Otherness, Racism and Police Violence

In early February in Alabama, USA, police were called to investigate an elderly Indian man simply because he was walking suburban streets. The caller identified Sureshbhai Patel as as a “skinny Black man,” and therefore suspicious. Patel had only recently arrived in the USA to help his son with his newborn baby. He did not speak English, but he complied with the officers as best he could, but he was still thrown violently to the ground.

The police officer was aware Patel was Indian once he arrived at the scene; he’s heard identifying Patel as such on the emergency call. Yet he handled Patel so violently that he’s been left paralysed. Only one of the police officers was arrested on charges of third-degree assault. He’s out on bail for only $1,000 and has been fired from the police force, but the other two officers present at the scene seem to still be working. The Madison Police Chief and Alabama Governor have both apologised to the Patel family – but no other consequences have followed. Given previous cases, such as Eric Garner, who was filmed being choked to death by police, this awful abuse of police power looks set to be yet another travesty of justice.

Police violence is steeped in both overt racism and cultural bias, but it has the potential to affect anyone who is Other.

Lawyer Suhag Shukla argues that this case is not just about race, but of xenophobia and fear of Hindu people. She argues the point is not that the caller misattributed Patel’s race; it’s that the police acted in violence whilst knowing he was a non-English speaking Indian man.

Sociology shows race is a social construction: how people’s “race” is categorised will vary from one society to the next. What matters is that racial categories are inherently about inequality, domination and violence. Race categories exist to place one group (White or lighter-skinned people usually) as being superior to Others.

Indian migrants are often surprised that when they move to Australia, they are not considered Asian, as they would be in the UK. Instead, they are categorised as Indian, but often mistaken as Muslim, especially Sikh men who wear turbans (even though Sikh turbans are not part of Islam – as these are two different religions). India has its own complex racial categories; someone who might be seen as light-skinned in India may be categorised as dark-skinned in Australia. In this case, in America, this 57-year old grandfather who was simply enjoying a stroll in the daylight, was classified as both Black and as a foreigner, and treated with extreme violence as a result. Being a “not White” Other is considered a threat, regardless of ethnicity. Racism, whatever its origins, meaning and motives, has fatal results.

Read more on racism and police violence on my blog.

HT Kregg Quarles​ for the video link.