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Behind the Headlines: APA News Blog

Academic Version: Applying my personal experiences and academic research as a professor of Sociology and Asian American Studies to provide a more complete understanding of political, economic, and cultural issues and current events related to American race relations, and Asia/Asian America in particular.

Plain English: Trying to put my Ph.D. to good use.

September 9, 2008

Written by C.N.

What Exactly is a Hate Crime?

I came across this pretty disturbing news item from California: as reported by AsianWeek magazine, an Indian American was attacked without provocation by two South Lake Tahoe residents and suffered numerous injuries and was hospitalized. Despite witnesses confirming that the assailants yelled racial slurs at him, the prosecutor in the case has declined to file both felony and hate crime charges against the attackers:

In July 2007, Vishal Wadhwa, a 38-year-old Indian American vice president and banker with Citi Private Bank, was attacked by South Lake Tahoe residents Joseph and Georgia Silva on El Dorado Beach in Tahoe.

Racial epithets like “Indian sluts and whores,” “Indian garbage,” “terrorists” and “relatives of Osama bin Laden” were thrown at Wadhwa, who was accompanied by his fiancée and her cousin. Wadhwa asked the Silvas to stop calling them names, but the pair continued. As Wadhwa left to call the police, the Silvas followed him and attacked him in the parking lot.

Wadhwa suffered a broken orbital socket, which will cause dizzy spells for the rest of his life, not to mention the emotional, psychological and physical trauma. Many in the Asian American and legal communities who saw this case as the definition of a hate crime were outraged to learn on July 31 that felony and hate crime charges were dropped against the Silvas.

“If this [case] is not a hate crime, then what is a hate crime?” asked Harmeet K. Dhillon, the South Asian Bar Association’s Civil Rights Committee chair. “If you shout racial epithets and if you break someone’s face based on their ethnicity, it is a hate crime.”

The hate-crime charges have been dropped because racially offensive words by themselves do not constitute a hate crime unless accompanied by a threat of harm because of one’s ethnicity. Racial epithets were used in anger, but Wadhwa was not kicked because of his ethnicity, according to witnesses. The felony charges have been dropped because the attack by the Silvas did not produce “great bodily injury,” since Silva kicked Wadhwa using only her bare foot.

According to the FBI’s website, the legal definition of a hate crime is: “a criminal offense committed against a person, property, or society that is motivated, in whole or in part, by the offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, or ethnicity/national origin.”

Based on that definition, I am absolutely astounded as to why anyone would not consider the attack on Mr. Wadhwa to be anything else than a hate crime. First, clearly the attack on Mr, Wadhwa was a criminal offense. Second, it is also pretty clear that the offender was motivated by bias against Indians and those who looked Muslim.

So if this is not a hate crime, exactly what is? Here’s the answer: what this is, is another unfortunate example of how the lives of Asian Americans are systematically marginalized and devalued by American criminal justice officials and institutions.

This tradition of unequal and unjust treatment of Asian Americans has a long history, going back to when Chinese immigrants first came to the U.S. and were subjected to discriminatory taxes, physical attacks, and even murder, but were not allowed to testify against their White attackers, who almost always went free.

This tradition also continued when 120,000 Japanese Americans were stripped of their constitutional rights and imprisoned for nothing more than their Japanese ancestry, an episode that was so egregiously unjust that the U.S. government later officially apologized to those imprisoned, calling the episode “a grave injustice” that resulted from “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.”

This tradition was perhaps best illustrated by the gruesome murder of Vincent Chin, a Chinese American who was bludgeoned to death by two unemployed White auto workers who mistook him for Japanese and blamed him for them losing their jobs, and who subsequently got away with murder by paying a $3,700 fine and have never spent a day in jail for their crime.

In the Wadhwa case, I hope Mr. Wadhwa and his family appeal to the FBI to bring federal hate crime charges against their attackers (and also file a civil suit against them for millions of dollars in damages), since the city of Lake Tahoe and the State of California apparently are incapable of delivering justice for him.

As I’ve written about before, incidents of physical violence like this unfortunately seem to be examples of how Americans are expressing their insecurity and backlash over globalization and America’s waning superiority in the 21st century.


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Copyright © 2001- by C.N. Le. Some rights reserved. Creative Commons License

Suggested reference: Le, C.N. . "What Exactly is a Hate Crime?" Asian-Nation: The Landscape of Asian America. <http://www.asian-nation.org/headlines/2008/09/what-exactly-is-a-hate-crime/> ().

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