Partnering with the AAPI Community to Resolve Racial Conflict

The Community Relations Service (CRS) is a component of the U.S. Department of Justice that is responsible for working with community-based organizations, state and local government officials, law enforcement, and civil rights groups to help them peacefully resolve conflicts resulting issues of race, color, and national origin.  The agency also supports local efforts to prevent and respond to violent hate crimes committed on the basis of race, color, national origin, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, or disability.

In CRS’ forty-eight year history, we have mediated many emotionally charged conflicts affecting Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities, and according to Ron Wakabayashi, a Regional Director with the agency, awareness of discrimination against Asian Americans has increased.  Wakabayashi is responsible for CRS operations in Arizona, Nevada, California, Hawaii, and Guam, and was formerly the Executive Director of Japanese American Citizens League. 

“In the late 1960s, young Asian Americans began organizing and engaging issues of racial and ethnic identity for our generation, exploring and challenging what it was to be an AAPI,” said Wakabayashi. “In aggregate, our population was less than 1/2 of 1% of the total U.S. population, and overwhelmingly concentrated in Hawaii and the West Coast.  Our challenge was invisibility. Then came the Black Civil Rights movement, which raised parallel questions of identity for us. It also impacted things such as immigration policy, which opened the door for the enormous demographic shift that has resulted in today’s Asian and Pacific Islanders representing one of the fastest growing populations in the country.”

CRS has helped communities navigate racial and national origin tensions that have resulted from the 9/11 terrorist attacks.  Such tensions have affected Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.  The first instance of post 9/11 backlash in which CRS engaged was the murder of Balbir Singh Sodhi on September 15, 2001.  Mr. Sodhi was a Sikh American of South Asian descent who was killed by an assailant apparently seeking revenge for the attacks. The assailant took Mr. Sodhi’s turban and long beard as an indicator that he was of Arab descent and shot him five times.

CRS met with Sikh community members, including Mr. Sodhi’s brother, community members of other faiths, and local law enforcement in the weeks following the killing to establish a Sikh advisory board for law enforcement and other initiatives that allowed the community to work together to prevent hate violence in the future.  

Since then, CRS has maintained a close relationship with Sikh, South Asian, and other civil rights organizations and has worked in communities throughout the country to help reduce post-9/11 related backlash directed at Sikh Americans and Muslims.  CRS’ training films, "On Common Ground” and “The First Three to Five Seconds” serve as valuable tools for instructing law enforcement, airport personnel, and others about the contributions of the Sikh and Muslim communities in America.

9/11 was not the first time that a member of an AAPI community was victimized because they were incorrectly perceived to be of a particular ethnicity. In 1982, Vincent Jen Chin, a Chinese American, was beaten to death in the Detroit, Michigan by a Chrysler plant superintendent and his stepson over their alleged anger over the increasing market share of Japanese automakers at the time. The incident became a rallying point for the Asian American community, and is viewed by many as the beginning of a pan-ethnic Asian American movement.

More recently, CRS has worked with the Micronesian and other ethnic communities in Hawaii to reduce tensions and the potential for violence stemming from alleged discrimination against newer residents from the Pacific Islands. The agency has helped AAPI merchants and a law enforcement agency in a major U.S. city establish a collaborative initiative, including an Asian American advisory committee to the police, to address home invasion and other common crimes committed against the merchants. 

As racial and ethnic slurs and threats directed at Asian and Pacific Islanders increased in certain colleges and universities as a result of these institution’s growing AAPI population, CRS helped administrators and students work together to improve the climate for AAPI students.

The Community Relations Service is known as the U.S. Department of Justice’s “Peacemaker”.  CRS is not a law enforcement agency, nor does it have prosecutorial authority.  Moreover, CRS is statutorily required to provide its’ services impartially and in confidence.  The Agency’s staff is comprised of individuals with professional backgrounds in law enforcement, law, human rights, mediation, and other disciplines. The Community Relations Service was established under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and was further empowered to address violent hate crimes under the 2009, Shepard Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act.  You can contact CRS by reaching out to our headquarters office in Washington, D.C., or any of our ten regional and four field offices.  (http://www.justice.gov/crs/)

Becky Monroe is the Acting Director of the Community Relations Service at the U.S. Department of Justice.

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