Racism, Sexism and Homophobia Fuel Hate Crime in Brooklyn

Two men, Jose and Romel Sucuzhanay, brothers and Ecuadorian immigrants were brutally attacked in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn by three men that shouted anti-Latino and anti-gay slurs at them Detail of Infinity Mural at Factory Fresh(
Creative Commons License photo credit, street art, Bushwick, Brooklyn: hragvartanian).   Today, Jose Sucuzhanay was declared brain dead and he is being kept on life support while his family decides whether to donate his organs.  Sucuzhanay’s death, and the assault of his brother, has everything to do with the intersection of racism, sexism, homophobia and class.  Here’s the account of what happened from the New York Times:

The two brothers from Ecuador had attended a church party and had stopped at a bar afterward. They may have been a bit tipsy as they walked home in the dead of night, arm-in-arm, leaning close to each other, a common tableau of men in Latino cultures, but one easily misinterpreted by the biased mind. (emphasis added)

Suddenly a car drew up. It was 3:30 a.m. Sunday, and the intersection of Bushwick Avenue and Kossuth Place in Bushwick, Brooklyn, a half-block from the brothers’ apartment, was nearly deserted — but not quite. Witnesses, the police said, heard some of what happened next.

Three men came out of the car shouting at the brothers, Jose and Romel Sucuzhanay — something ugly, anti-gay and anti-Latino. Vulgarisms against Hispanics and gay men were heard by witnesses, the police said. One man approached Jose Sucuzhanay, 31, the owner of a real estate agency who has been in New York a decade, and broke a beer bottle over the back of his head. He went down hard.

Romel Sucuzhanay, 38, who is visiting from Ecuador on a two-month visa, bounded over a parked car and ran as the man with the broken bottle came at him. A distance away, he looked back and saw a second assailant beating his prone brother with an aluminum baseball bat, striking him repeatedly on the head and body. The man with the broken bottle turned back and joined the beating and kicking.

“They used a baseball bat,” said Diego Sucuzhanay, another brother. “I guess the goal was to kill him.”

The fact that the suspects in the case are described only as “three black men” by police (they have not been apprehended), does not mean that racism isn’t a factor here, it just means that it’s more complicated than the archetypal white-on-non-white hate crime.

Racism. The leaders of a number of civil rights organization met recently to decry the recent spike in hate crimes, and the vast majority of these kinds of attacks are white-on-non-white.   But not all of them are.  In some hate crimes, like the attack on the Sucuzhanay brothers, the victims of the attacks are immigrants and the attackers are, allegedly, black men.   Although white people are the originators, developers and most frequent perpetrators of hate crimes, they don’t hold exclusive rights to these acts of violence.  As Joe has written about here before, the white racial frame is available to people beyond those who happen to have white skin.  So, if it does turn out that the perpetrators in this case were black, it means that they too have adopted the white racial frame that sees immigrants as interlopers.  The attackers also yelled “anti-Hispanic” slurs and this sort of racism directed toward Latino/as is also characteristic of the white racial frame.  And this white racial frame gets deployed within a particular racialized context, such as Bushwick.  Today the neighborhood is 65% Latino/a and approximately 20% blacks, a demographic profile that emerged after a mass exodus of whites, or “white flight,” in the 1960s and 1970s.

Class. Bushwick is one of the more economically impoverished neighborhoods in the city of New York, and while it’s unlikely that the hate crime against the Sucuzhanay brothers was prompted by class antagonism it occured within a specific class context that it’s important to recognize.   At the same time as the white flight of the 1960s and 1970s occurred, manufacturing jobs left Brooklyn and racially discriminatory red-lining by banks ended virtually all investment in the neighborhood.  The quite predictable result of these practices (white flight) and policies (red-lining) by whites, was that in a five-year period a livable community changed into a desolate, dangerous neighborhood filled with abandoned buildings, empty lots, drugs and arson.    The lingering effects of  Bushwick has a poverty rate around 40%, and close to 75% of the children in Bushwick grow up in poverty, and the high school drop out rate is close to 70%.  More recently,  hipster-whites have begun returning to Bushwick and beginning to drive up property values.   Jose Sucuzhanay may have indirectly benefited from this recent turn in Bushwick’s economy through his small real estate business that he started after several years of working in construction.   According to press reports, he used the small business to help his neighbors and family find housing, as so many immigrant entrepreneurs do.   It’s unlikely that the Sucuzhanays’ attackers knew anything about Jose’s upwardly mobile class trajectory, but may have read them as gay and thus assumed that they were part of the changing hipster demographic in the neighborhood.

Homophobia and Sexism. What most likely sparked the ire of the brothers’ attackers, was a small, tender gesture between the two men.   Following the press accounts of this story, the fact that the men were walking home arm-in-arm, leaning close to each other seems to have been interpreted by their attackers as ‘evidence’ of the men’s (homo)sexuality.    The fact that two men cannot walk arm-in-arm without being assumed to be gay is a testimony not just to cultural norms, but also to sexism.   Suzanne Pharr wrote a book called Homophobia: A Weapon of Sexism, and in it she argues that gay men are perceived as a threat to male dominance and control, by “breaking ranks” with male heterosexual solidarity.  Furthermore, homophobia directed toward men is often about punishing any deviation from rigid gender norms, especially ones that contain a hint of the “feminine,” such as two men walking arm-in-arm.   Pharr argues that fierce homophobia expressed toward men is ultimately a mechanism for reinforcing narrow and dehumanizing notions of gender.   The brutality of the attack on the Sucuzhanay brothers suggests just how deeply some people feel about these inelastic gender norms in which a moment of tenderness is punished by a bat to the skull.

The fact that we have another hate crime in the New York area just a month after the murder of Marcelo Lucero suggests that we in the U.S., in the Northeast as well as in the Deep South, have a long way to go before we are living in a “post-racial” society.  The complexities in this case of black-on-Latino racism, of class inequality, and of sexism and homophobia suggests that our thinking about racism has to continually be informed by an understanding of intersectionality.

UPDATE 12/14/08: Jose Sucuzhanay died early this morning, before his mother arrived from Ecuador to say goodbye.