As one who has lived in post-9/11 America, I have been witness to the inconceivable systemic changes that have occurred in the country in the name of Homeland Security and changed the way Americans live their everyday lives. While living with an obsessively security conscious State has been more or less a lifestyle challenge, it is the dramatic change in the perceptions of a section of ordinary Americans towards “outsiders” that has become an existential hazard for many immigrants in that country.
Over the past decade, American Sikhs, bearing the brunt of violent hate crime, obviously being mistaken for Arabs, have been crying hoarse to bring to the Administration’s attention their plight. They have been meticulously fighting for their civil rights over being unfairly profiled at American airports, for instituting sensitivity training for local and national security agencies while dealing with innocent Sikhs by respecting their articles of faith and also to generally raise awareness among other communities about the peace-loving nature of their religion.
I haven’t really understood why they distinctly identify themselves as Sikh American rather than Sikh Indian American – to the extent of wanting to be separately categorized in the US Census and not be clubbed under South Asian or Asian India. But incidents such as the Wisconsin shooting perhaps explain their concern.
Anyway, despite all efforts the Sikh American community had to suffer the tragic shooting at a Gurdwara in Wisconsin on August 5, in which six Sikhs were killed.
Even if it were only through a tragedy, American lawmakers seem to be waking up to the Sikh community now. A bipartisan group of US Senators last week called for the US Justice Department to allow the collection and tracking of hate crimes committed against Sikh Americans. In a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, the Senators have said: “This tragic shooting is the latest hate crime committed against Sikhs in the United States. Until we have a more comprehensive understanding of the number and type of hate crimes committed against Sikhs, our law enforcement agencies will not be able to allocate the appropriate level of personnel and other resources to prevent and respond to these crimes.”
According to a press release from Senators Frank Lautenberg and Robert Menendez – both of New Jersey – the Justice Department, through the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), tracks crimes committed against Jews, Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, atheists, as well as those with “other religion” or “multiple religions,” but does not currently track crimes against Sikhs.
Approximately 500,000 Sikhs live in the US, including a large Sikh community in New Jersey that has been estimated to include 25,000 members.
Over the past two years, two Sikhs in California were murdered, a Sikh temple in Michigan was desecrated, a Sikh transit worker in New York City was assaulted, and a Sikh taxi driver in California was severely beaten. According to a recent survey of 1,370 Sikhs living in the California Bay Area, 10% reported being the victim of a hate crime. Sixty-eight percent of those crimes were in the form of physical attacks.
The Senators further said in the letter that although the limited data available suggests that a disproportionately high rate of violence and other crimes are committed against Sikhs, it is difficult to understand the true scope of the problem because the Department of Justice does not specifically track hate crimes against Sikhs.
The Hate Crime Statistics Act requires the Department to maintain data on crimes committed on the basis of religion. Pursuant to this law, the Department publishes the Hate Crime Incident Report for law enforcement agencies to complete when they investigate a suspected hate crime. That form allows a law enforcement officer to denote that a crime was motivated by a bias against Jews, Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, or atheists, among others. The form does not allow an officer to denote that a crime was motivated by a bias against Sikhs.
“It is important to collect data on hate crimes committed against Sikhs because this data can identify trends and help federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies properly allocate resources. Until we have a more comprehensive understanding of the number and type of hate crimes committed against Sikhs, our law enforcement agencies will not be able to allocate the appropriate level of personnel and other resources to prevent and respond to these crimes. Moreover, the collection of this information will likely encourage members of the Sikh community to report hate crimes to law enforcement officials,” the letter concluded.
First Lady Michelle Obama visits Sikhs in Oak Creek, Wisconsin
The morale of the grieving Sikhs of Oak Creek, Wisconsin where six of their community were shot dead in a Gurdwara on Aug 5, was boosted when First Lady Michelle Obama visited with them last week.
As Joshua DuBois, a Special Assistant to President Obama and Executive Director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships wrote on the White House blog, that as the First Lady hugged grieving husbands and wives, comforted granddaughters and grandsons, and embraced sons and daughters, the First Lady lifted up the Sikh American story yesterday. She not only expressed her condolences but also underscored how strong those who died were, and how strong the Sikh community continues to be. Since the first Sikhs arrived at Angel Island in California almost 100 years ago, they have been woven into the fabric of our country. Doctors, artists and lawyers, politicians and priests, Sikh Americans have strengthened the United States in innumerable ways.
I know this means a lot to the Sikh Americans.