South Asians and the criminal justice system

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Central Park 5 members

UPDATE JUNE 2020: 

After writing this article, a few people reached out to me, pointing out some information that could be misleading. The point of view this article is written in implies that South Asians do not have troubled relationships with police officers or the criminal justice system. While this may be true for those of us who reside in primarily upper middle class neighborhoods, this is not the case for those South Asians who have grown up in predominantly economically-disadvantaged neighborhoods or ethnic enclaves nested in major cities. 

The South Asian-American identity itself is so diverse. Along with possessing a vast range of skin colors, some of us wear hijabs and turbans. Depending on the socioeconomic factors of the communities we are roaming in, these factors may make some of us more likely to be victims of racial profiling. There is a certain duality to growing up South Asian in the United States. In the media, we are portrayed as tech moguls or culturally-confused youth trying to find a balance between our Eastern and Western identities. These dominant narratives often overshadow the experiences of those South Asians who are a part of the blue collar workforce and have much greater problems than "am I brown enough" to worry about. 

Within the context of upper middle class suburbs, South Asian residents are often associated with keeping valuable items made of gold and silver in their house. Therefore, South Asian families, some of whom I personally know, have been victims of theft. One family in my area was even held to gunpoint in a robbery. After these incidents, the police held a meeting for South Asian families to educate us about self-defense methods. This partnership and cordiality from the police would not exist if we resided in a majority-minority or economically-disadvantaged area. My community is privileged to share such a relationship with law enforcement. However, residents of Queens, New York cannot say the same. 

South Asians in Queens are often victims of racial profiling, overpolicing, and racially-motivated police brutality. Since I am not from Queens and have not experienced any of these issues firsthand, I have provided links to articles that cover the aforementioned issues: 

     Bangladeshi man beaten, police take 20+ minutes to arrive

     South Asian racial profiling by law enforcement in Queens

     Racial profiling of Muslims in Queens

Here is another document put together by South Asian Americans Leading Together, which details experiences of South Asians in New York who have been racially profiled and ways to end this. 

There is not much information on the relationship South Asians share with law enforcement. This void is partly due to the way data is collected: Asians are often grouped into the “other” category in studies and research papers. Asian-Americans have the highest wealth gap amongst themselves, which directly reflects the varying relationships they share with the education, prison, and criminal justice systems. By not having our own racial category, it’s as if our experiences are discounted. As mentioned before, the Asian identity is extremely diverse. We are not bound together by religion, physical features, or language. These differences make it difficult to generalize all of our experiences, and researchers must make note of this when conducting studies and writing papers. 

This information is not meant to take away from the message of the Black Lives Matter movement or protests occurring nationwide. Anti-blackness exists within the South Asian community, and we must foster conversations on this topic within our families. Under Black Lives Matter, the push to eliminate racial profiling, skin color biases, and racially-directed police brutality will hopefully benefit South Asian communities who have been victims of harsh treatment from the police. While we continue to support Black people in their fight against a corrupt system, I hope my fellow South Asians who hail from upper middle class backgrounds will advocate for those South Asians who are not privy to the same privileges we have.

Original Article w/ Edits:

Ava DuVernay, the brilliant director behind films such as Selma and 13th, partnered with Netflix and released When They See Us, a four-part series centered around the notorious mistrial of Kevin Richardson, Antron Mccray, Raymond Santana Jr., Korey Wise and Yusef Salaam (more commonly referred to as the “Central Park 5”) in the Trisha Meili rape case. DuVernay does a phenomenal job of highlighting the absolute injustice these victims and their families had to endure at the hands of a faulty and racially biased justice system that decided to falsely convict five bright, young men who had their own dreams and aspirations. 

While watching the show, there were several moments where I had to pause it, as I was furious and angered at the blatant mistreatment of innocent young boys who were stripped away their youth, friends, and aspirations. After finishing the show, I was left with many mixed emotions: as a seventeen year old who holds the hope of becoming a lawyer one day, I felt invigorated to pursue law and contribute to reforming and reshaping the American justice system. However, I also experienced a different set of emotions. 

Being a member of the upper middle class South Asian community, I believe we often forget the privilege we have of not being directly targeted and criminalized by the American criminal justice system. I believe the majority of issues we face as South Asians, and I specifically as an Indian American, are related to discovering our identity, breaking cultural norms, and defying western stereotypes. I believe they’re almost never related to the fear of being incorrectly incarcerated for a crime we did not commit. I feel that they’re almost never related to the fear of being held to gunpoint or killed due to police brutality. 

Having grown up in a town that is 83.9% white, 8.6% Asian, and 3.2% African American, it is clear that I have been accustomed to a different lifestyle, free from the worries affecting the majority of ethnic enclaves and minority communities within the United States. While racial tensions do exist within my community, I have not seen reports of cases of police brutality and racially-directed police actions. I believe this is largely due to the fact that the area I live in is overwhelmingly white and relatively affluent, so there is no concept of overpolicing, as there is not a large enough minority population to constitute the “need” for it. After watching When They See Us, following the Black Lives Matter movement, and educating myself on the history of Hispanics and Latinos in the United States, I have realized that I hold immense privilege to be growing up South Asian in an upper middle-class community where police and criminal activity are the least of my problems.

My main message that I want my fellow South Asians to take away from this is that to keep fighting for representation and other issues that affect our community. However, while fighting for our own issues, we must also acknowledge and be cognizant of the privilege we have in the United States that many other ethnic minorities, namely African Americans and Latinos, don’t. I also urge everyone reading this to watch When They See Us; it has an extremely important message that deserves to be spread and heard. What happened to the Central Park 5 is absolutely heartbreaking. However, this not only happened to them, but it is also applicable to thousands of other African Americans and Latinos currently in the federal prison system. We as South Asians have been blessed to generally not have been victims of a corrupt criminal justice system in the United States. 

I understand that many of my fellow South Asians might be confused by my viewpoint, as members of the South Asian community can often be acquainted as “terrorists” be it at the airport during TSA or while walking on the street. This in no way, shape, or form is meant to minimize the issues faced by the South Asian community or the efforts put in to eradicate those issues; this is simply a way to raise awareness of the privilege upper middle class South Asians may experience when dealing with the police and criminal justice system in the United States.

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