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Last Updated: 08/09/2012Understanding Racist Hate Crimes in America
Mathew G. Ituma
Researcher Mathew G. Ituma discusses the recent murder of Sikh worshippers at a temple in Oak Creek Wisconsin, as well as the racist attack on the Bontas family in the Reno Sparks Indian Colony or Nevada in an effort to understand the twisted subculture of racist hate crimes in the United Sates, particularly those carried out by white supremacists. With reference to a handful of economic and social theories, the author argues that beneath the irrationality and ignorance of racist crime are patterns of identity formation, frustration, economic inequality, poverty, and power.
Racial mobilization creates an ideological barrier between races. In this case, a white supremacist group may attack other people, mostly people of other colors, for a galaxy of reasons or motives. As one researcher has noted, “When racial violence is defined as acts of violence that are motivated by racism, it is difficult to see the range of motives that may spur racial violence.”
On Sunday, August 5, 2012, a gunman (later identified as an army veteran) attacked worshippers in a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, U.S. and murdered seven people in cold blood while several others escaped with gunshot wounds. The Sikhs allege that since the 9/11 terror assault, there has been a spike in attacks against them, both verbally and physically because of their mistaken association with Islam and terror gangs. As Ravi Chawla told the New York Times, “Just because they see the turban they think you’re Taliban.” The death of Rajinder Sing in July 2004 arising from beatings by a group of men, the unprovoked stabbing of a Sikh man in Fresno International Airport in California in December 2011, and the defacing of a Sikh temple in Michigan in February 2012 speak volumes. But the Sikhs are not alone.
On May 24th, 2011, in Reno Sparks Indian Colony of Nevada, Johnny and Lisa Bonta’s family was attacked by three armed young men in their 20s. They were taunted and pursued from a gas station for reasons they did not know, had their car blocked, and were forced into a fight that left all of them seriously wounded. One of the attackers was identified by the victims as Jacob Cassel, a former classmate of their daughter and a son of a former Lyon County Sheriff. Lisa Bonta narrated how she “saw one of them hit (her) husband in the head with a bat, and the other one was trying to cut off his braid with a knife. Johnny was covered in blood and they just kept hitting him with a crow bar. They even tried to slit his throat, saying…`you fucking niggers are going to jail.’”
Equally shocking for the Bontas was that, when police came to the crime scene, they took statements from the attackers, ignored the victims, and actually arrested Johnny (the victim) with his already broken elbow and hand, and locked him up in jail for six days without treatment. While the Oak Creek, Wisconsin shooting does not follow this trajectory, the rest of this incident is tragic. Both are similar, however, in that are racist hate crimes committed with impunity under the nose of the law enforcement agency in Nevada. It mirrors what goes on in the dark world of racism. It demonstrates the level of hatred and violence that exists between races in the Unites States. It exemplifies the nature of violence that is characterized by chromatic prejudice in America and the systemic weaknesses that exists within the law enforcement agencies and their laxity to deal with racial crimes, more specifically, racial violence.
The intent of this essay is to examine racism as a cause of violence, commonly defined as hate crime. I will first explore the general conception of racism and theories that may be helpful in understanding the polarity that befalls racism and racial violence that is breed hate crime. I will proceed to examine the intent and motivations for racial violence in America using the supremacist skinheads as examples of perpetrators of racial violence to make the case that the law should be color blind when dealing with hate crime.
Social Identity Theory of Racism
As a psychological theory of racism, this theory articulates how individuals, usually youth, struggle to create a self- image that is acceptable to their peers in pursuit of social identity and personality development. The prejudice that emanates from such social identity is characterized by exclusion and opposition from the social group and between groups. Racism from this standpoint is classified as prejudice between people of different colors.
In their argument, social psychologists contend that racism as a process of social perception creates group stereotypes and attitudes that serve as defense mechanisms against their group to enhance their “peer group ego.” In this case, it makes more sense to belong to a group that is supremacists in order to articulate a personal image of superiority. The competition that oozes from such exclusion and inclusion between groups transcends personalities to create a social identity that consumes the individuality member, thereby creating a group identity such as the skinheads.
Marxist Theory of Racism
Marxism is everywhere in social sciences. The Marxist view of racism championed by scholars such as Oliver Coz in 1948 argues that opposition between races is generated by competition for resources. In pursuit of wealth and the need to control the scarce resources, one race or group exploits the other, resulting to an imbalanced economic relationship. The realization of this inequality and resource domination breeds contempt and hatred between races that view themselves as “haves or have-nots.” The Sikhs are known to be a wealthy business group that is also philanthropic. Living in a community that is consumed by frustration from unemployment and declining opportunities, they easily become target of such vexation.
Why would a veteran soldier, someone who has fought for his nation want to kill innocent people within the frontiers of his own country? In this particular case, military training and gun enthusiasm, racist hate and perceived economic imbalance may have all played a role in motivating the violence. Focusing on the economic view, racism and hate crimes are characterized by exploitation and competition between and among classes and races of people, mostly between black and white in the U.S. but also between white and brown in cases such that of Oak Creek violence. The Black Nation Thesis championed by black Marxists in the U.S. explains this conceptualization of racism in the boldest terms, expounding their concern regarding exploitation of the black people by the white supremacist regimes that transcend the history of slavery and black negritude. Marxism exposes economic imbalances that are experienced as racism in the society and especially as racial violence in America, and this I argue, reveals the material context within which hate crimes occur.
Race Relations Theory
Also referred to as the Immigrants host model or the theory of race relations by sociologists, this theory explores racial disharmony as a pronounced beacon of racial variations in society and as an underlying scapegoat for hate crimes. It traces the levels of assimilation, adaptation of cultures between races and development of racial relations between hosts and immigrant populations, and suggests that the relative hostility or peacefulness characterizing racial or multicultural coexistence is heavily contingent upon their adaptation and assimilation levels. It is this theory more than anything else that explains the tragedy that befell the Jonny’s described above on May 24, 2011, and more recently, the Sikh worshippers of Oak Creek, Wisconsin.
Racism in the U.S.
It is undeniable that even after many studies have been done on American racial violence, this subject still remains murky because of the thin lines that exist between what constitutes classic violence and racial violence. While some racial crimes could be ignored and classified as a general incidence of crime, curiosity beyond common logic heightens when a pattern of racial violence such the ones chronicled at the beginning of this essay comes to the surface. From this perspective, we witness a complete deviation between the Colorado shooting about a fortnight ago and the August 5th 2012 temple shooting, even though they both resulted in death and injury. Whereas the Oak Creek shooting can be viewed as a hate crime, the Colorado shooting was not.
Examining the incidences of August 5, 2012, where seven Sikh worshippers lost their lives and that of May 24th, 2011, in Reno Sparks Indian Colony, Nevada, when Johnny and Lisa Bonta’s family was attacked by skinheads, it becomes evident that, these are just but a few examples of racist hatred unleashed on unsuspecting and innocent people. It is such cases that illustrate the gravity of racial violence and hate crimes in America. As a social problem, racism and hatred in America are claimed to ooze from frustration, poverty, and group dynamics, all of which have been part and parcel of American society since antiquity.
Poverty, frustration and group dynamics
Revisiting the conception of race problem from a Marxist view reveals how there has been imbalances in the American social system since the time of slavery and with influx of immigrants from other regions of the world. The prejudice that has infected the nation since its beginning still lives with us today and racial violence and hatred between and among races slowly but constantly flows form these historical imbalances. Racial violence in America feeds on poverty, perceived as deprivation in situations where blacks, and in some instances other groups, feel that their entitlement to certain resources is guaranteed on account of their enslavement to the white man or other historical injustices.
Tied to racial discrimination and resource imbalance is the aspect of frustration due to unmet needs or the failure to meet expectations. The case of Oak Creek shooting may easily pass for a sick veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but many will agree that there are very little opportunities for veterans in the current economy, and the help they get from the federal government may not be enough. This may push their sickness to the outer limits, and they may begin viewing recent immigrants or people of different ethnic groups, especially those appearing to have achieved a certain level of economic prosperity, as the underlying reason for their poverty and frustration; this is referred to as “relative deprivation”, a term “usually meant to describe how people arrive at their standards of what is necessary.”
To further explain the point on relative deprivation, let us for a moment put ourselves in the shoes of the Oak Creek gunman. While the motive of the shooting my remain a mystery, it is undeniable that the image created by the social and affluent life of the Sikh worshippers, who were celebrating with food and drink in unity with family and friends, contrasts strongly with that of a vexed veteran who is probably divorced, unemployed, poor, and childless.
On group dynamics, Kathleen Blee (2005), points out the critical interplay between racial and hate crimes in the U.S., arguing that “racial differences are viewed as a rationale for [violent] action, thus positioning race analytically prior to the social dynamics of racial violence.” She also explains how group dynamics socially construct and shape racial violence and the perception that it is acceptable to unleash terror on certain types or colors of people just because they have a different skin color and so it is easy to see the link between poverty, frustration, group dynamics and racial violence.
Systems theory vividly explains this dichotomy when it connects poverty to racial discrimination. It claims that an overload on one section of the system will create a shortage on another. Thus, the wealth of one race is presumed to result in the poverty of another. To counter the threat that emanates from this systemic imbalance, there is racial mobilization on all sides and racial violence, hate, and mistrust looms at every intersection between colored people, immigrants, and whites in American society.
Racial mobilization and the Politics of skinheads
While much racial violence appears to be motivated by sheer irrationality or ignorance, the economic and sociological analysis above suggests that once groups have self-identified, such as the skinheads, they will cause terror to opposing groups (or those who are perceived to belong to opposing groups) in order to keep them away from resources and tools that may alter the distribution of power and wealth in society. Knowing that skinheads arise from a white supremacist orientation, for example, we understand how they use terror to intimidate other races in order to protect their relative wealth and status. The case of Jonny Bonta illustrates this too well. Jacob Cassel, the lead skinhead in the ambush is a son of a former security chief in Reno Sparks Indian Colony, and when police (who were presumably white) arrived at the scene; they ignored the victims, yet another an illustration of police connivance in racial violence in the U.S.
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WSJ Staff (August 6, 2012), Timeline: Hate Crimes against Sikhs in the U.S., The Wall Street Journal, Retrieved from http://blogs.wsj.com/indiarealtime/2012/08/06/timeline-hate-crimes-against-sikhs-in-the-u-s/
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 See Blee K,(2005), Racial Violence in the United States, Ethnic and Racial Studies,vol.28,No.4,pp. 599-619
 See Yaccino S, Schwirtz M and Santora M, (August 5, 2012), Gunman Kills 6 at a Sikh Temple Near Milwaukee, New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/06/us/shooting-reported-at-temple-in-wisconsin.html?pagewanted=2&_r=1&hp
 See Valerie Taliman (June 27, 2011) Native Family Allegedly Attacked by Skinheads. Retrieved from http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2011/06/27/native-family-attacked-by-skinheads-40317
 Stone D. (2002), Policy Paradox: The Art of Political Decision Making, W.W Norton & Co., New York, pp. 90
 See Blee K,(2005), Racial Violence in the United States, Ethnic and Racial Studies,vol.28,No.4,pp. 599-619
The author is a Ph.D. student at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences in the Department of Conflict Analysis and Dispute Resolution at Nova Southeastern University, Fort Lauderdale, FL; and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org