What goes into a hate crime? Don’t assume you know.


(RNS) — This week, the United States Department of Justice charged a Texas man with a federal hate crime for making threats against Sikh Americans.

In more ways than one, this isn’t a new story. The incident occurred nearly two years ago, in September of 2022. The investigation and prosecution took time. It’s also a story that’s as old as this country. What’s new about an American attacking others because of how they look or what they believe?

And yet a closer look reveals a more complex picture, one that complicates the stories we typically tell ourselves about what hate looks like.

For one, the assailant is not a white man. He’s a 48-year-old Indian American, Bhushan Athale.

Last year, President Joe Biden called white supremacy “the most dangerous terrorist threat” to American national security. In 2021, Attorney General Merrick B. Garland identified the greatest domestic threat to national security as “racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists and militia violent extremists.” He cited the FBI in elaborating that this description pertains specifically to “those who advocated for the superiority of the white race.”

We have plenty of evidence for this, including the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. We also have plenty of discussions on the rapid and dangerous growth of white nationalism. But no single community or ethnicity has an exclusive purchase on hatred, and there is no singular face of hatred in the United States. Other ideologies, though they mirror white nationalism, are similarly dangerous and violent.

(Photo by Jason Leung/Unsplash/Creative Commons)

(Photo by Jason Leung/Unsplash/Creative Commons)

Athale’s alleged threats did not come out of a vacuum. Like white nationalists, he had ample chance to see his own hatreds reflected in the political sphere. Sikhs, a minority in India, have been targeted by right-wing followers of Hindu nationalism as that ideology continues to foment there. Recent reports link the Indian state to the assassination of a Sikh leader in Canada and attempted assassination of another in the U.S.

But while Athale was operating in a different context, it would be glib to allege that he simply brought his political baggage into the diaspora. Hatred and racial ideologies are not contained within borders. People receive and internalize these messages the same way you and I do: politicized news outlets, social media echo chambers, family WhatsApp groups and more. He may have learned his anti-Sikh prejudice elsewhere; he learned to act on it as a citizen of today’s world.

What makes Athale’s alleged crimes specific is that authorities collected enough evidence to charge him with targeting Sikhs. In the United States, based partly on post 9/11 history but also on our racialized understanding of our society, we presume that any attacker of Sikhs meant to target a Muslim — a case of “mistaken identity.”

An excerpt from the DOJ press release shows that his threats were no mistake: “Athale’s voicemails, which were filled with violent imagery and obscenity, contained references to places, people and tenets that are particularly significant within the Sikh religion.”

He knew the objects of his hatred well, stating his intention, according to the DOJ, “to ‘catch the Sikhs at the organization, forcibly ‘shave’ the ‘top and bottom hair’ of these individuals, use a ‘razor’ to forcibly ‘cut’ these individuals’ hair and ‘make’ them bald, forcibly ‘make’ them smoke and eat tobacco and ‘show (them) the heaven.’”

As a Sikh American, I can attest that it sometimes makes it easier to assume that, when Sikhs are attacked, we aren’t the intended target. I used to carry that assumption, too. There was something comforting about it, that if people just knew us, then their hatreds would be resolved.

I believe there’s truth to that. It’s hard to hate someone you know. But as Athale’s case shows, we can have a warped sense about those we know and what threats they might pose. Pretending people don’t hate us doesn’t make us safer; we’re only safer when we become aware of the true nature of hatred and learn how to address it effectively.

Bhushan Athale’s alleged hate crimes toward Sikh Americans are disgusting and deplorable, but we have to look at them to find the lessons that are harder to see. In today’s society, we read the headline, presume we know the story, and continue scrolling. I’m as guilty of this as anyone.

But there’s so much underneath the surface that can help us learn and grow and inoculate ourselves from falling victim to our own assumptions. Those details matter, especially as we seek to grow and do better.

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