On Sunday, Wade Michael Page, a 40-year-old, white supremacist with a military background killed six people at a Sikh temple south of Milwaukee and critically wounded three others. He has been described as a "frustrated neo-Nazi who had been the leader of a racist white-power band." His most recent skinhead "hate rock band" was called "End Apathy." Clearly, part of his hate was directed at Sikhs, Muslims, or both. Somewhere along his life road, he felt licensed to express his hate note just through music, but through violence. This hatred unfortunately is reminiscent of a brand of vigilante racism and de-Americanization that we have seen far too often since 9/11.
Within hours of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Americans of Muslim, Middle Eastern, Arab, and South Asian descent found themselves targeted for acts of hate and racial profiling. In a suburb of Chicago, and like a twisted scene out of the Olympics, three hundred protestors, many waving American flags and chanting "USA! USA!" marched on a mosque. One 19-year-old demonstrator exclaimed, "I'm proud to be American and I hate Arabs and I always have." In Huntington, New York, a 75-year-old man tried to run over a Pakistani woman in the parking lot of a shopping mall. He then followed the woman into a store and threatened to kill her for "destroying my country." In San Diego, a Sikh woman was attacked by a knife-wielding man shouting, "This is what you get for what you've done to us." A Sikh family was followed out of a restaurant by two white men who screamed at the family, "Go back to your country." By late 2001, hundreds of "suspicious individuals", mostly Arab Americans, were detained, without access to family or counsel. By November, the Department of Justice developed a list of 5,000 Middle Eastern men, between the ages of 18 and 33, who were to be "voluntarily" interviewed.
The fact that hateful acts and words of private citizens are followed up with official regimes of detention and profiling only reaffirms the subordination of the victims through suspicion of loyalty. The governmental imprimatur helps to marginalize the victims in U.S. society. In turn, the government's actions are interpreted by misguided, private individuals as license to vilify and to de-Americanize the same targets.
The de-Americanization message is one of exclusion: "You Muslims, Middle Easterners, and South Asians are not true Americans." Certainly, the process involves racism, but unlike the racism directed at African Americans, with its foundations in the historically held beliefs of inferiority, de-Americanizers base their assault on loyalty and permanent foreignness. In the minds of the private actors, who are nothing more than lawless vigilantes, self-appointed enforcers of their notion of true Americanism, their victims are immigrants or foreigners, even though they may in fact be citizens by birth or through naturalization. Irrespective of the victim community's possible longstanding status in the country, its members are regarded as perpetual foreigners. The victim community is forever regarded as immigrant America by these vigilante racists, as opposed to simply part of America and its diversity.
What has been happening to Muslims, Arabs, Middle Easterners, and South Asians in the United States since 9/11 is a process of ostracism from the American community that we have witnessed before. The process often involves two aspects: (1) the actions of private individuals; and (2) official government-sanctioned actions. On the private side, the process involves identifying the victims as foreigners, sometimes mistakenly, or other times simply treating the person as a foreigner despite knowing otherwise. De-Americanization is a twisted brand of xenophobia that is not simply hatred of foreigners, but also hatred of those who, in fact, may not be foreigners, but whom the vigilantes would prefer being removed from the country anyway.
The Southern Poverty Law Center recently reported the highest number of hate groups ever recorded in U.S. history, with nearly 1,018 active groups. Anti-Muslim hate groups have increased 300 percent in the last year, and the FBI reported a 50 percent increase in anti-Muslim hate crimes.
Sadly, the de-Americanization process is capable of reinventing itself generation after generation. We have seen this exclusionary process aimed at those of Jewish, Asian, Mexican, Haitian, and other descent throughout the nation's history. Once we acknowledge that more than a fear of foreigners is at work, we understand that this is a brand of nativism cloaked in a Euro-centric sense of America that combines hate and racial profiling. Whenever we go through a period of de-Americanization, like what we have witnessed since 9/11 directed at South Asians, Arabs, and Muslim Americans, as well as record-setting detention and deportations under the Obama administration, a whole new generation of Americans concludes that exclusion and hate is acceptable; that the definition of who is an American can be narrowed; that they too have license to profile. Their license is issued when others around them engage in hate and the government chimes in with its own profiling. This is part of the sad cycle of unconscious and institutionalized racism that haunts our country.