Arabs, Latinos and the Culture of Hate

MESA, AZ -- A man armed with hate, bigotry and a gun killed Balbir Singh Sodhi on Saturday, September 15.

Authorities say Mr. Sodhi apparently was singled out in retaliation for last week's terrorist attacks against the United States because he was believed to be Arab or Muslim.

Mr. Sodhi was not a terrorist. He was not a Muslim. He was not even of Arab origin. He was from India. And he was a Sikh.

The man arrested and charged with shooting Mr. Sodhi was a Latino named Frank Silva Roque.

On the day that Mr. Sodhi was killed, Mr. Roque also shot at a Lebanese man and an Afghan family who he reportedly blamed for last week's terrorist attacks. They escaped unharmed.

When arrested at his mobile home in Mesa, Ariz., according to a police spokesman, Mr. Roque declared, "I'm an American. Arrest me and let those terrorists run wild."

I mention Mr. Roque's ethnic heritage because I believe that as a community that has faced racial and ethnic discrimination in the United States, Latinos should be among the first to stand in solidarity with Arab Americans who have been victimized in the wake of the terrorists attacks.

Just as Mr. Roque singled out Mr. Sodhi for assault, Latinos, too, have been singled out over the years. While listing examples of discrimination against Latinos might seem trite as compared to the horror of last week's tragedies, one instance in particular came to mind when I heard reports of the growing number of attacks against people in the United States thought to be of Arab or Muslim origin.

In the early 1930s, America faced another great crisis. It was the Great Depression. Millions of Americans were unemployed. Many faced starvation.

While the shock that our nation endured in that era was nowhere as instantaneous as last week's massacres in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, the mark it left on our nation's collective psyche were no less indelible.

As the Depression deepened and more people lost their jobs, many Americans grew angry and began to look for scapegoats. In the same way that some have turned against Arabs today, the nation turned against its Mexican and Mexican American populations in the 1930s.

One member of the U.S. House of Representatives went so far as to claim that if every Mexican were deported from the United States, there would be plenty of jobs for the Americans who needed one.

Soon federal agents, local police and vigilantes were rounding up anyone who even looked Mexican. Thousands of men, women and children were loaded into trains and sent back to Mexico as part of a government authorized "repatriation" program. Families were torn apart.

Like slavery and the Jim Crow era that followed -- or the jailing of Japanese Americans in the wake of Pearl Harbor -- the mass deportations of Mexicans and Mexican Americans during the Depression tarnished the image of American idealism. Today's attacks against Arabs and Arab Americans threaten to do the same.

No one knows exactly what motivated Mr. Roque. But we can surmise that, like the terrorists who attacked the World Trade Center and Pentagon, he was filled with hate and bigotry.

And the killing of Mr. Sodhi reminds us of the insidious power of angry ignorance in any culture. Even in my culture. Even in a community that has had to cope with widespread discrimination.

Its seems to me that not mentioning Mr. Roque's ethnicity, his Latino heritage -- as some reporters have avoided doing -- somehow suggests that Latinos are incapable of ethnic or religious bias.

We are not. No one is.

In the painful days, weeks and years to come, we should all work to oppose bigoted and hateful assaults against the principles of freedom and equality, no matter who the perpetrator -- including ourselves.

James Garcia is editor and publisher of E-mail the writer at

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