Dharun Ravi, Hate, and Race: Reflections, Part 2

My thoughts continue to turn to the Dharun Ravi case. An important question has emerged on Twitter sites and other blogs, namely that of race. It is a difficult issue to unravel. One wants to avoid the danger of pitting race against sexuality in a faux competition about which is the more urgent category. I can’t help but wonder—not only about the “brown” question, but about the implications of his court conviction for that question. For Ravi, whose family migrated when he was younger, his conviction leads to the possibility that he will be deported (he has already had to surrender his passport, although this may have been because of the fear that he might have tried to flee the country before his trial). But few news pieces have mentioned the race question.

It is a barely known fact that hate crimes charges, once thought to be important for the prosecution of crimes against vulnerable populations, are extremely destructive  because they are used most viciously against vulnerable populations. Pooja Gehi, of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project has pointed out that hate crimes convictions affect more populations of color than white or non-minority populations, and that for this reason, they are opposed to the use of hate crimes charges for convictions. Again, I write this not to exculpate Dharun Ravi, but to ask the question about the implication of such an extreme charge against a young man of color. There is no doubt that the Ravi’s actions were extremely hurtful and painful for Tyler Clementi. Still, it is important to note that Ravi was not charged in his death.

Let’s be clear here: the grounds for prosecution in a hate crime are ambiguous. One must prove that the actions were based on the prejudice against the identity of the victim, i.e. that someone was killed, maimed, intimidated because s/he was gay, black, transgendered. But it is, in many ways, an incoherent logic. It is not often possible to distinguish violent aggression from prejudiced aggression. It is not often possible to distinguish hatred of the victim based on her particular features from general identity categories. After all, most crimes are based on the identity of the victim. Most rapes are perpetrated against victims known by the perpetrator; many convicted murderers knew their victims. So, the thing that distinguishes a hate crime from an “ordinary” crime is the category of vulnerability that the victim fits into.

But as the Sylvia Rivera Law Project points out:

Our penalties are harsher and sentences longer than they are anywhere else on the planet, and hate crime laws with sentencing enhancements make them harsher and longer. By supporting longer periods of incarceration and putting a more threatening weapon in the state’s hands, this kind of legislation places an enormous amount of faith in our deeply flawed, transphobic, and racist criminal legal system. The application of this increased power and extended punishment is entirely at to the discretion of a system riddled with prejudice, institutional bias, economic motives, and corruption.

I draw on SLRP’s statement to point to the ways in which hate crimes charges are dubious grounds to prosecute Ravi or to find justice for Clementi, particularly at a moment when spying is part and parcel of the air that we breathe. Should Ravi have known better than to spy? Yes. Was what he did hurtful? Yes. Is it a “hate crime”? I’m not sure. Ravi’s actions might be better described as violating privacy, as bullying or intimidation. But to describe his actions as violating privacy raises the question of how what he did is different from the milieu that the state advocates. To describe his actions as bullying prompts the question of how to charge him (there are, as far as I know, few laws on the books against bullying). To describe his actions as intimidation might not have obtained as harsh of a sentencing as “hate crimes legislation” will. Were they homophobic?  Most likely. But I’m not sure that the link between homophobia and “hate crime” is an obvious, simple, or correct one.

I am also troubled by the implications that such a conviction has: The court could potentially deport him back to India, a country where he has family but few friends and virtually no ties. There is something perverse about deporting someone who has spent most of his life in the United States, as if it were his country of birth. The harsh penalties for migrants who make errors that are post-facto considered crimes is remarkable, but perhaps not surprising in this age of xenophobia. Had he been a US citizen, Ravi might have had to serve prison time (and perhaps he still will), but he would be—presumably—released eventually to a community that knew him and would support him. Clementi’s state of mind may have been fragile, and yet some of his actions were surprising—even after discovering that he was spied on by Ravi, and after asking for a room change, he asked for privacy in their shared room again, and he again invited his friend back to spend time in their shared room, even though he was already aware of Ravi’s predisposition to spy on him. It may be precisely these questionable actions that influenced the prosecution not to attempt to charge Ravi in Clementi’s death.

Now, having considered the harshness of the penalty for Ravi’s actons, I also want to point out one detail that must be emphasized: from most descriptions of Ravi, he is part of that class of human beings that we would categorize as assholes. They are narcissistic, shallow, thoughtless, unconcerned about others and ungenerous, often mean and nasty, among other characteristics. Ravi’s actions were…assholish. But were it a crime to be an asshole, our prisons should be even more jam-packed with white, wealthy folks: bankers, presidents, legal advisers, and former secretaries of defense, of state, attorneys general. This is not to say that our prisons should not already be holding these folks, after convictions of many crimes (just refer back to many, any, of my columns). But being an asshole is not equivalent to having committed a crime.

In fact, as I have argued less explicitly, this is precisely what the political and legal culture of the last decade has engendered, through an emphasis on technologies such as Facebook, MySpace, email–and an emphasis on the ubiquity of surveillance—electronic surveillance, and the combination of the two in the form of Reality TV: from Survivor-like shows, to reality TV shows that fetishize idiocy and stupidity (I don’t even know the names of them, but I believe “The Bachelor” and its female heterosexual equivalent, and the “wife-swapping” show are among them), and then the celebrity versions of “The Real World,” with Whitney Houston et al., The Osbournes, the Bachelor celebrity-style with Flayva Flav, as well as the show with the English “Supernanny” and now another with an African-American nanny). Needless to say, these shows glorify and valorize the cultivation of assholish traits for our viewing pleasure–and most importantly–for corporate profit.

But as importantly, they also perpetuate racism, homophobia, patriarchy, indentured servitude and Aunt Jemimah stereotypes, and prostitution in all but name. (WIFE-SWAPPING?) Seriously. Western liberal feminists point to Muslims as having questionable marital practices. So what does it mean that millions of viewers tune in to watch—-American, Christian or Jewish–families swap their wives and mothers? And that heterosexual couples–men and their wives–APPLY to be on these shows?

So it is that I wonder about the cultural and political acceptance of surveillance on corporate television shows, and the sheer rage and indignance against personal incidents of surveillance, as in the Ravi case. It is interesting–and perplexing– to come back to the dichotomy between those don’t want to be surveilled (interpreted as those who have something to hide) and those who are ok with having their all their moves monitored).

In France, where I write this column, street corners, the hallways of hotels, the lobbies and libraries of schools—all have surveillance cameras, electronic keys to monitor when you enter and exit your room, monitors that show whether your room lights were left on, etc. And France, too, has its own version of intimidation of North Africans, Muslims, and migrants in general. After the latest dust-up about whether France’s public schools were serving halal meat to unsuspecting non-Muslims (Egads! We all should be so lucky), a charge made by France’s right-wing presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, President Sarko–in his ongoing attempts to abscond with Marine Le Pen’s right-wing proprietorship–promised to arrest anyone who visits fundamentalist Islamic sermons on the internet, limit immigration by half, and cut benefits for legal immigrants.

Surveillance then has become part and parcel of the air we breathe. It is rapidly normalized. At what point then, do we decide that one man’s actions are a hate crime, while another’s are an act of leadership? Perhaps we need to take seriously the Sylvia Rivera Law Project’s point that hate crimes are a category that are deployed against folks of color more than against white folks. Hate crimes are suspiciously like other legal categories, like “terrorism,” that the state creates and deploys only against certain targets. As I argue ad nauseam in my book, the state—the “law”–does so to manage its own population, to control and domesticate its residents by criminalizing them for engaging in those very same practices that it (the state) uses to terrorize the segments of its own constituency.


Author: Falguni A. Sheth

I'm a philosopher and political analyst who writes about all kinds of things, from national security, US politics, race, terrorism, miscegenation, feminism, philosophy, and whatever else captivates my attention. My views are idiosyncratic. I'd like to believe they're carefully considered, and I'm not particularly interested in following crowds.