As many of you already know, on August 5, 2012, a gunman opened fire on a worshippers at the Sikh Gurdwara temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, killing six and wounding three others before killing himself. The shooter has been identified as Wade Michael Page, an Army veteran and a self-avowed White supremacist.

Clearly, words fail to convey the nature of sadness, loss, and tragedy of this event. My thoughts and heartfelt condolences go out to the families of those killed and wounded, to the Sikh American community in the area, and to all of us as human beings that have to live with the specters of hate and violence all around us.

Sikh memorial © M. Spencer Green/Associated Press

Many, particularly our political leaders, have called this incident “senseless,” implying that it was an irrational and mindless act of a clearly deranged and mentally ill individual. Unfortunately, this sentiment fails to acknowledge that rather than being an isolated incident, these killings have a cause and origins beyond just the state of mind of the person who pulled the trigger.

In other words, there is an entire sociological context to why the killer did this and multi-level factors that, without a doubt, influenced the killer’s thinking and pushed him to go on his murderous rampage.

War on Terrorism an its Collateral Victims

We can start with the legacy of 9/11 and how the subsequent “war on terrorism” has left thousands, perhaps even millions, of innocent bystanders in its destructive wake. Specifically, I am talking about groups such as Muslim Americans, Indian Americans, and particularly Sikh Americans who have been and continue to be perceived as terrorists. In the case of Sikh Americans, much of this unfortunate association is tied to the turban that the men are required by their religious faith to wear. In other words, in the mind of racists, they’re just another “towelhead” and therefore, a terrorist.

Unfortunately, this is not the first time that Sikh Americans have been murdered as a direct result of 9/11 hysteria — four days after the events of September 11, 2001 and as illustrated in the excellent documentary “A Dream in Doubt,” Balbir Singh Sodhi was similarly gunned down by a person who perceived him to be a Muslim and therefore, a terrorist. On top of that, political “leaders” such as Peter King, Michelle Bachmann, and Joe Walsh continue to use their public positions to fan the flames of suspicion and hostility against all Muslim Americans, all of which lends more credibility to equating Muslim with terrorism.

Combined with the recent killings at Oak Creek WI, these incidents of racial and religious hate against anyone perceived to be Muslim are not isolated. Instead, they are part of a clear pattern of mistaken identity, irrational guilt by visual association, and jingoistic hysteria that unfortunately is still alive and well almost 11 years after 9/11.

Anti-Immigrant Nativism and Xenophobia

Related to this is the nativist and xenophobic climate that has also strengthened since 9/11. Much of this anti-immigrant sentiment is seemingly directed at undocumented immigrants but unfortunately, since hate and intolerance cut a wide path, has also been directed at legal immigrants and racial/ethnic groups that have a large immigrant contingent such as Latinos and Asian Americans.

The foundation of this nativist and xenophobic climate is the belief that immigrants (legal and otherwise) are not “real,” “legitimate,” or “official” Americans. In turn, much of this belief about who is a “real” American is based on the “traditional” image of those who are perceived as “real” Americans — White, Protestant, and born in the U.S. Those who lack one of more of these traits are seen by many who do as being inferior to them and therefore, less deserving of the identity of “American.”

This conscious and unconscious perceived distinction between “real” Americans and “foreigners” exists even though immigrants and groups of color make numerous contributions to the U.S.’s political, economic, and cultural institutions by bridging diplomatic divides across national borders, investing in local communities and creating jobs for Americans, and by connecting the U.S. to an increasingly globalized and transnational world and diverse cultures.

Economic Competition Breeds Racial Hostility

As I tell my students, one of the most time-tested and historically consistent patterns in U.S. society is that whenever there is economic competition, almost always, it will lead to racial/ethnic hostility. This pattern has played itself out over and over again, and has involved basically every group of color throughout American history. Unfortunately, it is also rearing its ugly head once again today as the current recession has led to heightened competition for increasingly scarce economic resources between Whites (who have been used to enjoying a relatively stable standard of living but are now fighting just to stay in the middle class) and groups of color and immigrants (who many Whites perceive to benefiting at their expense).

Unfortunately, the conditions for heightened economic competition seem to be the “new normal” as the gulf between the rich (i.e., the top 1%) and everyone else (i.e., the 99%) widens, as powerful financial corporations continue to exploit their political influence and gain unfair advantages in their quest to maximize profit, and as ordinary Americans fight even more among ourselves for an ever-decreasing piece of the pie. With all of this in mind, the bottom line then becomes more clear — when people feel threatened, they become defensive at guarding whatever they have left and hostile towards those who they feel are try to take what is “rightfully” theirs.

White Backlash

This lashing out is part of a larger “White backlash” movement that I have described before. Faced with changing demographics and how the U.S. population is gradually but surely becoming less White, the emergence of people of color, the continuing consequences of globalization and decline of U.S. superiority around the world, and the normalization of economic instability, it is not hard to see why many Whites have become quite angry that their position at the top of the American racial hierarchy is being politically, economically, and culturally threatened.

At the moment, many White Americans are feeling very threatened and upset by the changes taking place around them — their economic stability and standard of living are on the decline and, unable to see the institutional forces that have created this situation, their immediate reaction is anger and to lash out at “those other people” — minorities and immigrants.

This individual and collective anger has emboldened many Whites to publicly, forcefully, and passionately lash out at people of color and immigrants, with examples across the spectrum of violence. The institutional shifts and societal changes that influence these examples of backlash are not going away any time soon, and unfortunately, neither do I expect such examples of White backlash to decline any time soon.

And Yet, There is Still Hope

In the midst of all this, there is still the bright glimmer of humanity — the power of shared suffering to bring us together and for friends and strangers to unite and help each other out. No doubt you have seen examples of this in the aftermath of natural disasters as our fellow Americans donate what little discretionary funds we have to help those who have lost everything, and for friends, neighbors, and total strangers to help rebuild the devastated communities.

The same thing can happen in the wake of acts of violence like this. As the NBC News clip below shows, the memorial service to honor the six Sikhs killed was attended by about a thousand people, with Sikhs and non-Sikhs united in grief, sympathy, and hope.

Ideally, no, it should not take mass murders and hate crimes like this for us as Americans to wake up, recognize how our social environment and many of our national leaders are fanning the flames of hostility and hate, and to unite as human beings to change things are the better. But it seems that sometimes it takes a spark to light a fire, something Asian Americans have known for a while now.

Maybe this is that spark and hopefully, there will be a silver lining to this tragedy.

This article originally published at Asian-Nation.org and is copyrighted © 2013 

Today, June 19, marks the 30th anniversary of the day Vincent Chin was beaten into a coma because he was Asian. As summarized in my article “Anti-Asian Racism,” Vincent Chin was a 27-year-old Chinese American living in Detroit, Michigan. On this date in 1982, he and a few friends were at a local bar celebrating his upcoming wedding. Also at the bar were two White autoworkers, Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz.

Portrait of Vincent Chin

Ebens and Nitz blamed the Japanese for the U.S. auto industry’s struggles at the time and began directing their anger toward Vincent. A fight ensued and eventually spilled outside the bar. After a few minutes, Ebens and Nitz cornered Vincent and while Nitz held Vincent down, Ebens repeatedly bludgeoned Vincent with a baseball bat until he was unconscious and hemorrhaging blood. Vincent was in a coma for four days until he finally died on June 23, 1982.

Ebens and Nitz were initially charged with second degree murder (intentionally killing someone but without premeditation). However, the prosecutor allowed both of them to plea down to manslaughter (accidentally killing someone). At the sentencing, the judge only sentenced both of them to three years probation and a fine of $3,780. The sentence provoked outrage among not just Asian Americans, but among many groups of color and led to a pan-racial coalescing of groups demanding justice for Vincent.

Vincent’s supporters got the U.S. Justice Department to bring federal charges against Ebens and Nitz for violating Vincent’s civil rights. In this trial, Ebens was found guilty and sentenced to 20 years in prison while Nitz was found not guilty. However, the verdicts were thrown out because of a technicality and a second trial was ordered. The defense successfully got the trial moved away from Detroit to Cincinnati OH. In this second federal trial, an all-White jury acquitted both Ebens and Nitz of violating Vincent’s civil rights.

Vincent’s death and the injustices he, his family, and all Asian Americans suffered still stand as a stark and sober reminder that, in contrast to the image of us as the “model minority” and the socioeconomic successes that we have achieved, Asian Americans are still susceptible to being targeted for hostility, racism, and violence. We only have to look at recent incidents in which Asian American students continue to be physically attacked at school, and other examples of Asian- and immigrant-bashing and White backlash to see that we as society still have a lot of work to do before Asian Americans (and other groups of color) are fully accepted as “real” or “legitimate” Americans.

The silver lining in Vincent’s case was that it was a watershed moment in Asian American history because it united the entire Asian American community like no event before. For the first time, different Asian groups began to understand that the discrimination committed against other Asians could easily be turned towards them. In other words, for the first time, Asians of different ethnicities, cultures, and nationalities united around an issue that affected them all.

As a result, the Asian American community mobilized their collective resources in unprecedented ways and Vincent’s death was the spark that led to the creation of a network of hundreds of non-profit organizations working at local, state, and national levels to combat not just hate crimes, but also other areas of inequality facing Asian American (i.e., housing, employment, legal rights, immigrant rights, educational reform, etc.). Vincent’s death has had a powerful legacy on the Asian American community — as a result of the collective action demanding justice, it contributed to the development of the “pan-Asian American” identity that exists today.

This is why it is important for all Asian Americans, and all of us as Americans, to remember Vincent Chin — to mourn the events of his death, to reflect on how it changed the Asian American community forever, and to realize that the struggle for true racial equality and justice still continues today.

This article originally published at Asian-Nation.org and is copyrighted © 2013 

Tyler Clementi

One of the biggest stories this past week was the suicide of 18-year old Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi. Most reports describe that he was apparently pushed into ending his life after his roommate and another student (Dharun Ravi and Molly Wei) broadcast a video stream on the internet of Clementi having sex with another male student:

On the evening of September 19, Rutgers student Dharun Ravi is believed to have sent a message by Twitter about his roommate, Clementi. “Roommate asked for the room till midnight. I went into molly’s room and turned on my webcam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay.”

Ravi, 18, of Plainsboro, New Jersey, surreptitiously placed the camera in their dorm room and broadcast video of Clementi’s sexual encounter on the internet, the Middlesex County prosecutor’s office said. Ravi tried to use the webcam again two days later, on September 21. “Anyone with iChat, I dare you to video chat me between the hours of 9:30 and 12. Yes it’s happening again,” Ravi is believed to have tweeted. The next day, Clementi was dead. . . .

Ravi and Wei, 18, of Princeton, New Jersey, are charged with two counts each of invasion of privacy for the September 19 broadcast, according to the prosecutor’s office. Two more counts of invasion of privacy were leveled against Ravi for a September 21 attempt to videotape another encounter involving Clementi, the prosecutor’s office said.

At this point, the focus should be on supporting Tyler Clementi’s family, his friends, and all LGBT persons who are in similar situations of feeling humiliated, alienated, and alone in a society that it often too quick to ridicule and marginalize their identities. This is indeed a sickening tragedy on all levels and for everybody involved and as the NBC video segment below describes, bullying that leads to suicide is a real problem:

Inevitably, many will place the blame squarely on Ravi and Wei for perpetrating such a immature, callous, and reckless act. They indeed need to be disciplined but we also need to consider a few other factors before “locking them up and throwing away the key.”

The Double-Edge Sword

Ultimately people are responsible for their own individual actions, but as a sociologist, I would argue that their actions are another example of one of the unfortunate results of the growing ubiquity of the internet and technology — the erosion of basic social etiquette and norms of behavior. That is, while the internet and social networking sites now allow us to interact with and share information between people much more easily, widely, and quickly than ever before, as some researchers argue, they have also led to the decline of many social norms. A Pew Research Institute report notes that some of the negatives associated with increased internet use are:

. . . time spent online robs time from important face-to-face relationships; the internet fosters mostly shallow relationships; the act of leveraging the internet to engage in social connection exposes private information; the internet allows people to silo themselves, limiting their exposure to new ideas; and the internet is being used to engender intolerance.

It’s with this in mind that I would argue that part of Ravi and Wei’s mindset in perpetrating these acts was based on being desensitized to and detached from the consequences of their actions. This is not an excuse for their actions, which were indeed thoughtless. Nonetheless, from a sociological point of view, like many young people these days who grew up surrounded by the internet and the ease of uploading videos, electronically chatting with friends, and sharing virtually all aspects of their public and private lives, they probably felt that streaming Clementi’s private life online was just like other forms of social life that they engaged in themselves or saw on television through reality shows, etc.

I also need to mention the racial/ethnic aspect of this episode: both Ravi and Wei are Asian American and just like other tragic events in recent history in which the perpetrators were Asian American (the murders at Virginia Tech committed by Seung Hui Cho as one example), there are also likely to be generalizations about Asian Americans being conniving, intolerant, mentally unstable, and/or feeling of superiority perhaps due to their academic success, etc.

I hope that we can all recognize that, as with any racial, ethnic, cultural, or religious group, the unfortunate actions of one person or a small group of people should not indict everyone of that same group as being guilty by association.

As I noted earlier, I agree that Ravi and Wei need to be appropriately disciplined. But even if one or both of them had any anti-gay beliefs beforehand (there does not seem to be any evidence of that so far), as I’ve also written before about those who commit hate crimes against Asian Americans and other minority groups, I do not support criminalizing them in such a harsh and punitive way that they become “lifelong racists” — or in this case, lifelong homophobes.

I hope we can emphasize the need to condemn and punish the act while also making sure the actors learn from their mistakes so that they can eventually join the fight to make sure these kinds of tragedies do not happen again.

Moving Forward Together

As I noted earlier, the focus should be on Tyler Clementi, his family, his social community, and others in a similar position. It’s with this in mind that I point out that LGBT Americans and Asian Americans share many things in common. As I’ve chronicled on many occasions on this blog, many Asian Americans have and continue to endure bullying, racist taunts, and even physical violence in their daily lives. Like Tyler Clementi, many Asian Americans feel isolated, alienated, and even despondent over how they’re treated by mainstream American society — to the point of also taking their own lives as a result.

A tragedy like this can tear us as a society apart, or it can help open up a dialog and ultimately bring us closer together. I believe that the despite inevitable differences that many individuals have within each minority group, the common experiences on feeling shut out of the American mainstream is an unfortunate but powerful bond that we do share together.

In one of my recent posts, entitled “Racial Tensions and Living in a Colorblind Society,” I commented on how the economic recession and larger social/economic forces associated with globalization have resulted in many Americans struggling and feeling besieged by current events:

As Americans, particularly White Americans, continue to economically struggle as we enter a recession and as they culturally struggle with maintaining their exclusive hold on the “American identity” while demographic shifts take place all around them, their fear, frustrations, and anger will inevitably boil over and verbal and physical attacks on convenient scapegoats such as Asian Americans will continue.

I also predicted that racial/ethnic tensions are likely to get worse before they get better. Unfortunately, as the New York Times reports, the recent death of an illegal immigrant in Pennsylvania seems to represent how these rising tensions have led to physical violence and murder:

Mr. Ramirez, 25, who had been in the country illegally for six years, picking crops and working in factories, died July 14 from head injuries received two days earlier. Investigators said he had gotten into a fight with a group of teenage boys — most or all of them members of the town’s high school football team, the Blue Devils — who left him unconscious in a residential street, foaming at the mouth.

Exactly what happened during the fight is still hotly debated . . . with some saying it was just a street fight that went bad, and others claiming the teenagers singled out a Mexican immigrant for a beating and made anti-Mexican remarks. Since Mr. Ramirez’s death, this town of 5,600 has been bitterly divided over the case, illuminating ethnic tensions that surprised town leaders. . . .

“For many Latinos, this is a case of enough is enough,” said Gladys Limón, a staff lawyer for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “And it can help us get attention to the wider issue that this is happening all over the country, not just to illegal immigrants, but legal, and anyone who is perceived to be Latino.”

Of course, defendants of all races/ethnicities are presumed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. However, the circumstances here seem to paint a clear picture of racial/ethnic tensions, probably combined with economic and cultural insecurity, providing the fuel to ignite a physical confrontation that ultimately led to Mr. Ramirez being beaten to death at the hands of three teenagers who apparently had been drinking and, by virtue of playing on a football team, are used to using physical violence to achieve personal gratification and community status.

What also strikes me is that the article states that town leaders have been surprised at how this murder has exposed ethnic tensions in their town. Why were they surprised when in fact, this town had drafted laws similar to that of their state neighbor Hazelton, that would have severely limited the rights and access of illegal immigrants to basic public resources, such as housing, jobs, and education.

As they say, denial is not just a river in Egypt.

Unfortunately, Mr. Ramirez’s murder is another example of economic competition and feeling culturally threatened leading to racial/ethnic hostility. As sociologist will tell you, throughout American history, we’ve seen this pattern over and over and over again. In its relatively “mild” state, it may take the form of a resurgent acceptance of the confederate flag, as I talked about in my last post.

But taken to its unfortunate extreme, as has happened so many times before, it leads to murder. On top of that, what makes it even worse is how those in power at the time and whose actions helped to lay the reinforce and perpetuate such tensions, continue to be in denial about the fundamental causes of this horrific event.

Like I said, although I want to be optimistic, it does look like things will get worse before they get better.