Birmingham, the Bombing and Restorative Justice

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the white supremacist bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama that killed four young girls. The girls’ death and the long wait for justice raises important questions about civil rights, racism, and the nature of restorative justice.

(Clockwise from top left: Addie Mae Collins (aged 14), Cynthia Wesley (aged 14),
Carole Robertson (aged 14) and Denise McNair (aged 11), image source.)

If you’re not familiar with the case, you can begin by listening to this interview from 2008, Mr. Christopher McNair – father of the youngest victim – offers his recollection of that devastating day with NPR reporter Michele Norris. And, if you haven’t seen it, I urge you to watch Spike Lee’s documentary about the bombing, “4 Little Girls,” which is quite compelling.

This year, President Obama awarded the four girls with the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civil honor.  However, it took many decades before the bombers – four white supremacists, Robert Chambliss, Herman Cash, Thomas Blanton and Bobby Cherry –  were brought to justice.

The decades-long-delay in prosecuting the assailants in this case raises vexing questions about the nature of “justice,” questions that  Willoughby Anderson takes up in a 2008 analysis (“The past on trial: Birmingham, the bombing, and Restorative Justice.” California Law Review 96, no. 2 (2008): 471-504). Anderson writes:

“The community, media, and scholarly responses to these trials point to the way that a crime’s effects can reach far beyond the individual perpetrator and victim. In the context of unresolved civil rights-era violence, one murder or bombing inevitably expands outward and into the larger story of segregation and massive resistance; into the systemic, racially-based injustices of southern law enforcement; and to the New South’s willingness to move quickly forward without reconciling its troubled past. Restorative justice theory, a reform movement within the criminal justice system, can help contextualize the broad consequences of these crimes. Taking the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church as an example, I use restorative justice theory to expand the concept of harm resulting from this one incident. Rather than understanding the crime in traditional terms as an abstract harm against the state, we must imagine it as an act with consequences for the victims, the community at large, the offenders themselves, and the relationships between all three.”

I find Anderson most persuasive in his argument when he takes up the “harm to community” from these crimes, and offers a context for the return to prosecution after many decades. He writes:
“But what can this criminal justice reform movement teach us about approaching historic unsolved crimes from the civil rights-era? The responses of communities, the media, and scholarly observers to renewed civil rights-era investigations were critical and mixed. Some saw justice long-delayed, but ultimately achieved. Others questioned the value of trials delayed for so long. Most simply wondered about the years of non-prosecution. Murder trials have a limited ability to address broad concerns about systemic injustice and the passage of time between an offense and its prosecution. These infamous crimes exposed the harm inflicted on whole communities through the violence of segregation and selective enforcement of criminal laws, a harm that cannot simply be understood as Alabama v. Defendant.
His argument, to take a restorative justice theory frame to examine the Birmingham bombing, is less well developed when it comes to the perpetrators.  In discussing the impact of the trial on the family of Bobby Cherry, Anderson writes:
“The criminal justice context also overlooked the plight of the families of the perpetrators. The effects of the crime on Cherry’s family strife illustrate how the bombing’s harms were not restricted to one side of the equation. Thomas Cherry, estranged son of the bomber, describing how his childhood was blighted by the crime, forcing his family to relocate to Texas, and providing the subject of conversation at every family reunion. The son was subpoenaed to testify in front of the grand jury, and the newspapers described him as “anguished over his father but . . . also haunted by the bombing.”  After the verdict, Thomas Cherry tried to explain how the crime cast a long shadow: “[i]t leaves you an awful empty feeling in you [to] know that your father is going to the penitentiary for the rest of his life.”  Cherry’s trial also featured conflicting testimony from ex-wives and a loyal grandson as to his character, the meaning of his Klan membership, and his motives for racial violence. After the verdict, the Birmingham Post-Herald ran a large picture of Cherry’s daughter Karen Suderland sitting on the ground weeping. One wonders what the effect of the competency protests might have been on this wide spectrum of family members, both estranged and otherwise. How could the trial possibly have brought them a sense of closure? In evaluating harms and victims, an inquiry into the effects the crime has on the offenders’ families is necessary, no matter how much this complicates otherwise simplistic condemnation of criminal offenders.
While I’m generally in favor of restorative justice as at least one, possible way out of the current mass incarceration debacle, I’m skeptical of such an approach here. Anderson seems well aware of the context of racism and white supremacy in creating the harm of the bombing, but once it comes to the perpetrators and their families, those slip from view. Instead, Cherry becomes merely an “offender” whose family has suffered because of their “crime.” When Anderson writes that the son was forced  “to relocate to Texas,” and discuss the bombing “at every family reunion,” speaks to a kind of minimal (if any) harm.  What this version of restorative justice doesn’t address all the ways in which the descendants of the perpetrators still benefit from and are complicit with certain forms of white supremacy.

Fifty years on from the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama that killed four young girls we are still struggling to understand what the nature of restorative justice might look like in a society that remains mired in racism.

When Whites Attack: The Deadly Consequences of Anti-Latina/o Violence

The U.S. has a long and intense history of institutionalized racial violence against Latinas/os in the form of physical assaults, beatings, and murders. The violent racialized framing of Latinas/os has been a constant narrative throughout U.S. history including, but not limited to, the U.S. – Mexican War (1846-1848), the lynching of Mexicans (1848-1928), and the Zoot Suit Riots (1943). The use of deadly force has played a central role in reproducing racial oppression, resulting in the dehumanization, marginalization, subjugation, and ultimately the countless killings of people of color. Anti-immigrant and anti-Latina/o sentiment continues to negatively shape the perceptions of Latinas/os as both the perpetual foreigner and as a permanent threat to the white status quo. This white racial framing (Feagin, 2013) is used to justify white’s often brutal and savage mistreatment of Latinas/os.

The following cases highlight not only white-on-Brown violence, but the lived realities for Latinas/os in the purported land of the free and home of the brave. The proceeding examples represent a small sample of white racial violence. The first case took place April 2006 in Houston, Texas. This hate crime involved the brutal torture and sodomy of a young Latino male and his subsequent suicide. After knocking 16 year old David Ritcheson unconscious, the two white teens, David Tuck, 18, and Keith Turner, 17, continued to punish the defenseless victim:

For the next five hours, they tortured him: They stripped him naked, kicked him with steel-toed boots, burned him with cigarettes and choked him with a garden hose. Tuck shouted racial epithets and carved a swastika in the boy’s chest with a knife. Turner grabbed a plastic patio umbrella pole and placed it near the victim’s rectum. Tuck kicked the pole several inches in.

The following hate crime occurred on July 12, 2008 in the city of Shenandoah, Pennsylvania. Two white teens identified as Brandon Piekarsky, 16, and Derrick Donchak, 18, beat Luis Ramirez, 25, to death while yelling racial epithets and told him:

This is Shenandoah. This is America. Go back to Mexico.” According to testimony, Donchak beat Ramirez while holding a thick piece of metal identified at trial as a “fist pack.” After another of their friends punched Ramirez in the face, causing him to fall back and hit his head on the ground, Piekarsky kicked Ramirez in the head as he lay unconscious and prone on the ground. After Piekarsky kicked Ramirez, he told a bystander who was married to a Latino man to “tell your Mexican friends to get out of Shenandoah or you will be lying next to him.

A few months later on November 8, 2008 another Latino male was assaulted by seven teenagers and eventually killed by Jeffrey Convoy, 17, in a Patchogue, Long Island train station. The victim identified as 37 year old Marcelo Lucero was an:

Ecuadorian immigrant who worked at a local dry cleaning store, was stabbed in the chest and left to die. The teens were convicted of gang assault; prosecutors said the attack was part of targeted hate crimes against Latinos in the area, which the perpetrators purportedly called “Mexican hopping” or “beaner hopping.

Unlike whites, Latinas/os are forced to regularly navigate, resist, and deal with white racist xenophobia. For example, on May 6, 2010 in Phoenix, Arizona, Juan Varela, 44 was gunned down in front of his brother and mother by his white neighbor Gary Kelley, 51, who screamed at Varela, in a drunken rage, “You fucking Mexican, go back to Mexico!”

The white racist structure identifies Latina/o bodies as non-white, creating entitlement and privilege; consequently whites are empowered to commit acts of violence against people deemed subhuman and inferior. One of the most recent examples of white violence transpired on January 26, 2013 in Liburn, Georgia; proving that even pulling into the wrong driveway can get you killed. According to news reports Rodrigo Diaz, 22 was driving to one of his passengers friend’s house and mistakenly pulled into the driveway of Philip Sailors, 69. Sailors’ lawyer contends that his client shot Diaz because he was under the impression that Diaz was trying to rob his home:

When officers arrived, Angie Rebolledo, Diaz’s girlfriend, had blood on her jeans, both arms and both hands as she was attempting to get a response from him and screamed frantically that her boyfriend had been shot, according to police.

These murders are best understood within the historical trend of white nativism and discrimination, and illustrate the systemic nature of white-on-Brown racial killings. Anti-Latina/o violence has not stopped. In the past seven years there has been numerous Latinas/os murdered by whites. Although each case is separate and carried out by individual whites, collectively over time, these acts of aggression represent a systematic pattern of white antagonism and violence against Latinas/os (Feagin, 2013). White supremacy is not only defined but relies on violence to replicate the existing social system; white-on-Brown violence is foundational to the U.S. both historically and contemporary (Feagin, 2013); Delgado, 2009.

Latinas/os can be victims of physical assaults and murder at any given place or moment. Whites do not deal with this same fear, hostility, and threat of violence. Ultimately Latinas/os and their families are left to deal with death and devastation.

David Ritcheson (1989-2007)
Luis Ramirez (1983-2008)
Marcelo Lucero (1971-2008)
Juan Varela (1966-2010)
Rodrigo Diaz (1991-2013)

Sikh Temple Shooting: White Supremacist Kills 7

It’s happened again. A white man gone mad has walked into a group of people and started shooting.  Yesterday, in a suburb outside Milwaukee, Wisconsin a man with ties to white supremacist groups entered a Sikh Temple and opened fire. While this has prompted many to ask if it’s time to talk about gun control, I want to talk about racism and white supremacy.


(Image from here)


The gun man has been identified as Wade Michael Page, someone that the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) had been tracking for some time as a potential threat.  Page was a front man for a couple of white power bands and was heavily tattooed with white power symbols.  However fascinating it may be to “decipher the tattoos” he wore, it would be a mistake to dismiss Page was an isolated actor from a lunatic fringe disconnected from the mainstream of U.S. society.

In fact, the reality is that white supremacy is a persistent, tragic feature of the American cultural and political landscape.  The extreme expressions of white supremacy – like this shooting, or like some of the violent images and messages previously circulated in print and now online – are part of a larger problem.  White supremacy is woven into the fabric of our society and it kills people.

Vijay Prashad, author of Uncle Swami: South Asians in America Today (New Press, 2012), has studied the deadly consequences of racism directed toward South Asians, including many of whom are Sikh (a religion, not an ethnicity). Following 9/11, Sikh men and women were targeted for their turban and head-scarf. The (il)logic of white supremacy seems to be that since Osama Bin Laden wore a turban, it was the turban-wearing Sikhs who ought to be attacked.  As Prashad noted in Uncle Swami, within the first week after 9/11, a disproportionately large number of the 645 bias attacks took place against Sikhs.  Prashad goes on to make the connection between everyday racist acts and the recent violence when she writes:

“Patterns are shunned. Structural factors such as the prevalence of guns and the lack of social care for mentally disturbed people should of course be in the frame. But so too should the preponderance of socially acceptable hatred against those seen as outsiders. Intellectually respectable opinions about who is an American (produced, for example, by Sam Huntington, Who Are We? The Challenge to National Identity) comes alongside the politician’s casual racism (Romney’s recent suggestion that the US and the UK are “part of an Anglo-Saxon heritage,” erased in a whip lash the diversity of the United States and Britain). Racist attacks are authorized by a political culture that allows us to think in nativist terms, to bemoan the “browning” of America.”

As Rinku Sen points out here, there’s nothing “random” or “senseless” to this event but it is, instead, linked to the everyday microaggressions in our (white) families.  She writes:

“I implore of my white friends, when your nutty uncle or classmate goes off about some set of foreigners, you must make a fuss, cause a family crisis, become unpopular, speak up. We cannot do this for you.”

This is precisely the kind of thing that Jenni Mueller talked about doing here.  Some of us are doing this, making a fuss, causing a family crisis, but not enough of us, not nearly enough.  Harsha Walia in a guest post at Racialicious echoes this when she writes:

“Whites might actually have to start distancing themselves from white supremacy.”

Where was Page’s family, one wonders, as he got more and more overtly extremist in his views and body art?  Quietly ashamed or happily cheering him on?  We won’t know from the usual bland, mainstream reporting on stories involving race.

Perhaps more pressing, there need to be more white people who will educate themselves and start exposing white supremacy in all its forms whether shooting up Sikh temples or heralding the superiority of “Anglo-Saxon heritage.”



Free Speech for Anti-Semites and Other Racist Folks: Debates in Europe

There are some important and interesting debates on hate speech in Europe, with critics of new and old hate-speech laws often parroting “first amendment” arguments one often hears in the US.

The useful e-zine called Eurozine has several interesting article now on various sides of this debate. Check it out here and here.

And there seem to be more interesting websites debating “free speech,” such as this one, Free Speech Debate.

“Unaddressed Racism” : Alice Walker on Travyon Martin’s Killing

This is a long (45 minute), but good, interview from Democracy Now with Pulitzer Prize-winning author, poet and activist Alice Walker about the root causes of the Trayvon Martin killing. Worth a listen:

Walker observes that “We are a very sick country. And our racism is a manifestation of our illness and the ways that we don’t delve into our own wrecks. … As a country, we are a wreck.” Powerful words.

Trayvon Martin, Racism and Social Media

Racism and the struggle for civil rights are happening online. This is a central point that I made in an earlier book and in talks I’ve given around the country.

The Trayvon Martin case illustrates two important points: 1) that the fight against racism has shifted because of social media, and 2) it demonstrates rather starkly how racism hasn’t changed. I’ll start with the second point.

(Image from @Llapen)

The murder of Trayvon Martin is an event in the embodied, material world that connects to other, similar acts in which the ‘black body,’ is marked as both threatening and worthy of killing (see Dorothy Roberts, Killing the Black Body, 1997). Martin’s murder at the hands of a vigilante connects his death to that of previous victims of lynching, the archetypal form of violent white supremacy (see Koritha Mitchell, Living with Lynching, 2011). During the height of lynching, activists used the means available to them – newspapers, town halls, banners, plays, word-of-mouth – to try to sway public opinion about the vigilante killing of African Americans.

Today, the tools available to activists have changed. People have learned about the Trayvon Martin case very quickly through social media. The social media campaign began with the unlikely character of Kevin Cunningham, a white guy who describes himself as “super Irish” and who was also a Howard Law School University alum. Cunningham saw a link to the story on a email listserv called Men of Howard. Cunningham wanted to do something so he started a petition on demanding that Sanford Police charge Zimmerman with a crime. It got 100 signatures that first day, March 8, just 11 days after Trayvon Martin was killed.

Prominent bloggers began to pick up on the story, and within the next week the online petition had moved past the 100,000 mark.  On March 16, Charles M. Blow wrote an op-ed for the New York Times. As the 911 tapes were released and began to raise troubling questions about the shooter’s pursuit of Trayvon and the Sanford Police investigation. These tapes prompted Judd Legume of Think Progress on March 18 to put together a set of simple facts titled “What Everyone Should Know About Trayvon Martin (1995-2012)”; that story quickly went viral, with 147,000 likes on Facebook. The petition topped 200,000 signatures, and it seemed that everyone on social media was talking about the Trayvon Martin case.

The social media activism even resulted in some old school in-the-streets-activism, with a “Million Hoodie” march in New York City on March 21st (pictured above).

This is an extraordinary example of how social media can be used to affect awareness about an issue (if not quite change). As Kelly McBride at Poynter observes:

“This is how stories are told now. They are told by people who care passionately, until we all care. Think of the Jena Six, the story of six black teenagers unjustly prosecuted in 2007 for attempted murder following a fight that erupted as a result of racial tensions. Black bloggers kept that story alive until Howard Witt, then a writer for the Chicago Tribune, brought it into the mainstream media. That took almost a year. Trayvon’s story took three weeks.”

The online petition now has 1.5 million signatures (the largest ever in’s history), although all this social media attention hasn’t resulted in an arrest in the case yet.

So, this is all very good news about the power of social media. Perhaps it really is making us better, more socially engaged and politically active,  as sociologist Keith Hampton argues.

There’s more to this story of Trayvon, racism and social media, however.  There is also an amped up, racist smear campaign that is trying to promote the idea that Trayvon was a “drug dealer” who is far more dangerous than the mainstream and left-leaning blogosphere has depicted.

While it might be easy to dismiss the people behind sites like WAGIST as right-wing nut jobs (RWNJ), that’s too easy. Dismissing them as fringe also doesn’t accurately describe what’s happening around Trayvon, racism and social media.

In fact, there’s been a convergence of extremist and mainstream media around the Trayvon Martin case that illustrates a point I made in a previous book, that the “extreme” white supremacy has a lot of similarity with the mainstream version of whiteness.

The thoroughly mainstream, if right-leaning, Business Insider has made a linkbait-cottage-industry out of news about the Trayvon Martin case, including a photo it reported was of Trayvon in a “thug” pose and used it to question the supposed bias in media reporting. Unfortunately, the photo was not of the Trayvon Martin who was killed but of someone else.  The source for the Business Insider photo: white power message board Stormfront. And Business Insider wasn’t the only one. Michelle Malkin, right-wing pundit, also reproduced the photo on her site. The fact that Business Insider and Michelle Malkin are reproducing images from Stormfront illustrates the point I made earlier about the overlap between extremist and more mainstream expressions of white supremacy.

The racist smear campaign against Trayvon Martin continues.  Today, it’s reported that a white supremacist hacker that goes by the name “Klanklannon” has broken into the private Facebook account of Trayvon Martin and published the contents on the message board 4chan—called “/pol/.”The messages were posted on four slides, designed to back up the racist argument Trayvon was “dangerous” (and therefore deserved to be killed).  A slide titled “Trayvon Martin Used Marijuana Habitually,” features an exchange between Trayvon and a friend about getting high. Another slide, “Trayvon Martin was a Drug Dealer,” features Facebook messages and photos that supposedly prove Martin dealt drugs, including a picture of Martin posing “aggressively with a large amount of cash in his hand.”  The hacker also grabbed Trayvon’s @gmail account that found nothing more sinister than a high school student searching for colleges and selecting the best day to take his SAT exam.

As Adrian Chen at Gawker points out, it’s impossible to verify the hacked messages’ authenticity—like other anti-Trayvon Martin propaganda, they’re probably a mix of real and fake content— and they are now being passed around on message boards like the neo-Nazi hive Stormfront.

The central point about Trayvon Martin, racism and social media here is that the struggle for civil rights is happening online as well as offline. Sometimes, these new forms of social media can be used to work expose racial injustice at record speed and amplify calls for action. At the same time, old forms of racism – lynching and vigilantism, stereotypes of young black men as ‘menacing drug dealers’ – exist alongside these new forms of activism. Meanwhile, white supremacists and mainstream pundits use the same tools as racial justice activists to spread racist propaganda that confuse and bespoil the public sphere.

Sociologists and other scholars are just beginning to come to terms with what all this means. One thing we do understand is that we cannot disentangle the online and the offline. The digital and the material are imbricated, as Saskia Sassen argues. That is, the “online” forms of racism and struggle against overlap and are intertwined with the “offline” and material forms of racial inequality.  In other language, our material reality is augmented by digital, social media as Nathan Jurgenson contends. When it comes to race, that means we have to see the face-to-face racism that took Trayvon’s life as connected to the online forms of social protest meant to redress that harm and the smear campaigns intended to assassinate his character after his death.

Finally, for activists who would fight for racial equality and civil rights today, the message seems to be clear: learn to use social media or be left behind in the fight against racism.

Justice for Trayvon Martin

Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old, unarmed black teenager was shot and killed last month in a gated community in Florida, after a man saw him walking down a street and thought he looked “suspicious.” The case has attracted a great deal of attention because George Zimmerman, the man who has admitted to shooting Martin, has not been arrested. Melissa Harris-Perry has more in this short (4 minute) video:

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

If you want to see justice for Trayvon Martin, you can sign a petition here.

Update: Here is part of a letter you can sign that is being sent out by color of change to the US Attorney General and Florida Attorney General, that updates some of the information on the police (lack of?) investigation:

At the crime scene, the Sanford, Florida police botched their questioning of Zimmerman, refused to take the full statements of witnesses, and pressured neighbors to side with the shooter’s claim of self-defense. Sanford’s police department has a history of failing to hold perpetrators accountable for violent acts against Black individuals. The police misconduct in Trayvon’s case exemplifies the department’s systemic mishandling of investigations involving violence against Black victims. And now the State Attorney’s office has rubber-stamped the Sanford police’s non-investigation, claiming that there is not enough evidence to support even a manslaughter conviction for Trayvon’s senseless and entirely avoidable death.

Documentaries: “Banished”

During Black History Month, I’m sharing some relevant documentaries. One of my favorite is, “Banished: How Whites Drove Blacks Out of Town in America.” (Independent Lens, PBS, 2007). The film examines the history of racial cleansing in America, in which at least 12 different counties in eight states “banished” their black populations through the threat of violence. Here’s a short clip (1:27):

As a companion to this film, I’d recommend James Loewen’s Sundown Towns, about the widespread phenomenon of places where African Americans were not welcome at after dark, often noted by a sign that read, “Don’t let the sun go down on you in this town.” While most people associate this sort of exclusion with the Jim Crow South, Loewen demonstrates that in Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Missouri, Pennsylvania, and other places north of the Mason-Dixon Line, sundown towns were created by waves of white-led violence in the early decades of the twentieth century. As with the film, the book shows how the predominantly white cities, towns and suburbs of today are rooted in historical violence and ongoing discrimination.

The film is available through California Newsreel.

Casual to Deadly: Anti-Asian American Racism

From casual to pandering to deadly, there have been several disturbing reports about anti-Asian American racism in the news. In the more casual forms of racism, it seems that the whole using someone’s name as a way to retrieve an order at fast food places has gone horribly awry. About a month ago a Chick-Fil-A cashier at a store in Irvine, California assigned racist names to two customers and even typed them into the printed receipts (images here). And, just in the past few days, a woman went into a Papa John’s pizza chain in New York City and got called a racist name on her receipt (see that receipt here). Here’s an idea – maybe we could just go back to the “we’ll call your number when your order is ready?” system.

AngryAsianGrrlMN sums this up well when she writes:

This is the kind of casual racism that isn’t talked about, but that Asian people deal with on a regular basis.  We are the invisible minority, and we rarely get the kind of attention that other minorities do.

I’ll just state the obvious here and point out that these incidents didn’t happen in the distant past or some rural backwater, but in supposedly tolerant, cosmopolitan urban areas in the present, putatively post-racial era.

The pandering form of anti-Asian American racism is coming through, not surprisingly, the presidential campaign. John Huntsman, Republican candidate and former Ambassador to China, is fluent in Mandarin and, rather remarkably, spoke Chinese during the Republican presidential debate recently.  Huntsman and his wife have also adopted children from China and India.  All this “foreign-ness” has proven too tempting for some of his political opponents who are using these facts to pander to peoples’ racism and xenophobia.  As AngryAsianMan notes:

“It’s an election year, so you know what time it is. Racist campaign ads! This latest gem is from someone claiming to be a Ron Paul supporter, attacking Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman for his un-American” values. … Here we go with another round of equating China with all things evil. Complete with an extra Oriental soundtrack — never has Mandarin made to sound so sinister. [This video] is one of the most unabashedly racist attack ads we’ve seen in a while.

The ad asks whether Huntsman’s values are “American” values or Chinese?  And, then rather sinisterly photoshops Huntsman into a portrait of Chinese leader Mao Zedong while thoroughly mixing the fear-mongering metaphors and comparing him to the “Manchurian Candidate.” This kind of strategy is what some people refer to as “dog whistle racism,” in other words, political campaigning  that uses coded words and themes that appeal to conscious or unconscious racist concepts and frames. For example, the terms ‘welfare queen,’ ’states’ rights,’ ‘Islamic terrorist,’ ‘uppity,’ and ‘illegal alien’ all activate racist concepts that already exist within a broader white racial frame.

Among the most disturbing news are the details that are emerging surrounding the death of Private Danny Chen in October, 2011. Chen, 19, grew up in New York City’s Chinatown, and is thought to have committed suicide in Afghanistan after enduring racial taunts and bullying (although some now question whether it was suicide at all). A group of his superiors allegedly tormented Chen on an almost daily basis over the course of about six weeks in Afghanistan last fall. They singled him out, their only Chinese-American soldier, and spit racial slurs at him: “gook,” “chink,” “dragon lady.” They forced him to do sprints while carrying a sandbag. They ordered him to crawl along gravel-covered ground while they flung rocks at him. And one day, when his unit was assembling a tent, he was forced to wear a green hard-hat and shout out instructions to his fellow soldiers in Chinese.ethnic slurs. At other times, they forced him to do push-ups or hang upside down with his mouth full of water.

New York Magazine has an extensive piece about Chen’s experience, including his letters home from the military.  Here’s some of what he wrote to his parents:

“Everyone knows me because I just noticed, I’m the only chinese guy in the platoon,” he wrote home. His fellow recruits called him Chen Chen, Jackie Chan, and Ling Ling. But, he added, “Don’t worry, no one picks on me … I’m the skinniest guy and weigh the least here but … people respect me for not quitting.”

Four weeks later, the Asian jokes hadn’t stopped. “They ask if I’m from China like a few times day,” he wrote. “They also call out my name (chen) in a goat like voice sometimes for no reason. No idea how it started but now it’s just best to ignore it. I still respond though to amuse them. People crack jokes about Chinese people all the time, I’m running out of jokes to come back at them.”

The eight men later charged in connection with his death are all white and range in age from 24 to 35; they include one lieutenant, two staff sergeants, three sergeants, and two specialists. Danny’s parents, of course, are inconsolable at the loss of their only son.

9/11 — and Anti-Muslim Attacks and Sentiment

Rinku Senator and Fekkak Mamdouh, longtime (59 years altogether) residents of the U.S. have a good piece I recommend over at Colorlines titled “Long time residents This 9/11, Let’s All Take Responsibility for Ending a Summer of Hate.”

It is sad that many Americans, including numerous leaders and media analysts, use this time to make intensive verbal and/or other attacks on Muslim Americans and Islam. We should remember the victims of this atrocious attack by overseas extremists in New York City without using it as an excuse for the (often white-generated) racial framing of Muslim and/or Middle Eastern Americans. We do not go crazy with racial framing, hostility, and profiling on April 19 in the 1990s, do we? That is when the white Christian Tim McVeigh and his white Christian group conducted the most damaging terrorist attack in recent decades before the 9/11 attack. Yet, fortunately, the contemporary hatemongers do not call for a ban on Christian church centers near the bombing site in Oklahoma City.

Rinku Senator and Fekkak Mamdouh make this point:

… this summer marks the worst anti-Muslim backlash we’ve ever seen here. As the nine years since 9/11 have passed, Americans have forgotten an essential fact: Extremists can use any religion to justify murder, and the stereotyping of Muslims as terrorists sacrifices both American values and community safety. .. .Attacks on Muslim people have escalated. Opponents of the Cordoba House keep saying that 9/11 was the worst attack ever on American soil, therefore Ground Zero is “sacred” and nothing as profane as a mosque should be built there. …It presumes that it is impossible that Austrian Muslims, like Mamdouh himself, who worked at Windows on the World, could have been in the World Trade Center, could have lost friends, colleagues or relatives there….

Too many Americans think uncritically about these matters and require scapegoats to explain too many contemporary social issues. The sharp increase in anti-Muslim attacks is not just about the 9/11 attacks as the numerous attacks on mosques and Muslim Americans over decades, across the country, clearly show. Recent surveys are very disturbing:

A recent TIME/CNN poll found that 55 percent thought Muslims could not be patriots. …. Tennessee Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey popularized the notion that Muslims don’t deserve the same religious freedom as everyone else….

The following analyses summarize some more detailed points I make in the ninth edition of this book (the references can be found there):

The array of discrimination against Muslim and Middle Eastern Americans in recent years is broad–racist jokes, cartoons, e-mails from fellow employees, not being hired or promoted because of Islamic religious observance, taunted with slurs. Many cases of employer discrimination involve workplace prohibitions against religious practices, such as not allowing Muslim men to wear beards or not permitting daily prayers.

The 9/11 attacks by a few Middle Eastern terrorists have stimulated many hate crimes by non-Middle-Eastern Americans, crimes principally about a hostile racial-religious framing. Yet no Middle Eastern American was implicated in the attacks. Seventeen of the nineteen men involved were from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, close allies of the U.S. government. In just nine weeks after September 11, there were at least 520 violent attacks in the U.S. on people thought to be of Middle Eastern ancestry.

The hastily passed 2001 USA Patriot Act and related acts gave the government broad authority to detain noncitizens with little due process. Muslim and Middle Eastern Americans have been targeted by federal agents and private personnel. In one case Muslim religious officials were taken off a plane just because they were praying. This surveillance problem has become so general that Arab Americans have a term for it—“FWA,” for “flying while Arab.” In addition, one CAIR report indicates there were 116 hate crime incidents targeting Middle Eastern Americans in 2008–more than a thousand since 2001. One national poll found since 2001 nearly three-quarters of Muslim respondents had experienced anti-Muslim harassment or physical attack, or knew someone who had.

Senator and Mamdouh also point out who should take action:

….a few have become nostalgic for George W. Bush—who spoke no less than 11 times in the fall of 2001 about Islam being a religion of peace and love and having nothing to do with Al Qaeda. Others have called for President Obama to speak up more often to protect Muslims. But the real problem is that everyday Americans keep silent about too much of this.

And over at Dailykos, Michael Moore argues that the mosque and Islamic Center should be built at “ground zero” if America is to be the America it claims to be!