On Wednesday evening in a bar in Olathe, Kansas, a 51-year-old white man named Adam Purinton allegedly shot two Indian men, Srinivas Kuchibhotla and Alok Madasani, uttering the words “get out of my country.” Kuchibhotla died and Madasani remains injured. I learned about the incident a full day later through social media alerts from Indian friends, and I only read full-length stories in the national US newspapers New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post on Feb 24, two days after the shooting. This delayed coverage underscores an initial confusion about how to classify the event: as a hate crime or as a murder. The first report in the Kansas City Star newspaper even buried the information that Purinton used racial slurs to describe his victims before he shot them.
The slow pace of national media coverage and official hesitation in classifying the incident as a hate crime has puzzled, and even angered, some in India and the United States. Although the delay is understandable because hate crimes call for the involvement of federal, rather than only local, investigators, the seeming official reluctance to term it a hate crime appears especially painful to the grieving relatives of the victims. The relatives have now released statements declaring this killing was not a random act of violence. They have even gone a step further: they treat the shootings as a verdict against living as migrants in contemporary America. Kuchibhotla’s widow Sunayana wondered aloud in a poignant news conference whether she and her husband made the right decision to live in the United States, while Madasani’s father called on parents in India to think twice now before they send their children to the United States. “Something has changed” in the United States and “there is a hysteria spreading,” one of Kuchibhotla’s relative declared. For Madasani’s father, the shooting was connected to the climate generated by President Trump’s election.
The White House’s reaction
The White House has responded to this narrative with swift harshness: Press Secretary Sean Spicer declared that it would be “absurd” to link the killing of Kuchibhotla to Trump’s stance on immigration. His dismissiveness suggests an anxiety that such a link may, in fact, be quite easy to draw. The Southern Poverty Law Center, a non-profit organisation whose mission is to monitor hate groups in the United States, has, over the past year and half, pointed to what it calls the Trump Effect: a “dramatic jump” in the incidence of violence, harassment, and intimidation during Trump’s campaign and after his election. These incidents spiked in the aftermath of the November 9 elections: in the first 10 days after the election, the Southern Poverty Law Center counted 867 hate incidents, spread across every state of the country. The largest number of incidents took place the day after the election. Importantly, 37% of them “directly referenced President Trump or his campaign slogans,” according to the Center Anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim incidents have been particularly virulent.
There’s a more specific reason the White House might want to downplay the association between this shooting and the election. Some of President Trump’s most dramatic actions since assuming presidency have centered on immigration: an executive order banning travellers from seven Muslim majority countries, his call to build a wall with Mexico, and, on the very day before the shooting occurred, a February 21 executive order to intensify crackdowns on undocumented migrants. The connections that the victims’ families are drawing with Trump’s election are not at all far-fetched, in some ways. Purinton reportedly asked his victims “what visa” they had and whether they were “staying here illegally” before he shot them. This focus on visas and the technicalities of their immigration status is oddly specific. Recall that issues of immigration status have dominated the news cycle about Trump’s January 25 and February 21 executive orders: in the first case, Trump’s plan banned even those Muslims whose visas allowed them entry, while in the second case, Trump’s plan targets those who have overstayed visas or live without visas in the United States.
A hostile environment
Even if we treat the killer’s focus on visas as unrelated to President Trump’s recent actions, it is clear that over the past eighteen months, Trump’s campaign elevated illegal immigration to the status of a burning problem. The killer’s words “get out of my country” echo a sentiment that Trump has cultivated; they extend beyond a hatred for the victims’ ethnicity or religion (which he mistakenly assumed to be Middle Eastern and Muslim). His words also signal a vigilantism about policing the country’s borders. When Trump declares the country to be rife with illegal immigrants who need to be ferreted out, it is precisely the kind of call that xenophobic vigilantes love to heed.
Now, those who defend Trump might say that the only way to directly link Trump with this crime is if the killer actually uttered Trump’s name. But that would be a blunt and inadequate standard for assessing the social impact of Trump’s words and actions. By repeatedly invoking immigration as a central problem, Trump has generated an environment of permissiveness for xenophobic thoughts and acts. The alarming rise in incidents of harassment in public spaces and schools is a sign of this permissiveness. People feel emboldened to act against “foreigners” with greater force because their feelings are mirrored in the president’s priorities.
An analogy from feminist legal theory might be useful here: that of a “chilly climate”. A chilly climate is technical term for a hostile workplace environment created by cumulative minor acts of differentiation between insiders and outsiders. These acts need not be egregious expressions of hatred; they might simply draw attention to differences between insiders and outsiders. Even without overt hostility, people can be made to feel unwelcome through repeated acts that underline their outsider status. Our current moment brings to mind this analogy, extending it from the workplace to a national level. Trump’s repeated drawing of boundaries around who really belongs in this country effectively generates a chilly climate towards those he marks as outsiders— most typically non-white and immigrant people. Little wonder, then, that Sunayana Kuchibhotla had recently asked her husband this haunting question: “Do we belong here?”
Ashwini Tambe is Associate Professor in the Department of Women’s Studies at the University of Maryland-College Park.