The place where the murder happened was unremarkable: Olathe, a small suburb outside Kansas City--once a prosperous middle-class enclave of a bustling regional city, eventually declining like many economically stagnant midwestern suburbs. One thing made Olathe stand out though: the town had recently experienced a revival thanks to the opening of a tech company’s new campus, which brought in engineers and other tech staff from India. They settled, started families, and turned the town into a vibrant middle-class Asian immigrant enclave. The town was renewing itself again, with a new generation of settlers on a well trodden frontier, now stretching from the Great Plains to Silicon Valley.
But Adam Purinton, a 51 year-old Navy veteran, didn’t like the way the ground was shifting. Somewhere along the way, two ideas about America clashed.
Purinton reportedly approached the men at a bar during an after-work drink. He asked aggressive questions: were they here illegally? What kind of visa did they have? The young Indian workers, Alok Madasani and Srinivas Kuchibhotla, tried to ignore him, brushing it off as another hostile but ultimately harmless confrontation with a local stranger. But within seconds, shots rang out, and a fatal bullet ended Kuchibhotla’s life and injured Madasani and a bystander who had tried to intervene.
It was a horrific encounter, but not one that was unfamiliar in middle America. Thirty-five years ago, the quiet suburbs of Detroit were rocked by a heinous murder in a parking lot, also after an alcohol fueled confrontation. A young Asian American engineer named Vincent Chin got his skull bashed in by a white man who didn’t think he belonged there either. Mistaken for "Japanese," Chin, a Chinese American, according to witnesses, looked like a symbol of the Japanese "takeover" that was viewed as a threat to Detroit's Big Auto empire at the time. His killers were never convicted of murder and found not guilty in a civil trial, and his devastated family never healed from having their young son ripped away from them in that savage, hate-driven confrontation. The story of his brutal murder was vividly depicted in the groundbreaking investigative documentary Who Killed Vincent Chin. Telling his story to a wider audience, the filmmakers hoped, would ensure that the injustice of what happened would be redeemed.
What happened a generation later in Olathe shows that it hasn’t. Whatever the legal contingencies were surrounding these two killings, two things are certain: the young men who died in the end represented something in the public imagination much larger than their individual lives, even larger than the communities of upward striving immigrant families that they represented. They were, it seems, both targeted simply because they were seen as taking what didn’t belong to them. To their killers--while we don’t know exactly what flashed through their minds in the moment when they decided to attack--they seem to have represented a way of life that had been lost, a dream that evaporated, and maybe the impermanence of a hollowed out middle class, the ghost in America’s industrial machine. And the blow their killers struck can be heard as a last gasp of pride for an America that almost was, or never was--one last statement of finitude, defiant and bitter.
In reality, we know Vincent Chin was an American boy, through and through, and that Kuchibholta had come to the US to embrace an opportunity he had earned as part of an elite transnational tech workforce. But none of that mattered in Michigan or Kansas. Both of their deaths had been preceded by a hailstorm of media caricatures. In both instances, the men vaguely resembled a portrait of a changing America that the media and politicians were regularly broadcasting, painting them foreign invaders, disruptor, and an economic menace. It was they who posed the threat. Not the men standing over them with a baseball bat, or a loaded gun.
What if Purinton had just uttered an epithet and walked off? Or what if he had started the conversation with a simple introduction instead of an interrogation? What if Chin’s assailant had decided to back off a tense encounter, instead of escalating, refusing letting some Asian guy get the better of him that night?
Maybe things would have been different, maybe not. Things change either too quickly, or not quickly enough in this part of the world. And you can't move forward if you're constantly held back by doubt. Kuchibholta's widow later told the New York Times that her husband was less filled with doubt than she was about their future in Kansas: “I, especially, I was always concerned, are we doing the right thing of staying in the United States of America? But he always assured me that only good things happen to good people.”
Sometimes. All we know is that what happened in Olathe that night--and the haunting silence that now follows as a community mourns--had an eerie echo in another post-industrial town in middle America over three decades ago.And we know that while resentment can run long and deep in these communities, the American Dream is haunted by American amnesia. And in a land of long histories and short memories, it seems like every time someone makes America a little different, someone else wants to make it “great again.”
--February 28, 2017