In this week’s roundup: Two attacks on American Sikhs this month stir up memories of decades of hate, more Trump administration staff connected to white nationalists, and understanding farm murders in South Africa.
In the space of three days earlier this month, two Sikh American men were attacked and beaten in California’s Central Valley in seemingly random hate-fueled attacks.
Surjit Singh Malhi said two men grabbed him from behind as he was putting up political signs in his neighborhood. They threw sand in his eyes, he told The New York Times. And, Malhi said, they hit him with a stick and a belt in the head and back.
“You don’t belong here,” the men screamed at him, he said.
The very thing that drew the attackers attention — his turban — ended up protecting him from the beating, Malhi said.
Malhi later found that his truck had been vandalized with what’s become a regular anthem of hate: “Go back to your country.”
Thirty miles or so northeast, and a couple of days later, 71-year-old Sahib Singh said he was enjoying his daily walk around his neighborhood in Manteca when two teenage boys approached him and allegedly asked him for money. During the attack, which was caught on video, the boys shouted at Singh, knocked him to the ground and kicked him. In the video, one then appears to spit on him while he’s lying on the floor. One of the assailants was the 18-year-old son of the local police chief.
The two unprovoked attacks are the latest in a long history of hate against Sikhs in America. (A trend detailed by ProPublica last year.)
Since then, the attacks and threats have kept coming. In February, an Uber passenger in Illinois allegedly pointed a gun at his Sikh driver and said, “I hate turban people.” Soon after, Hoboken City Hall had to beef up security after New Jersey’s first Sikh mayor, Ravi Bhalla, received death threats. Documenting Hate, a database of hate incidents run by ProPublica, has received 11 reports of anti-Sikh incidents since launching in January 2017.
“Sikhs remain hundreds of times more likely to experience bias, bigotry, backlash, hate crimes and everything in between than the average American,” said Mark Reading-Smith, a spokesman for the Sikh Coalition, a national organization that advocates for the American Sikh community.
Sikhism, a religion that originated in India, is observed by an estimated 500,000 people in the United States. Many Sikhs grow their hair long naturally out of respect for God, a practice known as Kesh.
Part of the reason Sikh men, especially, are targeted is that some Americans associate turbans and long beards with Islamist terrorism, Reading-Smith said. But he stressed this isn’t always the case.
“Sikhs are targeted in many cases simply for being categorized as ‘other,’” he said.
The most heinous example of hate against Sikhs happened in Oak Creek, Wisconsin in 2012, when neo-Nazi Wade Michael Page burst into a temple and fatally shot six people. Wade, a musician in the white power music scene, had long professed a hatred for all non-white people.
In the hometowns of the two California men attacked this month, residents already gathered to show their opposition to hate attacks against their neighbors. In Turlock, Malhi said a group from his CrossFit gym showed up soon after the attack to plant flowers and tidy up his yard. On the Sunday after Singh was beaten in Manteca, hundreds of people showed up to join him in his daily walk around a neighborhood park.
More links between the Trump administration and white nationalists
The last couple of weeks have seen more evidence of the multitudinous ties between the Trump administration and white nationalist personalities.
On Aug. 19, the Washington Post reported that Darren Beattie, a Trump speechwriter, had been dismissed after it was revealed he had spoken at a conference attended by white nationalist personalities including Peter Brimelow, who founded the anti-immigrant website VDare.com. Vox outlined Brimelow’s political views in an explainer:
Brimelow himself espouses racist views – arguing at a conference in 2017, for example, “Hispanics do specialize in rape, particularly of children. They’re very prone to it, compared to other groups.” He’s also very close with white nationalists like Richard Spencer and Jared Taylor, and publishes on VDare, by his own admission, “a few writers I would regard as ‘white nationalist’ in that they stand up for whites just as Zionists, Black Nationalists do for Jews, Blacks etc.”
A day later, the Washington Post also reported that Brimelow had attended the home birthday party of Larry Kudlow, a top economic adviser to President Donald Trump. Kudlow told the Post, “If I had known this, we would never have invited him.”
Then, this week, The Atlantic reported Ian M. Smith, a Homeland Security official, had communicated socially with white nationalist activists. Smith quickly resigned his post, and the Department of Homeland Security denounced “all forms of violent extremism.”
These are just the latest threads tying Trump to white nationalist figures. Perhaps most notably, last year BuzzFeed examined how Trump’s former campaign manager, Steve Bannon, courted white nationalists and neo-Nazis as Trump made his way toward the White House.
And, as we examined last week, Trump has parroted white nationalist talking points, like the canard that there’s a “genocide” of white farmers in South Africa.
South African farm murders: By the numbers
Last week, we wrote about Trump’s extraordinary endorsement of the long-held white nationalist trope that white farmers are being murdered in large numbers in South Africa.
After we published last week’s piece, I got pretty obsessed with the numbers underpinning this issue.
Some background: In the years immediately after the end of apartheid rule in South Africa, the nation saw a spate of murders of white farmers, which peaked in the mid-1990s. The attacks birthed a theory that has become popular among white nationalists and white supremacists: that white farmers in South Africa are being slaughtered in large numbers as the leading edge of a global “white genocide.” This rumor has been strengthened by brutal, seemingly senseless attacks on white farmers in the country.
To dig into the question of whether there is a “white genocide” happening in South Africa, I wanted to understand three things:
- Are white farmers being killed in large numbers?
- Are they being murdered at a higher rate than other South Africans?
- Are white farmers being targeted as an ethnic, racial or religious group, a key part of the best definition of genocide I could find, per Article 6 of the Rome Statute of the U.N. International Criminal Court.
Answering the first two of these questions is tricky.
There is a specific crime in South African known as “farm murders.”
The definition is confusing and has changed over time. At first glance, it includes all murders that occur on farm property, but it also excludes “domestic violence or liquor abuse, or resulting from commonplace social interaction between people.” (Thanks to fact-checkers at Africa Check for setting me straight on this.)
The overall number of farm murders has been going down steadily since a peak of 153 in 1997. Since 2011 the number has between 50 and 70 murders a year. Despite the controversy, the South African police still don’t keep stats on the race of those murdered, so we don’t know how many of those victims were white.
The question of the murder rate of white farmers in South Africa is also something statisticians, interest groups and South African politicians have been debating for years.
The universal measure of murder rates is how many murders are occurring per 100,000 people. To establish a murder rate, therefore, one needs a numerator (how many murders there are) and a denominator (out of how many people).
In addition to not knowing exactly how many white farmers are being killed each year, nobody seems to know how many white farmers there actually are in South Africa. The best estimate I could find was around 30,000, though even this figure is much-debated.
So, can we still patch together a murder rate for white South African farmers? I had a try, but it involves some assumptions. Let’s figure this out together, taking 2016 as an example:
- In 2016, there were 49 farm murders.
- We don’t know how many of those victims were white. However, a big study from 2003 concluded that about 60 percent of victims were white, so let’s assume 60 percent of the 49 farm murder victims in 2016 were white. That’s 29 white farmers murdered that year – our numerator.
- Now we need a denominator – the total number of white farmers in the country. The best number I could find was 30,000, which I got from Ruth Hall, an expert on land and agrarian studies at the University of the Western Cape in Cape Town. Hall stressed this is an estimate for the total number of commercial farms owned by white farmers, not the number of white people who live and work on farms.
- That gives us an estimated murder rate of 97 per 100,000.
- For context, South Africa’s overall murder rate was 34 per 100,000 residents in 2016. (In the U.S., the rate was 5.3 per 100,000 residents.)
Again, with the caveat that it’s cobbled together from years-old data, this estimated murder rate is high.
And that brings us to my third – and crucial – question: Are white South African farmers being targeted as a racial or ethnic group, something that would define their killings as “genocide”?
White nationalists portray the murder of white South African farmers as something inherently driven by racial hatred against whites in the country. But the stats don’t back this up.
“Farm murders” doesn’t just mean people who are murdered on farms when mobs invade or try to take their land. The big study from 2003 concluded that the motive for almost 90 percent of attacks on farms between 1998 and 2001 was robbery, not racial hatred or jealousy.
And, only 2 percent of more than 2,600 farm attacks were driven by politics or racial hatred, the committee concluded.
Wealth, in South Africa, is still held overwhelmingly by white people. In April, the World Bank named South Africa as the most economically unequal country on the planet. And the inequality in wealth and land ownership between whites and blacks, especially in rural farming areas, is certainly a factor when it comes to white farmers being murdered, said Ben Cousins, a senior professor at the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies at the University of the Western Cape.
“The general view is that although there are some farm murders, it’s not an epidemic, its everyday crime,” Cousins said.
It’s also worth noting that while every murder is a tragedy, the overall number of murders of farmers in South Africa is fairly low (49, of whom an estimated 29 victims were white.) Historically, genocides, including the Holocaust, the Cambodian genocide in the 1970s, and the genocide in Rwanda in the 1990s have killed millions or hundreds of thousands of people.
What has happened in South Africa is not comparable.
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