On a September evening in 1987, Navroze Mody, a thirty-year-old Indian man living in Jersey City, went for drinks at the Gold Coast Café, in Hoboken. Later that night, after he left the bar, he was accosted on the street by a group of about a dozen youths and severely beaten. Mody died from his injuries four days later. There had been other attacks on Indians in the area at that time, several of them brutal, many of them carried out by a group which called itself the Dotbusters—the name a reference to the bindi worn by Hindu women on their foreheads. Earlier that year, a local newspaper had published a handwritten letter from the Dotbusters: “We will go to any extreme to get Indians to move out of Jersey City. If I’m walking down the street and I see a Hindu and the setting is right, I will hit him or her.”
When I first read about the attack on Mody, I had only recently arrived in the United States. I was a young graduate student at Syracuse University then, and although the news alarmed me, I wasn’t fearful. In those days, distances felt real: an event unfolding in a city more than two hundred miles away seemed remote, even in the imagination. I might have worried for my mother and sisters, who wore bindis, but they were safe in India. Whatever was happening in Jersey City, in other words, couldn’t affect the sense that I and my expat friends had of our role in this country. The desire for advancement often breeds an apolitical attitude among immigrants, a desire not to rock the boat, to be allowed to pass unnoticed. Since 1965, when Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Immigration and Nationality Act, abolishing the racist quotas of the nineteen-twenties, our compatriots had been bringing their professional skills to America. If we didn’t hope to be welcomed, we at least expected to be benignly ignored.
A lot has happened in the long interregnum. Indian-Americans have the highest median income of any ethnic group in the United States. There is a greater visibility now of Indians on American streets, and also of Indian food and culture. I’ve seen the elephant-headed deity Ganesha displayed all over America, in art museums, restaurants, yoga centers, and shops, on T-shirts and tote bags. The bindi isn’t the bull’s-eye it once was. But the bigotry, as we have witnessed in 2017, has not gone away. In early February, an Indian man in Peyton, Colorado, awoke to find his house egged, smeared with dog feces, and vandalized with racist slogans. Two weeks later, at a bar in Olathe, Kansas, a U.S. Navy veteran named Adam Purinton allegedly opened fire on two Indian patrons. Srinivas Kuchibhotla, a thirty-two-year-old aviation engineer, was killed; his colleague Alok Madasani survived. Ten days later, a Sikh man was attacked outside his home in Kent, Washington, while washing his car. A white man wearing a mask told him to go back to his country, then shot him in the arm. Soon after that, as if to confirm that Indians across the country were now on notice, an unsettling video began to circulate online. Originally posted in August by a sixty-six-year-old computer programmer named Steve Pushor, it shows a crowded park in Columbus, Ohio. As the camera pans past immigrant parents playing with their children, Pushor says, in voice-over, “The Indian crowd has ravished the Midwest.”
The racist’s calling card is ignorance: he cannot discriminate (if that is the right word) between nationalities and religions, between Indians and Saudis and Egyptians, Hindus and Muslims and Sikhs. One of the first hate crimes to take place in the days following 9/11 was the murder of Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh gas-station owner in Mesa, Arizona. The killer probably thought that Sodhi, with his turban and beard, was Muslim; he had told his friends that he was “going to go out and shoot some towel heads.” This year’s attacks bear some of the same hallmarks. Purinton reportedly shouted “Get out of my country!” before firing on the men from India, whom he believed were from Iran. And last Friday, a white man in Florida set fire to an Indian-owned convenience store because, he told police, it didn’t carry his brand of orange juice and he wished to “run the Arabs out of our country.” We, the mistaken people.
The incitement sixteen years ago was 9/11. Today it is Donald Trump. The President’s nationalistic rhetoric and scapegoating of racial others, not to mention his habitual reliance on unverified information, have sown panic among immigrants. I’ve often asked myself lately whether I’ve been right to suspect that people were looking at me differently on the street, at airports, or in elevators. Whenever a stranger has been kind to me, I have wanted to almost weep in gratitude. Unlike when I first arrived here, distance no longer offers any reprieve from these feelings. The Internet delivers ugly fragments of report and rumor throughout the day, and with them a sense of nearly constant intimacy with violence.
Soon after Kuchibhotla’s murder, a commentator in India pointed out a grave irony: in the run-up to the 2016 election, a number of right-leaning American Hindus supported Trump’s candidacy, not only with donations but also with elaborate prayer ceremonies to propitiate the gods. The more conservative of these people—those who backed the rise of a hypernationalist Hindutva ideology in India through the nineties—have made common cause with American conservatives, who share their view of Islam as the enemy. Trump’s fear-mongering found a ready echo in the ultraright-Hindu heart. But to the homegrown racists emboldened by that same fear-mongering, the Hindu-G.O.P. alliance makes no difference. Purinton’s question for Kuchibhotla and Madasani in the bar in Kansas was not whether they were Muslim but whether they were in the country illegally. (They weren’t.) A week later, in a Facebook post, Kuchibhotla’s widow framed the question as Purinton perhaps really meant it: “Do we belong here?” And this week, a possible answer came from Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, when an Indian-American woman confronted him at an Apple store. “It’s such a great country that allows you to be here,” Spicer told her. His interlocutor was an American citizen, but that didn’t seem to register. (Not white, not quite.)
An Indian man in the Midwest once told me that every time an American shakes his hand and says, “I love Indian food,” he wants to respond, “I thank you on behalf of Indian food.” He might just as well thank the American on behalf of—take your pick—spelling bees, lazy “Slumdog Millionaire” references, yoga and chai lattes, motels, software moguls, Bollywood-style weddings, doctors and taxi drivers, henna, Nobel laureates, comedians, the baffling wisdom of Deepak Chopra, and Mahatma Gandhi. But perhaps it’s time he reminded the American of something, too. The man who shot Gandhi, in 1948, was neither Muslim nor Sikh nor a foreigner. He was a disgruntled member of the majority, like Purinton, and had once belonged to India’s most nationalistic party—the same party that, just today, told Indians in the United States to stop worrying for their safety.