Wisconsin Shootings: Sikhs Faced Discrimination Since 9/11

Cat calls, school bullying, hate crimes and even murder plague American Sikhs.

August 06, 2012, 11:21 AM

Aug. 6, 2012— -- 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."

The turban also serves the practical function of covering the wearer's hair. Sikhs, both men and women, do not cut their hair.

"Much like the uniform of a police officer, it is a reminder to uphold the duties of the uniform … what I agreed to, to be a good human being," she said.

The Sikhs practice a monotheist religion based in peace that was founded in the Punjab region of India in 1469. There are more than 25 million followers worldwide.

Sikhism preaches a message of devotion, remembrance of God at all times, truthful living, social justice, while emphatically denouncing superstitions and blind rituals.

"The basic foundation principle is one God for all people and everyone is considered equal in the eyes of God -- which means gender, race and ethnicity," said Kaur.

Sikhs say one can get closer to God by practicing three things: remembering God, living truthfully and offering service to humanity. They say they are meant to uphold the values of honesty, compassion, generosity, humility, integrity and spirituality on a daily basis.

The five articles of faith include the unshorn hair [kes], comb for good hygiene [khangha], steel bracelet [kara], sword [kirpan] and soldier's shorts [kachhehra].

Since the Oak Creek attack, Kaur said the coalition has "sort of been in emergency mode."

Her colleague Singh flew out to Wisconsin today to help the Sikh community there and the families of the shooting victims.

"It's a very little community," said Singh. "We want to be supportive and figure out how to lend a hand. We also want to respond to all public inquiries so the there is a better understanding of who we are in the history of the United States and our contributions."

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