were a total of 3,407 hate crimes motivated by race in 2013 out of which 2,263 attacks were on Black or African Americans.

In fact, an average African-American still believes he can get no justice at the hands of a white-dominated jury system or respite from the law enforcement agencies. Recall, last August, the fatal shooting of an African-American youth by a Ferguson (Missouri) policeman erupted in large-scale violence. The jury’s decision not to indict the officer only widened black and white estrangement.

Perhaps the most questioned aspect of the criminal justice policy and enforcement is the continued high rate of incarceration of African-Americans, considered disproportionate to their numbers in the country’s population. This perceived imbalance causes maximum offence to most African-Americans across the nation.

Indeed, the Charleston attack bore strong resemblance to the racist attack against a politically active black church in Birmingham, Alabama, back in 1963. The Charleston church is one of US’ oldest black churches and has long been a site for community organization around civil rights. At that time this historic church stood amidst a black majority locality which changed considerably since 1980 to become a white majority one in 2010.

Two, is the vexatious question to ensure that firearms do not fall into wrong hands. Alas, the cold reality in America is that persons with a dubious record can also get gun licences by taking advantage of the Constitutional ‘right to bear arms’, A provision which has been very loosely interpreted.

A catalyst in this appalling situation is the clout that the pro-gun lobby like the National Rifles Association (NRA) enjoys. President Obama, who waxed eloquent in favour of a stricter gun policy before he was elected, had to tone down his opposition to the NRA because the latter is politically too powerful to be antagonised.

True, the White House go all out to give expression to its determination to put an end to the gun menace whenever there are serious incidents like the Virginia Tech case in April 2007 and the Connecticut Sandy Hook Elementary School case in December 2012. However, such resolve does not go beyond rhetoric.

Moreover, the Administration’s travails are compounded by a judiciary that has put its foot down against any wholesale ban on firearms. It endorses only reasonable restrictions on ownership and the right to carry a weapon from place to place.

Three, is the question whether the Charleston massacre can be called an act of terrorism. As terrorism is defined as a violent crime to intimidate or coerce civilian population by means of mass assassination or destruction to draw attention of the Government to their cause. From what we know so far about Dylan Roof's apparent motivation and behaviour, this definition fits.

Besides, many people have noted that the only obvious difference between Roof and the people Americans have in recent years called terrorists is that Roof is white and not Muslim. One petition, calling on the Department of Justice to prosecute Roof as a terrorist, has gathered over 50,000 signatures.

Add to this, South Carolina does not have a hate crimes law and federal investigators believe that a murder case alone would leave the racial component of the crime unaddressed.

Categorizing mass violence motivated by bigotry as domestic terrorism would also compel the Federal Government to study, monitor, track, prosecute and ultimately prevent the hateful actions of radical right groups stimulated by notions of white supremacy.

Thus, it is vital that the Federal Government allocate resources towards countering violent extremism by hate groups that target communities of colour and faith.

On this sombre occasion, President Obama even delivered a passionate discourse on America's racial history and then broke into song during a eulogy for the State Senator and pastor, slain along with eight other black churchgoers in the Charleston massacre.

As an emotive homage this is likely to be remembered as one of the defining moments in his Presidency but much of Obama's address was focused not directly on Pinckney, but on social strains that his death has underscored: race, gun control and the country's Civil War.

A clearly dismayed Obama even said that the US should again look at how killers get their hands on guns. But at the same time he admitted the difficulty of passing legislation or even addressing the issue of gun control in a gridlocked Washington of entrenched political interests.

In a nutshell, one can say with certainty that hate violence stubbornly persists in the US and Americans must mount multi-pronged, structural approaches to confront it. Whereby, in order to address the roots of hate violence perpetrated by individuals, one must come to terms with the structural inequities in America.

The cycles of economic, education, incarceration and housing policies that abandon, criminalize and disenfranchise black and brown people foster an environment in which hateful individuals feel empowered to violently target already marginalized communities.

Americans must disrupt these cycles through policy and culture shifts that include dismantling the narratives, propelled by xenophobia, Islamophobia and racism that are constructed about black and brown communities as people who are undeserving of benefits and rights.

Half a century on, as the carnage in Charleston resonates in the US South, it poses a question mark over the Administration’s capacity to harmonise ties between the nation’s two largest communities. No amount of official window dressing or affirmative action to uplift the black masses has helped bridge the chasm.

Undeniably, there is a trust deficit in the US. India too has a problem of police biases against minorities. But then, some deft balancing of administrative processes has helped us achieve a more than marginal positive impact on furthering social cohesion. Perhaps the U.S. has something to learn from India in this regard. ----INFA

(Copyright, India News and Feature Alliance)








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