How racial strife in US has overshadowed perils facing Patel store owners

The shooting of unarmed teen Michael Brown and the subsequent crackdown on protests in Ferguson, Missouri, have triggered a fresh debate  on racism in America. But languishing amid the din is Andy Patel, owner of the convenience store that Brown is alleged to have robbed just before he was killed.

According to the surveillance footage of the store released by the police, Brown picked up cigarettes and proceeded to leave the store along with his friend Dorian Johnson without paying for it. Andy Patel is then seeing talking to them, asking them to pay. However, Brown goes on to shove him into a display case before leaving.

Andy Patel's confrontation with Michael Brown is only one example.  Convenience store owners, of Indian origin more often than not, have been facing violence in the US for several years now, a problem not restricted to Ferguson and not caused by troubled teenagers alone.

That this Indian immigrant store-owning community is not small is well documented: A 2010 report in Journal Sentinel said, "Nationally, a recent study found, Indian immigrant business owners average 60% more income than US business owners generally, and earn more than entrepreneurs from any other immigrant group." A Fiscal Policy Institute report from the same year puts the number of Indian small business owners in US at 65,000, making up seven percent of the total small businesses in the country.

 How racial strife in US has overshadowed perils facing Patel store owners

Representational image. AP

According to a report in Times of India, more than half of the convenience stores across the US are owned or run by people of Indian origin, many of whom are Patels, a surname even more common than Nixon or Dalton in the US now.

Quoting the Center for Problem-oriented Policing, the report says, "Convenience store employees in the US suffer from high rates of workplace homicide, second only to taxicab drivers, where too large numbers of Indian-origin people are employed." Even a cursory glance at the board of directors of Asian American Store Owner's Association (AASOA) is a clear indication of the role Indians, particularly Gujaratis, play.

Brown's shooting may have shifted the spotlight on the racial tensions that plague America. However, the insidious nature of the violence at convenience stores is nothing new, neither are Indian-origin victims. The TOI report cites examples: "In July this year, Rahul Patel, 26, was shot dead at a family run liquor store in Montgomery, Alabama in a suspect robbery attempt. In June, Satish Patel, who was working at the Phillips 66 off Highway 59, just north of Beltway 8 in Humble, Texas, was shot dead by three masked gunmen who stormed inside just before midnight in yet another robbery attempt."

The hazards of running convenience stores have led owners' associations to organise security workshops on minimising theft and even on when not to resist theft.

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Updated Date: Aug 19, 2014 11:27:03 IST