Two Violent Attacks on South Asian & Muslim Americans Reveal the Deadly Consequences of Implicit Bias

57-year-old Sureshbhai Patel recovers in the ICU following a violent attack by police that left him paralyzed in one leg.

I apologize that I haven’t written about these stories until now: I’ve been out-of-town for the last week, and after that, in bed with a bad cold. But, even though I’m late on these stories, they bear revisiting.

On February 6 of this year, 57-year-old Sureshbhai Patel decided to go for a morning walk through his son’s residential neighbourhood in Madison, Alabama. Patel had received his permanent residency visa and arrived in America at the end of January to help care for his 17-month-old grandson, recently born to his son Chirag Patel who works as an electrical engineer.

That morning, Patel wore a button-down shirt, a plain pair of pants, and a woolen cap; he also has dark brown skin. Shortly into his walk, Patel was approached by two uniformed police officers, who confronted Patel. Patel, who speaks only Gujarti, allegedly told the officers, “no English”, “Indian”, and pointed at the house where he was staying with his son. The officers repeated their order to stop; still not fully understanding what was going on, Patel complied.

At this point, the officers engaged in what Patel’s lawyers contend was an unlawful stop: they began to pat him down and search his pockets. When Patel pulled away, the officers body-slammed Patel to the sidewalk (video after the jump); the 57-year-old grandfather suffered a bloodied face and such significant damage to his spine that he is now paralyzed.

Madison police allege that Patel was stopped in relation to a call of a suspicious person in the neighbourhood who was peeking into neighbourhood garages. However, police have also refused to provide any information on this alleged 911 call. Patel’s lawyer has since filed a lawsuit against the two officers involved in the incident; in it, Patel’s lawyer disputes the credibility of the claim:

The lawsuit argues “the press release is careful not to say that Patel actually walked up to houses or onto neighbor’s property, and the garages into which Patel allegedly looked are either solid or have windows that are inaccessible without a ladder.”

“Was there really a call?” the suit asks. “If so, was Patel actually falsely accused of looking into garages? Was the call or the false accusation against Patel fabricated by the Madison Police Department to deflect criticism for paralyzing an innocent man?”

The violent attack on Patel reminds of a similar incident of police brutality against an elderly Asian grandfather who spoke little or no English. Almost exactly one year ago, New York Police Department officers beat 84-year-old Chinese American Kang Wong bloody during a ticketing stop related to jaywalking; like Patel, Wong spoke almost no English and was nonetheless brutally beaten by police officers when they did not immediately comply to police orders.

In my post last year, I wondered why there are no protocols in place to handle routine police-civilian encounters involving non-English languages and resulting language barriers. Why don’t we expect officers to approach non-English speaking citizens with an understanding as to the complexity of the situation, and hold them to the common sense standard of not  immediately beating the crap out of people who fail to understand what is going on? Why, instead, do we blame the non-English speaking victims of excessive police force? Mr. Patel’s attack should renew calls to address standard police procedure when it comes to handling non-English speaking people, and to perhaps increase resources for facilitating bilingual interactions.

It is also worth noting at this time that more than one third of Asian Americans describe themselves as non-English proficient. So long as we continue to ignore the growing failure of current police protocol to adapt to an increasingly multicultural and multilingual America, it is Asian Americans who will continue to bear a large share of this problem, to devastating results.

Meanwhile, we must also ask whether language barriers, alone, are to blame when it comes to excessive violence against brown-skinned people. After all, to believe the Madison police department’s story is to believe that a 57-year-old brown-skinned man out for a morning walk at 8:30am around the residential neighbourhood he calls home is reasonable cause for suspicion. Would this alleged neighbour have called the police to report a “suspicious person” — or even have noticed him at all — had Patel been White?

The fact of the matter is that regardless of possible language barriers between Mr. Patel and the two Madison police officers who paralyzed him, race was likely also a factor. Patel’s brown skin corroborated the assumption that he was suspicious; that he was danger; that he was an Other; that he did not belong. Patel’s brown skin facilitated the decision to use excessive force.

Implicit bias has been scientifically demonstrated. In one study, study participants were placed in a simulated hostage situation, and were found to hesitate less (and more quickly shoot) Black figures — whether or not they were apparent criminals or bystanders — than White ones. 48% of study participants who take the standardized Implicit Association Test show some amount of bias (strangely, I did not show any implicit bias according to this test). It is now a matter of settled science that — regardless of one’s proclaims “colour-blindedness” — most of us carry some form of implicit bias, which reduces our capacity to empathize and humanize those who appear different than us.

Might these biases have contributed, then, to the brutal shooting of three Muslim American University of North Carolina students last week, allegedly in response to a parking disagreement?

Three Muslim American students at UNC were killed in Chapel Hill last week by a gunman.
Three Muslim American students at UNC were killed in Chapel Hill last week by a gunman.

Last week, a self-described “gun-toting” atheist named Craig Hicks shot dead Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23; his new wife, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21; and Abu-Salha’s younger sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19. The three students, all Syrian American, were killed in their condo from gunshots to the head, “execution-style”. Hicks claims the killings were because he was frustrated that the neighbours kept parking in his reserved parking space; but we have to wonder why Hicks would’ve reacted to such a minor dispute with lethal force. It’s likely — particularly given the current hostile racial environment towards Muslim Americans — that anti-Muslim implicit (or possibly even overt) bias factored into Hicks’ eagerness to execute the three young Muslim Americans over a parking space.

Already, family members have come forward with chilling stories of Hicks’ behaviour in the months leading up to the attack. Reports

Deah Barakat’s father-in-law, Mohammad Abu-Salha, said Barkat didn’t have any issues with Hicks until Abu-Sahla’s daughter moved in wearing a headscarf.  Abu-Sahla said his daughter told him, ‘Daddy, I think he hates us for who we are and how we look”.      His daughter said Hicks came knocking at their door, flashing a gun, more than once.

Sarah Hurely, Hicks’ estranged daughter, said her father “had a lot of hate in his heart”.    “I cut him out of my life for good when his Facebook posts began bashing others religious beliefs”

Hicks was a self-proclaimed Anti-theist and took to social media to spout his religion bashing views.  One alleged post from Hicks reads, “When it comes to insults, your religion started this, not me.   If your religion kept its big mouth shut, so would I.”

Why did Hicks allegedly change his behaviour towards Barakat only after he was exposed to a visible sign of Muslim faith?

Asian Americans — many brown-skinned South Asian Americans and/or Middle Eastern Americans and Muslims — are not immune from being victims of race-fueled excessive force, whether at the hands of police or citizens. Since 9/11, the incidence of anti-Muslim hate crimes — including those that have mistakenly targeted non-Muslim South Asian Americans — have risen an alarming 1600%. That’s not a coincidence.

In the end, it all comes down to the same thing: so long as we fail to challenge the Orientalist notion that permeates the entire institution of America that casts Asian Americans as unusual and Other, we will fail to prioritize resources that serve and address non-English proficient Asian Americans; we will be more likely to treat Asian Americans with suspicion, hostility, and outright rage; we will cast a blind eye to the failures of mainstream media to recognize the victims of this violent hate as one of our own and worthy of our empathy and outrage.

It would be too easy to call the two incidents last week isolated examples of bad behaviour, devoid of the impacts of race. But, we must recognize that to erase the spectre of race from these attacks is a deliberate — and political — choice to avoid discussions of racism and its sometimes fatal consequences, because those conversations make us uncomfortable.

Instead, I ask: when will we finally have the much harder discussion that, at last, recognizes the simple existence of race and racism? When will we finally address the devastating impact of our generalized implicit bias and finally acknowledge that racism not only exists, but it can have deadly consequences?

When will we finally declare once and for all that Brown and #MuslimLivesMatter?

Act Now! Please take a minute to donate to Sureshbhai Patel’s GoFundMe fundraiser to help offset his medical and legal costs. Please also take a minute to donate to Deah Barkat’s fundraising page, which he set up as a student, to benefit Syrian Dental Relief.

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