Racism Not Always Black and White

Racism is not always black and white, Atlanta murder case shows.

BySusan Donaldson James
February 12, 2009, 12:27 PM

June 25, 2008 — -- Atlanta jurors have found an India-born businessman guilty of masterminding the murder of his black daughter-in-law because he feared the mixed marriage would smear the caste-conscious family's name.

Chiman Rai, 68, was convicted on seven charges, including felony murder and burglary. Prosecutors will seek the death penalty.

According to Associated Press reports, two women arrived at the apartment of Rai's son Ricky and his new wife, pretending to deliver a package. A 300-pound hit man then choked Sparkle Reid Rai with a vacuum cleaner cord and stabbed her a dozen times within earshot of her 6-month-old daughter.

This case, which turned from a simple murder investigation into an alleged hate crime across two communities of color, highlights the complexity of race relations in a country that has often framed its prejudice in black and white.

But racial intolerance, sometimes in the form of violence, is increasingly more inclusive. Experts say that such bias is nothing new, although the national immigration debate has fueled that hate, giving bigots of all complexions more excuses to act on their ignorance.

Donna Lowry, who married Sparkle Reid's father and is now raising the victim's daughter, said, "It was such a shock to us when we found out a few years ago and we were floored.

"We had no idea it would go in this direction," she told ABCNEWS.com today en route to the trial. "It's mind-boggling. We are raising her biracial child and there is so much hatred on the other side of the family."

Rai's lawyer, Don Samuel, had earlier told ABCNEWS.com, "I'm arguing that my client is not guilty. There is no racial issue involved at all."

A dozen witnesses of all colors who had known Rai — once a professor at two historically black colleges — said he was not a racist. But Rai's former cellmate, a convicted forger, testified this week that the accused had made bigoted remarks while in jail, according to reports in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

American-born Amardeep Singh, director of the national Sikh Coalition, which defends the civil and legal rights of Sikhs, admits that his own ethnic group is capable of bigotry.

"You don't come to American to learn to be a bigot," Singh said. "There is bigotry in India. The caste system is deeply ingrained and South Asians in the U.S. still practice caste exclusion."

And he, too, has been a victim.

The 37-year-old is routinely a victim of racial slurs because he wears a beard and a turban. Just recently, while walking home from a Starbucks in culturally diverse Hoboken, N.J., a passerby shouted, "You've got to take that sh-- off your head, you look like a terrorist."

"To be honest, I've been called a terrorist by every single racial category — white, Latino or black," Singh said.

Last month, during a fire drill at Hightstown High School in New Jersey, for instance, an African-American teenager set fire to a Sikh student's turban, singeing the boy's hair.

The incident at this diverse public school with a significant number of blacks, Latinos and Asians enraged New Jersey's large Sikh community

"The fact that something like this could have happened is beyond comprehension, especially in this day and age," the victim's mother told the New Jersey Star-Ledger.

Also, black-Latino tension has led to violence in the Los Angeles schools; in El Monte, Calif., a Latino gang targeted African-Americans in what some reports described as "ethnic cleansing."

Last year, an estimated 191,000 hate crimes occurred in the United States, according to a survey by the Southern Poverty Law Center, although there's no breakdown by the races of the perpetrators. At the same time, the number of hate groups has jumped 47.5 percent from 602 in 2000 to 888 in 2007.

"There is very little question that we are seeing a growing animosity, at least in some groups," said Mark Potok, director of the center's Intelligence Project.

"That rise is almost entirely driven by an increase in the rancid debate on immigration, and hate groups see it as an issue that works for them and they exploit them successfully," he told ABCNEWS.com

"If there is one thing that is clear about hate crime, no ethnic group is excluded," Potok said. "They travel in all directions."

Still, the center reports that crimes against Latinos are up 35 percent nationwide — more than 50 percent in California, although, again, with no breakdown by the races of those who commit the crimes.

In a June editorial in the Los Angeles Times, Sheriff Lee Baca, a Latino, argued that the interracial violence in his city has nothing to do with the gang crisis and everything to do with bigotry.

"The truth is that, in many cases, race is at the heart of the problem," Baca wrote. "Latino gang members shoot blacks not because they're members of a rival gang but because of their skin color. Likewise, black gang members shoot Latinos because they are brown."

In Princeton, N.J., tensions between rival Latino groups — Colombians, Puerto Ricans, Guatemalans and Ecuadorians — have somewhat subsided because of effective community action. But in this small university town, dependent on unskilled labor, blacks and Latino immigrants still maintain a guarded and sometimes volatile relationship.

Undocumented immigrants, who often carry cash, are victims of robberies. "These are opportunistic crimes," according to Maria Juega, chair of the Latin America Legal and Education Defense Fund.

Still, Juega said, "There's still a lot of immigrant rage."

Last year, three black college students were slain and a Latino immigrant was charged with the hate crime in Newark, N.J. Two years earlier, Latino men were robbed, beaten and even murdered in Plainfield, N.J., Jacksonville, Fla., and Annapolis, Md., according to press reports.

In Indianapolis, seven members of a Latino family were murdered by young black males. The victims were mostly undocumented workers, and police speculate that the attackers regarded them as easy prey for robbery since they would be reluctant to report the attacks to the police.

But Jack Levin, a criminologist and hate crime expert from Northeastern University, told ABCNEWS.com that victimization across communities of color is "as old as time."

"Newcomers to the U.S. often feel in competition with minority groups who have been here somewhat longer or whose members have also suffered economic deprivation," said Levin, author of "The Violence of Hate" and "Serial Killers and Sadistic Murderers."

"You not only see this between Asians and blacks, but there are animosities between different generations, like Chinese Americans who are recently off the boat and those a generation or two here," he said. "The hatred is often expressed not against those who have a great deal of power and wealth, but against other groups vying for those rewards at the bottom of society."

Indeed, in the earliest days of U.S. immigration, Irish, Italians, Jews and blacks alternately turned their hate on the group that fell at the bottom of the economic ladder. Today, new immigrant groups form pecking orders and biases.

"There are bad feelings between African Americans and blacks from the Caribbean and, historically, German Jews and Eastern European Jews hated each other," Levin said. "Much of it is economic. You find it in every group."

But, he said, the post-9/11 world and new global migrations have made Americans suspicious of all those who look or worship differently.

"It shocks people when you discuss this kind of hatred between groups that have suffered so much," Levin said. "But we should recognize that these groups consist of human beings who have weakness, frailties and prejudices. It shouldn't surprise us."

Americans are not the only culture to experience racial strife, according to Levin. When once-homogenous communities are threatened, they react protectively. Hate crimes are also on the rise in once-tolerant countries like Holland, Norway and Sweden.

The Atlanta murder case — an Indian father accused of killing his black daughter-in-law — is an extreme example of the phenomenon, according to Levin. "Not only did an outsider move into a neighborhood, she moved into the family," he said.

Eight year's after her mother's murder, Sparkle's daughter is "doing great," according to her adopted mother. "She's innocent to all this," said Lowry, an Atlanta television reporter. "She knows me as 'mom' since she was 6 months old. Her mother is 'Sparkle,' and knows she was killed by a bad man."

Meanwhile, Amardeep Singh and the Sikh Coalition are working to address the harassment of their own community in a post-9/11 world. Their recent survey of 1,000 New York Sikh children revealed "significant" harassment at school.

"Folks recognize that it's not OK to use the 'N-word' or there will be negative repercussions, and if you are anti-Jewish, you get in trouble," Singh said. "But calling a kid a terrorist or Bin Laden is not just a racial epithet. It's justification for degrading a person."

Still, he doesn't defend Chiman Rai for his alleged crimes.

"It's sad that a minority like the South Asian community has taken on the prejudices of the majority community," Singh said. "You'd think members could rise above that. But we recognize the commonality of the experience in the U.S. to fight bigotry."

"There is no community that is immune to prejudices," he said. "It's a sad part of the human condition."

ABC News researcher Suzanne Bernard contributed to this report.

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