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Is the great American dream over? Rising religious intolerance shows the dark side of US

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By Gaurav Sharma

Racial discrimination in the US is not a recent development. Its roots extend to an era when White Americans enjoyed special rights and privileges over the Native Americans.

And it did not stop there. Leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr had to toil long and hard and, pay with their blood to annihilate the malicious white supremacy in the nation. There emerged a whole wave of revolutions– the counter-culture movement to stem the flow of ruthless war against Vietnam, black nationalism involving leaders like Malcolm X, along with a lengthy bout of the sexual liberation movement.

With such a rich history, the US came to be recognised as the epitome of a liberal society. Throngs of people–from myriad social and cultural backgrounds, pledging allegiance to their own religion started immigrating to the US, in search of a better way of life– in pursuit of the “American dream”.

Lately, however, the image of America as an accommodative, tolerant nation has taken a battering. Especially when it comes to racial and religious tolerance, people are starting to view it from a vantage point of suspicious glances. The spate of hate crimes that have sprung up in the US in recent months, have cast a leery light upon its status as a ‘harbinger of equality’.

The vast majority of these violent attacks have seen Indians–whether from the Hindu background or from other religious denominations–at the short end of the stick. Over the past couple of years, the string of attacks, particularly on temples or places of worship have increased manifold.

In August, last year, an idol of Shiva at the Vishwa Bhavan Hindu Mandir in Monroe in the state of Georgia was desecrated with black paint.

Back in January 2012, Molotov cocktails made from Frappuccino bottles were used to bomb the Imam Al-Khoei Foundation mosque, in the Jamaica neighborhood of Queens, and a Hindu temple housed in a private residence in Hillside.

Just last month, the windows of the Hindu temple in Kent were smashed and the word ‘Fear’ was smeared on its walls.

The ugly side of America was again brought to the fore when 57-year-old Sureshbhai Patel was attacked by a police officer in Madison in Alabama state and left partially paralysed. The officer was later dismissed from the police force.

The tragic and horrific incident managed to grab international headlines, prompting the US lawmakers to include Sikh, Hindu, and Arab American communities in the Department of Justice’s hate crimes tracking effort.

Speaking to reporters, member of the US House of Representatives, Ami Bera said, “Since the September 11th attacks, too many Americans, especially Sikh, Hindu and Arab-Americans, have been wrongfully subjected to hate crimes and discrimination, including the shooting of two Sikh Americans in my own city”.

“Religious tolerance is a fundamental value of our nation and we must do everything we can to prevent these crimes motivated by bias against a victim’s religious beliefs,” he said.

Taking a step in the right direction, The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) recently updated and operationalized its hate crimes database and FBI training manual in order to start tracking hate crimes committed against these groups.

However, in spite of all the judicial reform and investigative activism, the outbursts against other communities do not appear to stall.

In the most recent of offensives against Hindus, the North Texas Hindu Mandir in Lake Highlands suburb of Dallas, was vandalised,  painted with symbols of 666 or devil worship on the temple’s door. The insignia left by the attackers seemed to suggest their association with Marca Salvatrucha, an international gang based in El Salvador, currently active in the US.

Ironically, the heightened attacks against the Hindus comes at a time the US President Barack Obama is preaching India to move beyond the shadows of religious intolerance (while making his departure address from India).

In light of the continuous, consistent and unabating attacks on Hindus the “cultural training” suggestion by the Hindu American Foundation assumes greater significance, if one is to foster better understanding of  the attitudes and behaviours of culturally and linguistically diverse people.

A truly inclusive society requires a change in mindset, which calls for fomenting knowledge and understanding of the ‘other people’.

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Why should we talk about Race?

Dr Kumar Mahabir, an anthropologist, brings out the topic of discrimination

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Race has always been a big deal whenever its been spoken about around the globe.
Race has always been a big deal whenever its been spoken about around the globe. Pic by Dr. Munish Raizada taken at the Race exhibition at Chicago History Museum. November 2017
-By Dr Kumar Mahabir
Even academics like me who often view certain topics through the lens of race sometimes
receive negative attention and judgement. Some people feel that speaking or writing
rationally about race is counter-productive and even racist.
Indo-Caribbean people (Indians), in particular, tend to receive condemnation when they
examine topics on the basis of race. Indian victims are often criticised for reporting
discrimination.
On the other hand, Afro-Caribbeans (Africans) receive either indifference or praise when they discuss race. For example, the following comment by a black calypsonian, published in a Trinidad national newspaper, drew praises: “In the midst of black consciousness in the 1970s, Bro Superior told black people ‘No matter where yuh born, Yuh still African’” (Guardian Nov 12, 2017).
Discussing race objectively with empirical data and statistical evidence is not racist. Racism
is the belief that another race of people is inferior. This attitude results in discrimination,
antagonism and domination individually, politically, economically and otherwise.
Race, ethnicity, class, sex, religion, nationality, geography, etc. are valid, legitimate and
appropriate social categories of difference in examining historical and contemporary issues.
Why should someone who talks objectively about race be criticised as a racist? Should we
also condemn someone who uses sex as a mode of inquiry as being sexist? To do so would be ignorant, biased and unfair.
In a recent public broadcast, the Prime Minister of multi-racial Trinidad and Tobago (T&T)
advised some citizens “not to see race in everything we do” (Express Sept 22, 2017). This ill- informed statement was made in relation to the mixed responses he received when he
appealed to citizens to open their homes to displaced Dominican refugees who were devastated by Hurricane Maria.
On the contrary, people should be encouraged to “see race” as well as sex (gender), class, nationality, geography and types of social identity. Studying race can reveal differences in the form of disparities, disadvantages, inequalities, power and privilege which have structured human life in the past and present. To overlook race would be to ignore the elephant in the room.
Criminologist and social psychologist Dr Ramesh Deosaran wrote a book entitled Inequality,
Crime & Education in Trinidad and Tobago: Removing the Masks (2016). He found that there was a toxic relationship among race, class, gender, family and geography, resulting in African students performing the worst in the education system.
Deosaran wrote: “Wittingly or unwittingly, the education system, to a large extent, becomes a racially segregated system. And with academic achievement also stratified by race” (page 163). His data showed that while 47% of African students went to university three years after secondary school, as much as 72% of Indians did so, and 49% of the Mixed group also attended.
Prospective students of Whitman College in the USA are encouraged to enrol in its Race and Ethnic Studies programme. They are told that “ideas about race and ethnicity have been central at many points in world history and remain salient today, whether we talk about ethnic pride or ethnic cleansing, about multicultural diversity or racial discrimination.”
Race and ethnicity are often used interchangeably. However, race refers to biological features (bone structure, facial features, hair texture, skin colour, etc.) and ethnicity denotes cultural traits (history, customs, religion, family-type, values, music, food, etc.).
In the Caribbean Examination Council (CXC) CSEC Social Studies syllabus, Section A
(Individual, Family and Society) comprises of a content section that explains characteristics
of the population. These characteristics include age, sex, occupation, religion and ethnicity. In the CXC CAPE Sociology syllabus under Unit 1, Module 3, Social Stratification is
conceptualised according to status mobility, gender, class, colour, caste, race and ethnicity.
The topic of race and ethnicity is studied not only in sociology but also in history,
anthropology, cultural studies, visual culture, media, literature, communication, law, health,
human rights, gender, political science, economics, geography, public policy, international
relations, social psychology, etc.
In a research paper entitled “Understanding race and crime in Trinidad and Tobago,”
criminologist Dr Randy Seepersad (2017) found that most of the murderers, victims, accused and prisoners are Africans. His disaggregated data demonstrated that most of the violent crimes are committed by blacks against blacks.
In 2011, former National Security Minister John Sandy said, “We must recognise that it is
people looking like me who are being murdered, mothers like my mother, God rest her soul, who are out there weeping more than any other race” (Express Sep 3, 2011).
Race has always been a major factor in voting in all general elections in T&T. This form of
ethnic polarisation has been well documented by pollsters such as SARA, NACTA, ANSA
McAl and H.H.B. & Associates Ltd. Most Africans and Mixed persons support the PNM
while most Indians vote for the PP/UNC.
 
Dr. Kumar Mahabir is an anthropologist who has published 11 books. He lives in Trinidad.