Hate crimes in the United States have reached their highest levels in more than a decade, prompting bipartisan support for legislation to combat them and increased resources for law enforcement. But the recent COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act has spurred resistance from an unexpected source: activist groups that represent the people these laws are meant to protect.
This week on The Experiment, our correspondent, Tracie Hunte, investigates the 150-year history of legislating against racist violence in the U.S. and asks: Have we been policing hate all wrong?
This episode’s guests include Jami Floyd, WNYC’s senior editor for race and justice; Saida Grundy, an assistant professor of sociology and African American studies at Boston University; Jason Wu, a co-chair of the LGBTQ advocacy group GAPIMNY; Jeannine Bell, a professor of law at Indiana University’s Maurer School of Law; and Sunayana Dumala, the founder of Forever Welcome.
As the Experiment podcast keeps growing, we’re looking for new ways to tell stories and better serve our listeners. We invite you to visit theatlantic.com/experimentsurvey to share your thoughts with The Atlantic and WNYC Studios.
Further reading: “Calling the Atlanta Shootings a Hate Crime Isn’t Nearly Enough”
A transcript of this episode is presented below:
(As a keyboard note skips in and out, a heartbeat, static, and a buzzing join in.)
Julia Longoria: Okay, so where do you want to start?
Tracie Hunte: So why don’t we start in March? Back in March, there was this shooting in Atlanta. [Reporting audio begins to fade in as Hunte continues.] I think we all remember it. It was completely horrifying.
NPR’s Noel King: Police in Georgia are investigating a series of deadly shootings that took place in the Atlanta area. Eight people were killed. Authorities say many of them were women of Asian descent. Now police have arrested one man, who is white, but they haven't said anything about a motive yet. Advocacy organizations … (Fades out.)
Hunte: This guy, he went to three different spots—Asian-owned spas in Atlanta. He shot eight people. Six of them were Asian women. And one of the things that happened was that there was this press conference.
Police Chief Rodney Bryant: Thank you, Madam Mayor. We’ll start off with Sheriff …
Hunte: The police were talking about the investigation and the fact that they’d been getting a lot of questions about, you know, “Was this a hate crime?”
Bryant: I know that many—we’ve received a number of calls about “Is this a hate crime?” We are still early in this investigation, uh, so we cannot make that determination at this moment. (Fades under.)
Hunte: The detectives involved in this case were not coming out and calling it a hate crime. And that was upsetting a lot of people. But I think what really set people off was when the spokesman said that the shooter told detectives that he shot these people not because of racial hatred, but because he was struggling with sex addiction.
Captain Jay Baker: As the chief said—this is still early—but he does claim that it was not racially motivated. He apparently has an issue, uh, what he considers a—a—a sex addiction, and sees these locations as something that allows him … (Fades under.)
Longoria: How did people respond to that?
Hunte: I think some people thought maybe the police department was, you know, giving credence to this claim. And, also, the idea that it was sex addiction just seems so ludicrous on its face.
Now, prosecutors in the case did eventually bring hate-crimes charges against the shooter, but this shooting was part of a pattern we’ve seen for the past year, of increased violence against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.
(A montage of news coverage plays.)
CBS’s Norah O’Donnell: Tonight, the FBI is stepping up its efforts to counter the shocking surge in attacks on Asian Americans.
PBS’s Judy Woodruff: Hate crimes against Asian Americans in major U.S. cities surged by nearly 150 percent in 2020 …
CNN’s Amara Walker: A 36-year-old Asian American father beaten by a stranger last Friday …
(The montage ends.)
Hunte: And in response to all this, Grace Meng, a congresswoman from New York, and Mazie Hirono, a senator from Hawaii—two Asian American lawmakers—put forth this bill called the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act. And it was going to increase resources to the police so they can do more outreach to the communities that don’t speak English, and they also wanted the Justice Department to gather more data on hate crimes connected to COVID-19.
(A low droning tone begins to play.)
Hunte: But then I heard something a bit surprising, which is that a group of Asian American and Pacific Islanders and, you know, social-justice groups and LGBTQ groups—85 of them in all—signed a letter opposing this hate-crimes bill.
Longoria: Why did they oppose it?
Hunte: Well, they opposed it because they said that the COVID-19 hate-Crimes bill wasn’t going to keep people safe.
And I guess I was surprised to see all these groups that represent Asian American groups, LGBTQ groups—in one way or another, groups that are very often the victims of hate crimes—saying that this law that’s aimed at maybe preventing hate crimes just isn’t going to cut it, just isn’t going to do it. And I wanted to know more about why that was.
(Quiet, contemplative music plays over the drone. A heartbeat can be heard in the background.)
Longoria: This week, correspondent Tracie Hunte investigates the origin of hate-crimes legislation in our country—What changes when we call an act of violence a hate crime? Who does it protect?—and makes the case that maybe we’ve been thinking about how to police hate all wrong. I’m Julia Longoria. This is The Experiment.
(The music rises in volume, then fades out.)
Hunte What is a hate crime?
Jami Floyd: Well, a hate crime is a crime that is committed with a motivation—or, at least, a partial motivation—of hate or bias.
Hunte: Jami Floyd is WNYC’s senior editor for race and justice.
Floyd: So you have to have the underlying offense, which is, you know, an assault or a battery, attempted murder or even a murder, but then you have to have that added motivational element—a hate, bias—and it has to be intended or even expressed.
Hunte: These laws vary from state to state and on the federal level, but they often mean tougher sentences for crimes committed against protected groups. Assault someone? Get five years. Assault someone because they’re trans? Get 10.
Floyd: And the prosecutor has to prove that element.
Hunte: The actual term hate crime won’t come into wide use until the 1980s, but crimes motivated by hatred have been with us since the Founding. And we’ve tried to use laws to stop them since Reconstruction.
(Reflective piano music plays, driven by a persistent beat and a percussive flourish that builds a sense of movement.)
Floyd: So we all know about the Constitution. We like to talk about the Constitution. We like to talk about the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, Fifteenth Amendments, which are the Reconstruction Amendments. But we also know—especially as Black people—you know, the Constitution is one thing, but then actually living and breathing the spirit of the Constitution is a whole other thing.
Hunte: After the Civil War, legislators tried to write a new vision into the Constitution: of a multiracial democracy where Black people could vote, hold office, and serve on juries. Resistance was instantaneous. Local and state government officials used violence and threats to deny Black people these rights, and the KKK began a campaign of terror. Black people were being dragged from their homes, beaten, and killed. So President Grant called on Congress to pass more legislation—starting with the Enforcement Acts.
Floyd: And these prohibited the states from disenfranchising voters on account of race, color, previous condition of servitude.
Hunte: The first two—of 1870 and 1871—were directed at government officials who used violence to deny Black people their civil rights. The third Enforcement Act focused squarely on the Klan.
Floyd: Members of the Ku Klux Klan would be penalized if they terrorized Black citizens for exercising their right to vote, running for public office, serving on juries—and that’s what this series of legislation was all about. And then they had to go in and enforce the legislation because nobody was listening down there.
And that’s what the Department of Justice was set up to do.
(A steady piano line treads gently over the ringing of wine glasses.)
Hunte: One of the first jobs of the newly created Justice Department was cracking down on the Klan. And it worked! Hundreds of Klan members were arrested and imprisoned. Some of them even faced majority-Black juries. The Klan was stamped out—at least for the time being. After Grant left office, there was a backlash in the North against Reconstruction and a recession that made paying for a military occupation in the South much, much harder. It’s estimated there was a lynching a week.
Protecting Black people in the South just wasn’t a priority in Washington anymore—and it wouldn’t be again until the civil-rights era.
Floyd: We have the Civil Rights Act of 1964. We had the Voting Rights Act of 1965. [Laughs.] And then, when Congress saw that these were not enough, and all these killings continued to happen down South around the civil-rights movement, so they realized, ”We need another act to protect against the actual criminal activity unleashed against people who are trying to fight for their civil rights.”
Hunte: There was one case in particular that showed the federal government they could intervene in these kinds of cases: the 1964 murders of civil-rights workers Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney in Mississippi. Local officials refused to prosecute the case. But after a national outcry, the Department of Justice stepped in. They charged 18 people under provisions from the Klan Enforcement Act of 1870. Stopping racial terror was back on the agenda of the federal government.
(The music ends.)
Floyd: In 1968, we get the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act … But, Tracie, we also get the first federal hate-crimes legislation in this country: 18 U.S.C. 245.
Hunte: What did that law in 1968 say?
Floyd: It said that the federal government will have the right to prosecute these murders as civil-rights violations. If—if, hateful acts of murder and other violent acts are perpetrated against individuals, and local authorities do not either properly prosecute—you know, half-heartedly prosecute with all-white juries who are predisposed against conviction—or they don't prosecute at all (no one is ever brought before a judge and jury), then federal authorities will have the right to prosecute for civil-rights violation, violation of the civil rights of these victims.
Hunte: And so we kind of have these, like, moments where hate crimes become … There’s, like, I guess, a national imperative to fight hate crimes.
Hunte: We had that moment post-Reconstruction. We had that moment again in the 1960s. So it’s interesting, ’cause when I was growing up, and I was watching, like, a lot of cable TV and cable news and things like that, I just remember all of a sudden people were talking about hate crimes a lot more sometime in the ’90s. And that’s why it kind of feels like such a ’90s phenomenon to me. So what was it about the ’90s that made hate crimes a topic of conversation and another thing that we had to handle somehow?
Floyd: In 1998, Tracie, there were two horrific crimes that happened that really captured the nation’s attention and the national consciousness. James Byrd, an African American man, was murdered in Jasper, Texas, by white supremacists. They kidnapped him. They beat him. They tied him to the back of a pickup truck and dragged him for three miles before he was decapitated. It was a modern-era lynching.
Now, just a few months later, Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old student at the University of Wyoming, was brutally attacked. He was tied to a fence in a field outside of Laramie, Wyoming, and left to die. That was October 1998. Now, why? He was gay.
(A rattle of solemn strings plays.)
Floyd: And he died a few days later in a hospital. I think, Tracie, in the aftermath of these two events, there was this real awakening to crime committed with hateful intent.
President Barack Obama: This afternoon, I signed into law the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. (Applause.)
Hunte: Nearly 10 years after their murders, Congress passed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. Among other things, it added protections for sexual orientation, gender identity, and disability. And it expanded the reach of federal prosecutors.
(Above the rattle, a keyboard plays heavy notes in staccato.)
Hunte: At this point, you’re probably noticing a pattern: societal progress, followed by violent backlash, followed by laws hoping to minimize and prevent that backlash. And repeat.
We now have several federal hate-crime laws, and 47 states—plus D.C. and Puerto Rico—have their own hate-crime laws.
But that doesn’t mean hate crimes have gone away.
(The keyboard notes extend from staccato, stretching out like a cat in the afternoon sun.)
Jeannine Bell: Most of the problems have to do with the fact that police departments are not set up really well to track hate crimes. They’re not focused on them.
Hunte: Jeannine Bell is the Richard S. Melvin Professor of Law at Indiana University Maurer School of Law. She’s been studying hate crimes for more than 20 years and thinking about ways to make them more effective.
(The music quietly ends.)
Bell: The best way to get police departments to take hate crime seriously is to create bias units—create units of police officers who are just focused on hate crime. That is the most effective mechanism for getting law-enforcement officers to take this violence seriously.
Hunte: But how do we know that the officers who work for the bias unit are also not biased, or also not members of white supremacist groups, or also not just straight-up racist? I think I have a hard time trusting police departments to take this seriously, because they don’t …
Bell: (Interjecting.) Well, I’ve studied this. I wrote a book on this, right?
Hunte: Bell has actually written two books on the subject. She’s considered an expert on how police investigate hate crimes. For one of her books, Bell spent five months inside the bias unit of a big-city police department, though she wouldn’t say which one.
Bell: I was inside a bias unit. And though there was one officer that I wouldn't have wanted to investigate a hate crime that I was victimized by, um, the vast majority of the officers would have been just fine. And I describe in the book the process of investigating these crimes converts law-enforcement officers from ordinary officers to victims’ advocates.
Hunte: Part of the reason Bell says hate-crime laws are needed is because they might be the only way to prosecute certain kinds of terror.
Bell: You know, say someone burns a cross on my lawn—let’s take a garden-variety hate crime. If it wasn’t for hate crime law, that wouldn’t be prosecuted at all.
Hunte: Absent a hate-crimes law, somebody burning a cross on your lawn― isn’t that vandalism? Isn’t that arson?
Bell: It’s not arson if there’s not any damage. And, frequently with cross burnings, turns out there’s not. Vandalism … Well, the person who—you have to have injured property, right? And the perpetrator is the one that has property damage, right? Because it's their own wood that was damaged in the cross burning. So, no.
If you don’t have hate-crime legislation, the police are not going to go out to a vandalism on your property. No. No way. Right? Police don't investigate 80 percent of low-level crime anyway.
Hunte: For me, it always seemed like a hate-crime charge was, like, something that a prosecutor sprinkled on. It was just, like, almost symbolic.
Bell: You’re wrong about that, because communities need more. I mean, imagine you being targeted.
Bell: You’re beaten up. A bunch of nasty slurs are directed at you while you’re being beaten up. The injuries aren’t particularly [Choosing her words.] serious, but you’ve just been selected off the street because of your race. So every time you go out, you think about Oh my God. Is there going to be another one of these freaks that picks me out like this? This is an additional injury.
That’s what hate-crime law recognizes: the additional injury, the additional vulnerability, the additional harm that’s caused in the context of the bias-motivated assault.
(Slow string music, a soft beat, and soft piano all form a sonic cocoon.)
Hunte: I can’t imagine what actually being the victim of a hate crime is like. As a Black woman in the U.S., I’ve certainly been called names, but I’ve never been physically attacked because of my race, or come home to find the N-word scrawled on my front door. But when something like that does happen to someone who looks like me, I do feel that vulnerability—that worry that, despite record-low crime rates, some freak is going to pick me out.
But naming a problem is different than solving it.
(The music changes tone. An echoey beat travels left and right, the cocoon from earlier wavers in and out of aural focus.)
Hunte: After the break: why hate crimes are on the rise.
(Three piano notes plunk out of the sky, out of nowhere. A whirring-up, a winding-down, echoes, then quiet.)
Hunte: This is The Experiment, a show about our unfinished country. I’m Tracie Hunte.
We’ve been trying to solve the problem of racist violence in this country for more than 150 years. And yet hate crimes rose to their highest level in almost a decade in 2019. So how do hate-crime laws actually work?
I took this question to WNYC’s senior editor for race and justice, Jami Floyd.
Floyd: I become a public defender because I want to, essentially, represent Black and brown people who are being railroaded by the system.
Hunte: Before Jami was a journalist, she was a public defense attorney in the Bay Area.
Floyd: I want to make sure they're getting vigorous representation. And what do I get? I get this client, who is a white man, accused of assaulting—violently—a Black woman, and calling her the N-word in the process.
Hunte: A few years after California passed its own hate-crime legislation, Jami found herself defending a white man against hate-crime charges.
Floyd: He walks up to this woman in the park—doesn’t know her—and he [Emphasizing the next word.] pops her in the face and calls her the N-word. No provocation at all. They’re not even having an altercation. And that’s my case.
Hunte: Did you feel conflicted as a Black woman defending a white guy who had assaulted a Black woman?
Floyd: I didn’t like it. Uh, but when you decide to become a public defender, you decide those issues before you walk into the job.
Hunte: This seemed like an open-and-shut case, but Jami says she felt there were some complications here.
Floyd: In this particular case, I seriously felt this man had a mental-health issue. And that’s often the case with hate.
Hunte: Why did you think he had a mental-health issue?
Floyd: Well, I interviewed him; I had him evaluated. And I saw him again. I saw him again. So I think I was right in that assessment.
Hunte: She eventually secured a plea deal for her client that included mental-health services.
Floyd: The curious thing for me—and this goes back to the racism of our society—is: Why do so many people who have mental health issues latch on to racial hatred? Why? Why do so many people who are going to engage in a mass shooting—which is clearly a break from any sort of sane behavior—why do they latch on to hate?
Hunte: I don't know the answer to this question either, but I do know that racism in this country is systemic. It’s practically in the water. Hate-crime laws focus on the individual, and you can’t fix systemic racism by punishing individual acts of hate.
This is part of the reason to be skeptical of how much hate-crime laws can really do. And Jami says there are other reasons too.
Floyd: No. 1, I think hate crimes are very problematic because of the First Amendment issue. I mean, I’m really, now, just speaking as sort of an academician, intellectually: Are we prosecuting words? Are we prosecuting thoughts?
Hunte: This question of whether hate-crime laws violate the free-speech rights of defendants has been tested in court.
Floyd: And the big case on this is Wisconsin vs. Mitchell. By the way, here’s the interesting fact: The case involved a group of Black men—Black men and boys—who had just seen the movie Mississippi Burning, getting us back, right, to the 1960s.
(Plucky upright bass music meanders up and down the register, the sound of intrigue.)
Hunte: Mississippi Burning is a 1988 film loosely based on the murders of James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman, the three civil-rights workers whose murders inspired the first-ever federal hate-crime bill.
Floyd: They saw the movie, they were angry about what they’d seen, and they attacked a white boy.
Hunte: As this young white boy walked past them, witnesses said one of the men—Todd Mitchell—said, “You all want to fuck somebody up? There goes a white boy! Go get him.” The group ran up to the boy, beat him severely, and stole his shoes. He was in a coma for four days.
The jury found Mitchell guilty of aggravated assault, which normally carries a sentence of two years. But because the jury also found that he had selected the victim based on his race, his sentence was increased to four years. Mitchell sought to overturn the conviction, arguing that his speech during the assault was protected under the First Amendment.
(The music slowly fades out as Floyd speaks.)
Floyd: That’s the case that goes to the U.S. Supreme Court. These Black young men and boys had said a bunch of hateful things about white people. And, in the case, then–Chief Justice Rehnquist says, “Well, that would be protected. The problem was when they acted—and beat up pretty badly—this white boy.” And Rehnquist gives an example: Religious leaders who preach against homosexuality. That’s not a hate crime. They cannot be charged with a hate crime, even though the speech may be highly offensive. It may even be hateful! As long as the preacher does not urge violence, the speech is protected and not criminal.
And that’s the seminal case, Wisconsin vs. Mitchell.
I just don’t really agree.
Hunte: Jami says she questions the constitutionality of the decision.
Floyd: Well, to be clear, it is constitutional, because the Supreme Court has said it’s constitutional, and that’s the way our system works. But I don’t agree with them. (Laughs.)
Hunte: (Laughs.) Right! Okay. It’s constitutional, but you have a different opinion. What’s your opinion about its constitutionality?
Floyd: I think that those boys who beat up that young white boy certainly should have been prosecuted, should have done their time. But not for hate crime. They should have done their time for assault and battery. Maybe even attempted murder if it rose to that.
I just don’t like the enhancement. I just don’t like the enhancement.
I don’t like prosecuting words just because they’re the words that I—this week—don’t like. I just think it’s speech, and speech is protected. The action is not protected.
Saida Grundy: Here’s the thing that I think is also sloppy about the way that we do hate crimes.
Hunte: Saida Grundy is an assistant professor of sociology, African American studies, and women’s and gender studies at Boston University. She wrote about hate crimes for The Atlantic.
Grundy: So if you’re a prosecutor and you’re giving jury instructions—or, excuse me, a judge would give jury instructions—you’re like, “Okay, you can convict on these counts. And, for this count, we have to prove that there was assault, there was battery. Okay, that’s easy. All the evidence seems to be there. And then, also, jury, you’re going to have to take into account this second separate count, which is an add-on. It’s an add-on statute. And that is about proving the mental state and motivation of this crime.”
And that’s where it begins to fall apart, because you’re asking a jury to get inside of someone’s head. I think people think about hate crimes with this sort of historical imagination about, like, anti-lynching bills. Like, “Oh, we’re trying to make something prosecutable. We’re trying to criminalize something that people otherwise get away with.” And that’s not what hate crimes do at all.
As a legal apparatus, they are superfluous add-ons. And what they really do is just extend the reach of the carceral state. We’re already draconian. Our country already punishes more than any other country in the world. If you murder someone, we already have a criminal code for murder! Tacking five years on to what would already be a life sentence—or a death sentence—is that really doing anything to rectify what violence happened? Is that really doing anything to heal the community that was injured by that?
I think that’s a lot of my interest in it.
Hunte: Yeah, I think that’s—it’s really interesting, because it feels like it’s an emotional reaction, you know?
Hunte: And I don’t want to say that in a way that makes it seem that’s not important—like your emotional reactions aren’t important, because they are, obviously. And it is devastating to think about This person would not have been shot to death if not for the fact that they were a person of color, or a trans person, or …
Grundy: Yes, yes.
Hunte: … et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. And so we want that recognized, and we need it codified some way.
Grundy: Yes. And it’s sort of easy to say, “Let’s punish it.” The harder job would be “Let’s actually talk about resource redistribution that would make these communities less vulnerable.” Right?
Hunte: Well, going back to that thing—like, what does it do emotionally?
Grundy: It gives people the false expectation that their legislators are doing something for marginalized communities.
What could a hate crime do? Let’s talk about what could hate crimes do. Hate crimes could say, “If this is a hate crime, then there has to be a form of reparation for that community,” right? “If this is a hate crime, then we need to look at what made this community more vulnerable. So if it’s the employment status of, you know, Asian women, let’s look at policies that are going to make them less vulnerable. Let’s look at, you know, the resources in terms of health, education …” We in the middle of a damn pandemic, right? “Let’s look at things that can actually make this community—give them resources in which they could—one!—protect themselves. And, two, just wouldn’t be so vulnerable to crime to begin with.
CBS news reporter: We take it now to the East Room of the White House, where President Biden is about to sign a COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act into law. Let’s watch. (Applause.)
President Joe Biden: My message to all of those who are hurting is “We see you,” and that Congress has said, “We see you,” and we are committed to stop the hatred and the bias.
(Resonant music, contemplative and slow, plays.)
Hunte: Unlike previous hate-crimes legislation, the new COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act isn’t adding new enhancements to sentencing or anything like that. It instead aims to give police more resources so they can increase public outreach and ensure victims can get resources in multiple languages. It also directs the Justice Department to collect more data about hate crimes connected to COVID-19.
Jason Wu: It’s just not a sufficient response.
(The music plays out.)
Hunte: This is Jason Wu. His organization, GAPIMNY, Empowering Queer & Trans Asian Pacific Islanders, was one of 85 groups that spoke out against the bill, saying it doesn’t support Asian American communities but instead directs more resources to the police.
Wu: This legislation, it doesn’t actually do the thing that we’re saying it’s supposed to do, which is to prevent harm and violence. A hate-crimes designation doesn’t stop a hate crime. It doesn’t stop anti-Asian attacks. The things that we really need to address inequality and social problems require investment. And the way to do that is by reallocation of funding.
The hate-crimes legislation? It doesn’t do any of that. It doesn’t address inequality. It doesn’t address the social problems that underpin the attacks. It doesn’t address the conditions that give rise to violence.
And, for me, the violence and attacks that we’re seeing go so much deeper than, you know, the individual who is engaging in, quote-unquote, “exceptional racist violence.” For me, it’s systemic and it’s deeply cultural. The dehumanization of Asian Americans, Asian American women, um, people who are elderly, immigrants.
And I think we should hold someone like Donald Trump just as accountable as the person who strikes another person walking down the street because they think they’re carriers of COVID. But that’s never going to happen, right?
Hunte: I—I think one thing about this that’s really tricky is that these are crimes that are committed against marginalized communities. When someone is attacked that way, it reverberates throughout a community, because now you have, like, an entire community that’s afraid, and they feel vulnerable.
Wu: (Sighs.) Yeah, I … [A beat.] I hear what you’re saying. There is something especially pernicious about being targeted based on your identity. And—and that is something, as an Asian American person, as a queer person, I’m very sensitive to … Like, I’ve grown up, you know, being very aware of, like, my identity and the vulnerabilities associated with that. Um … [Sighs.] I think part of what you’re getting at is a question around “What is justice, and what does accountability look like?”
(A moment of somber string music.)
Hunte: While I’d been thinking about this question and reaching out and talking to all of these people, I kept thinking about this one crime that’s always haunted me. It happened in February 2017, right at the beginning of the Trump administration, when it felt like the political rhetoric in this country was creating conditions for violence. And this one murder just felt like the beginning of a new era.
Hunte: So did you meet your husband in the United States?
Sunayana Dumala: (Sighs gently, which prompts Hunte to laugh kindly.) It’s—it’s kind of … Uh, I’ve told it many times, and I always blush―
Dumala: ―anytime I have to say it.
Hunte: Sunayana Dumala still smiles and blushes when she thinks about meeting Srinivas Kuchibhotla. They were introduced online through a mutual friend when Sunayana was researching graduate programs in the United States.
Dumala: I think that’s what makes me blush, I think, the way we met—the way we liked each other without even personally meeting each other.
Hunte: What was it like when you finally did meet him in person for the first time?
Dumala: When I saw him for the first time, and I’m like, [Sighs lightly.] Oh my gosh! This guy is too tall! [Both laugh lightly.] I’m just 5 foot!
Dumala: He was six-two.
Hunte: Oh my goodness! (Laughs.)
Hunte: That’s a big difference. (Fades under.)
Hunte: Sunayana and Srinivas got married in October 2012. They moved to Olathe—a suburb of Kansas City—in 2014, when Srinivas got his job as a software developer at Garmin. They bought their first house …
Dumala: So that was a big thing for us. We chose everything in that house.
Hunte: They made friends with their neighbors …
Dumala: So life was going.
Hunte: Until February 22, 2017.
Dumala: I mean, it was supposed to be a normal day … um, normal day. We were supposed to come back home, have a dinner, just go on with our routine life.
Hunte: Sunayana was waiting for him at home when she saw a Facebook post about a shooting at Austins, a bar she knew Srinivas liked to go to. Sunayana tried not to panic.
Dumala: And so … I was praying, and I was trying to make myself give the assurance that, um … hopefully he wasn’t there.
Hunte: But every time she called, his phone went straight to voicemail.
Dumala: There was something in me trying to tell me, Don’t! No. No, no, no! Don’t think—don’t think that way. Nothing should have happened to him. Nothing would have happened to him. Few minutes later, the cops knocked on the door. [Sighs.] And the rest is what everybody knows.
Hunte: Srinivas was at Austins, grabbing an after-work drink with a co-worker who was also an immigrant from India. That’s when a 51-year-old white man approached them, yelling racial slurs and asking about their immigration status. Then he opened fire. Srinivas was shot and killed. He was 32. His friend and a bystander who tried to intervene were also shot. They survived. The shooter pled guilty to murder and hate-crime charges.
Hunte: Did you feel that you got justice?
Dumala: I mean … I think him being convicted, yes, that does give some level of comfort that, um, the right thing is being done.
Hunte: Was that important to you? That it wasn’t just that he was convicted for Srinu’s murder, but also that he had this—this additional thing attached to it?
Hunte: Yeah. Can you—can you tell me, like, why that was important? What did it signify for you?
Dumala: It helps you in understanding, like, why this person murdered the X person, right? If we would just see it as a murder, like, you don’t—you’ll not—how will we be able to understand, like, where we need to work upon?
Hunte: It’s interesting, because I think, um, some people look at hate-crimes legislation, and they say that these sorts of charges, they don't do anything to keep marginalized communities safe. What would you say to that idea that just, you know, convicting this person of a hate crime, or calling what happened in Atlanta a hate crime, at the end of the day, it doesn’t really do anything to keep anyone safe?
Dumala: I—I think that is necessary from an administrative standpoint. But at the grassroots level, I think we all have to step up. As much as it is necessary to have a crime classified as a hate crime, and being dealt [with] as a hate crime, it should not stop us from coming out of our own cocoons and getting involved with the community. And that is what I am trying to do with my foundation.
Hunte: Sunayana created Forever Welcome in 2019. It aims to create empathy for people who have immigrated to the United States, by sharing their experiences through storytelling.
Dumala: I want to create a medium where we can have this free community dialogue, where everybody gets the opportunity to—to bridge the gaps and, uh, are more open to talk and open to learn.
(Music plays, methodically plodding through a looping melody and the sound of a train whistle or a pan flute.)
Hunte: Would Srinivas still be alive if there were more or better or different hate crime laws? Or if we had more resources going into communities, supporting those without jobs, or those having mental-health struggles? Probably not. Violence motivated by racial hatred is a problem we’ve been trying to solve in this country for more than 150 years.
And that’s because the U.S. didn’t begin as a multiracial democracy. It’s had to reverse-engineer one, writing laws and changing the Constitution to give more groups of people their rights. But when some disagree with this progress, they turn to violence and intimidation to stop it. And when things go wrong—a pandemic, a war, crime, terrorism, the economy—there’s always someone to blame.
Which is why it seems like hate-crime laws are more of an attempt to name a problem, but not solve it.
So now that we’ve named it, what do we do next?
(The music fades out.)
Dumala: It’s not, like, a one-stop solution. The—the divisiveness that is currently in the society, this will take a long time. And I think we’ll have to be patient, and we’ll have to have the perseverance to not stop our efforts.
Hunte: How did the community in Kansas City react to the murder? Do you remember, like, what kind of support you got from the community after it happened?
Dumala: So the very first night, when the cops came and told me what happened and then that, um, Srinu couldn’t survive, my instant thought in my head was that I’m going. I'm leaving. I am leaving this place, and I’m going back. Because, for me, Srinu was my everything here. And in my head was, like, What is left for me here, to be here?
Dumala: The community as such was very supportive. Like the way his employer, Garmin—the way they came forward to lend their support. There were little, little things that, uh, show you the good in the community.
The local hotels gave free accommodation to our friends that flew from outside of Kansas.
The funeral homes usually don’t allow to take the body outside of the funeral home, but they accommodated our request and allowed Srinu to be sent to our home so that he can have his final goodbye from his home. And so, I think it is because of all of that support—it is because of all of that outpour of love—that I got my, uh, answer of the question that I asked: “Do we belong?”
(A windstorm of synthesized sounds slowly plays up.)
Dumala: All of these that helped me in finding that answer that, yes, I do.
This is my home, and I very much belong here.
(Fluid electronic sounds drip and drop in the midst of the soundscape until it becomes all-encompassing, an envelope of sound.)
Hunte: This episode was produced by me, Tracie Hunte, with help from Gabrielle Berbey. Editing by Katherine Wells, Emily Botein, and Jami Floyd. Special thanks to Kai Wright and Veralyn Williams. Fact-check by William Brennan. Sound design by Hannis Brown, mix by David Herman. Music by Tasty Morsels and Nelson Nance, with additional music by Joe Plourde and Hannis Brown.
Our team also includes Julia Longoria and Natalia Ramirez.
You can find Saida Grundy’s article on hate crimes for The Atlantic at theatlantic.com/theexperiment.
If you enjoyed this episode, please be sure to rate and review us on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen.
The Experiment is a co-production of The Atlantic and WNYC Studios. Thanks for listening.
(The whipping wind of sound plays for a moment, then fades out as an electronic bird chirps and the episode ends.)
Be part of The Experiment. Use the hashtag #TheExperimentPodcast, or write to us at email@example.com.
Editing by Katherine Wells, Emily Botein, and Jami Floyd. Special thanks to Kai Wright. Fact-check by William Brennan. Sound design by David Herman and Hannis Brown.
Music by Arabian Prince in a UK World (“The Feeling of Being on a Diet”), Keyboard (“Ojima”), Water Feature (“In a Semicircle or a Half-Moon”), and Nelson Bandela (“311 Howard Ave 25 5740”), provided by Tasty Morsels and Nelson Nance. Additional music by Joe Plourde and Hannis Brown. Additional audio from PBS, the Obama White House, CBS News, NPR, and CNN.