Wisconsin Shootings: Sikhs Faced Discrimination Since 9/11

VIDEO: Oak Creek police chief offers condolences, discusses FBI investigation.
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Amardeep Singh, the son of a physicist, was raised in New Jersey where he played Little League and his mother coached softball. Now, he is raising two sons in Hoboken, the third-generation of Sikhs to live in this country.

But because Singh is religious and wears his articles of faith -- a beard and a turban, he faces discrimination at every corner, especially since 9/11. Sunday's shootings in Oak Creek, Wisconsin have made it all the worse.

"People have said to me, 'Get that f'ing rag off your head,' 'Get out of here, terrorist,'" he said. "It's commentary they think is funny and it happens at least half a dozen times a year."

Two days ago, while attending a meeting at his local library as a board member, he says he encountered a teenager who turned to a friend and said, "Here comes bin Laden."

"Being a Sikh in America means, in the very least, cat calls," said Singh, 41.

But today, in the aftermath of the most violent attack against Sikhs, it also means murder. On Sunday, seven people, including two priests and the gunman, were killed in Wisconsin in their gurdwara, or place of worship.

The shooter, Wade Michael Page, a former Army psychological operations specialist and a skinhead, was shot and killed by Wisconsin police at the scene.

Since 2001, the Sikh Coalition reports that more than 700 Americans have sought legal assistance after an incident of discrimination or bias -- "everything from violent hate crime to employment discrimination, profiling at the airport or school bullying," according to Singh, who is one of the advocacy group's co-founders.

In the first month after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the coalition reports it logged more than 300 such acts around the country. But, Singh said, there are likely "thousands more" across the country that are never reported. The FBI does not track hate crimes against Sikhs.

"When you see a turban and a beard, the number one thing people think of is terrorism," he said.

The first post-9/11 classified hate crime against a Sikh was the murder of Balbir Singh Sodhi in Mesa, Ariz. After the terrorist attacks, Frank Silva Roque, an aircraft mechanic, told bystanders at a local restaurant that he wanted to "shoot some rag heads," according to an essay in the Huffington Post.

Recent hate attacks include death threats against a Virginia Sikh family in March 2012; a violent assault on a Sikh in New York City in May 2011; the murders of two elderly Sikhs in Elk Grove, California in March 2011; and the near drowning of a Sikh student in West Texas in December 2009.

Sikhs first came to the United States in the 19th century, part of a wave of immigrants from South Asia who worked in the sawmills and became farmers and railroad workers.

The U.S. Census does not keep data on their numbers, but the coalition estimates there are anywhere from 500,000 to 700,000 practicing Sikhs in the country today, mostly in the San Francisco and New York areas.

"Oak Creek is not a large center and is not the typical immigration pattern," said Singh.

The Sikh Coalition said its surveys indicate 60 percent of all children in their community are teased in school. "That was part of my growing up in America in New Jersey," said Singh.

Another 20 percent reported unwanted physical touching.

In 2008, a student at Hightstown High School in New Jersey set fire to a Sikh student's turban during a fire drill, singeing the boy's hair.

The turban and the beard are "external signifiers of internal belief," said the coalition's education director, Manbeena Kaur. "It is a constant reminder to be kind, generous and honest dealing with people and to be loving and compassionate."

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