Power, Pain, Potential South Asian Americans at the Forefront of Growth and Hate in the 2016 Election Cycle

On January 11, 2017, South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), a leading national South Asian American civil rights organization, released "Power, Pain, Potential," the first comprehensive report documenting hate violence and xenophobic political rhetoric aimed at South Asian, Muslim, Arab, Sikh, Hindu, and Middle Eastern Americans during the 2016 election cycle. This report examines the dramatic demographic growth of South Asians across the United States, particularly in the South, and reveals how increases in population are met with increases in intolerance during the most divisive Presidential election in modern American history.

"The unprecedented violence we saw following the September 11 attacks has returned, electrified by a hostile 2016 presidential election," stated Suman Raghunathan, Executive Director of SAALT. "With over 4.3 million South Asians in the US, policymakers must make it a first priority to address and dismantle the paradox of our communities living at the intersection of growth and hate."

From November 15, 2015 to November 15, 2016 (between the Paris attacks and the week after the Presidential elections), SAALT documented 207 incidents of hate violence and xenophobic political rhetoric aimed at our communities in an online public database, a 34% increase in less than a third of the time covered in our 2011-2014 report, "Under Suspicion, Under Attack."

This breaks down further into 140 incidents of hate violence and 67 instances of xenophobic political rhetoric of which 196 or an astounding 95% were motivated by anti-Muslim sentiment. Additionally, one in five (21%) instances of xenophobic political rhetoric we documented came from presidential nominee and now President Trump.


SAALT logged 67 instances of xenophobic political rhetoric in our online database within the last year. Over half of the instances include statements by former or current elected officials, candidates for elected office at all levels, and appointed officials. Sixty-four of the 67 instances of xenophobic political rhetoric or 96% were animated by anti-Muslim sentiment. Presidential nominee and now President-elect Trump made over 20% of the comments we documented. The following are examples of the type of rhetoric regularly aimed at our communities:

Presidential nominee and now President Donald Trump on the shooting at the Orlando nightclub in June 2016: “Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism, I don’t want congrats, I want toughness & vigilance. We must be smart!” He followed up this tweet with,“Is President Obama going to finally mention the words radical Islamic terrorism? If he doesn’t he should immediately resign in disgrace!”
President Trump's speech after the San Bernardino attacks called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.”
Presidential nominee Hillary Clinton drew connections between Islam and terrorism, usingthe phrase “radical Islamism” when referring to the attacks in Orlando and Paris. She alsocharacterized American Muslims as the eyes and ears of terrorism by repeating that “the United States needs to work with Muslim communities who are on the front lines to identify and prevent attacks.”
The Democratic mayor of Roanoke, Virginia, David Bowers, requested in a written statementthat all government and non-government organizations in the city of 99,000 suspend any assistance to Syrian refugees “until these serious hostilities and atrocities end.”
Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), in response to attacks in Brussels, called “to empower law enforcement to patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods before they become radicalized.”
Barry Pendergraft, chief of police in Gurley, AL, posted a photograph on his personal Facebook account of a box of ammunition with the text: “100 more bacon grease covered bullets in the box! This relaxes me so!!” A few days later, he posted a video of ammunition loading with the text: “Happiness is a couple thousand rounds in the ammo box! Bacon grease dipped of course!!

Ninety-four percent or 132 out of the 140 incidents of hate violence documented in our database were motivated by anti-Muslim sentiment. Our database also reflects a concentration of hate violence aimed at our communities in the American South, a region that has also seen a concentration of the rapid growth in our communities in the last fifteen years. Thirty-one percent of the incidents of hate violence we tracked (43 out of 140) occurred in the South. The numbers of incidents in all other regions of the country are still troubling and the actual numbers of hate violence incidents against our community members have gone up overall in the past year. However, the greatest increase in the number of incidents we documented between our 2014 report and now occurred in the South. The distinct political, social, and legal context of the South, along with quickly changing demographics, have presented particular challenges to communities of color, and specifically to populations who are targets of hate violence and xenophobia.

The following examples from SAALT’s database are illustrative of the physical violence, psychological harm, and community-wide fear caused by hate violence in the American South. Please see the map at the end of this report for a complete geographic illustration of SAALT’s database.

November 26, 2015, Austin, Texas: A Muslim student who was walking from a mosque near the University of Texas campus was attacked and shoved to the ground, with the assailant yelling at him and accusing him of taking instructions from ISIS.

December 9, 2015, Washington, D.C.: A painting company stated “Death to Muslims” to Aaditya Shah after he cancelled the job because the company arrived late.

August 12, 2016, Tulsa, Oklahoma: Khalid Jabara was shot and killed by Stanley Vernon Majors, who had long terrorized the Jabara family, and had run over Khalid’s mother in prior months leaving her with several broken limbs. Khalid called the police 30 minutes prior to his death to say that he was scared because his neighbor had a gun and had a history of terrorizing the family, calling them “dirty Arabs” and “filthy Lebanese.” Khalid called his mother and told her not to come home because Majors had a gun and shortly afterward Majors shot Khalid to death while he was still on the phone with his mother.

September 12, 2016, Fort Pierce, Florida: The Islamic Center of Fort Pierce, attended by Omar Mateen, the man responsible for the mass shooting in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, was set on fire by an arsonist during the Muslim Eid al-Adha holiday.

October 8, 2016, Cary, North Carolina: A seven-year old Pakistani American boy was assaulted on a school bus by five other boys who made references to Islam, Muslims, and Pakistan during the attack.


Rise in Organized White Supremacist Groups

Over the last 15 years, the rapid growth of organized white supremacist groups has run parallel to the tremendous growth in the South Asian American population across the nation. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), white supremacist groups grew by over 54% from 2001 to 2014. The most recent SPLC A Year in Hate and Extremism report shows Klan groups grew from 72 to 190 in number between 2014 and 2015. Of the top five states with concentrations of hate groups, three are in the South (Texas, Florida, and Tennessee), and two of those are the sites of rapid South Asian American population growth (Texas and Florida). Despite such growth, our communities remain vulnerable to hate groups escalating in these same regions. Earlier this year, SPLC released its Field Guide to Anti-Muslim Extremists, highlighting the growth in anti-Muslim networks, most of which are underpinned by philosophies of white supremacy, sharing in their analysis that targets and demonizes Black communities, immigrants, and Muslims. The guide also brings to light the pervasiveness of many of these individuals and their institutions in mainstream media.

The normalization of these extremists’ views encourages hate crimes, shapes the outcome of elections, and influences policymaking. Many of the extremists documented in this guide are responsible for the xenophobic political rhetoric captured in SAALT’s database; many have been appointed or considered for high-level cabinet positions in the Trump administration. White supremacist groups have gained momentum and resources, and have deeply influenced the corresponding uptick in both hate violence and xenophobic political rhetoric that we have seen in just the last year. This has also been reflected in public policies at all levels, something we explore in more detail in the next section.


South Asian Americans are the fastest growing demographic, outpacing not only other Asian American populations but other communities of color as well. The South Asian American population has not only grown but diversified over the last fifteen years in three important ways:

  • The South Asian American population in the American South has doubled from 500,000 to over one million in this region since the year 2000.
  • There has been a large growth in the undocumented South Asian population, including 450,000 Indian-Americans alone. India is the country of origin with the greatest increase in unauthorized immigrants to the United States with a 914% increase since 1990. This makes India the fourth highest sending country for undocumented immigrants after Mexico, El Salvador, and Guatemala.
  • South Asian Americans have been increasingly engaged in civic and electoral spheres, including a growth in the size of the South Asian electorate measured in the 2012 election cycle.

While there is no official federal government count of the Muslim population, it is estimated that there are at least 3.3 million Muslims in the United States, with the recent growth being in part due to immigration from an increasingly diverse group of countries. While all Muslims are not of South Asian origin, this number is notable to understand the magnitude of hate violence and rhetoric focused on a very small percentage of the American population.

The growth of the South Asian American population has occurred in some traditional hubs such as New York, New Jersey, California, and Illinois, as well as newer, emerging populations in states such as Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia, and Texas. Currently, approximately 30% of the nationwide South Asian American population lives in the South, an increase since 2000. Improved employment prospects, lower cost of living, and other economic factors have increasingly drawn South Asian Americans to Southern states. Of the ten metropolitan areas in the United States that experienced the largest South Asian population growth since 2000, five of these areas were in the South: Charlotte, NC; Richmond, VA; Raleigh, NC; San Antonio, TX; and Jacksonville, FL. Georgia experienced a large growth in the Indian-American population over the last few decades, which is now coupled with significant growth in the BhutaneseAmerican population in the last five years. Dallas and Houston are two other major Southern hubs for the Bhutanese-American community. The growth and challenges of South Asian American communities in the South and nationwide provide an important backdrop for the surge of hate violence and xenophobic political rhetoric aimed at our communities today.

If you have any questions or would like additional information, please contact us at info@saalt.org or call 301-270-1855.

For more information about our work and upcoming programs, visit our website.

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Vivek Trivedi


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