Confronting racial violence: Sikh Americans have been targeted for harassment and attack more than any group since 9/11. Jaideep Singh explains how race, religion, and distorted media representation have resulted in deadly consequences – To the Point
Religion has joined race as one of the most powerful and prominent channels through which to identify the “enemy” or “other” in America’s national life. This disturbing tendency affects primarily non-Christian people of color. As a result, the intersection of white supremacy with Christian supremacy–the intermingling of racial and religious bigotry–has become an increasingly prevalent and influential trend in the United States, both in the media and among the general population.
The Last Sanctioned Racism
The United States has a lengthy history of targeting the sacred practices of peoples of color for persecution, dating back to the state-sanctioned assaults on the religious activities of Native Americans and African American slaves. While the attacks on African American churches throughout the South during the 1990s finally did draw attention from the nation after they had been raging for several months, the travails of other congregations of color are very rarely heard. In 2000, the Washington-based National Conference of
Catholic Bishops concluded that Latinos are twice as likely as other Catholics in the United States to worship in segregated, separate, and unequal settings. The role of race in the religious life of Americans remains as relevant a factor today as it has been since the formation of the U.S.
The notion of the “Muslim terrorist” is one powerfully etched in the minds of most Americans. By contrast, the perpetrators of the Oklahoma City Federal Building bombing, bombers of medical clinics that provide abortion services, murderers of doctors who provide abortions, and members of various white militia groups are never characterized as “Christian terrorists.” As scholar Edward Said has noted, the last sanctioned racism in the United States is that directed at followers of the religion of Islam.
The continued and unquestioned utilization of the illogical term “Muslim terrorist” signifies how the norm in our society is still a white Christian. This is illustrated through media coverage that emphasizes the stark contrast between dark-skinned, turbaned, and bearded Muslims–portrayed as antithetical to everything “American” and opposed to “freedom”–as opposed to “real Americans,” who look a certain way and cherish their freedoms. No one points out that there is something inherently racist about thinking that people of a certain race or national origin do not want to be free.
Combined with Religious Bigotry
While Muslim Americans have been among the most affected by such bigotry as their population has grown exponentially in recent years, other Asian Americans have increasingly faced the wrath of the white, Christian majority. In community after community, Sikhs, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Jains, and members of other religions of Asian origin have been forced to struggle in order to construct sacred sites in which to peacefully worship and practice their religious and cultural heritage.
The manner in which religious and racial bias combine to negatively affect a community in the United Stares is dearly reflected in the experiences of Sikh Americans. The trajectory of public, racialized discourse denigrating non-Christian “others” has placed Sikh Americans among the religious communities of color who have greatly suffered from the commingling of racial and religious bigotry–sometimes mistaken for Muslims, and other times singled out for abuse because of their conspicuous appearance, accents, or skin color.
In attempts to adhere to the most salient aspects of their religio-historical identity, Sikhs have built a gurdwara (Sikh site of worship) wherever they have migrated. As with many other non-Christian, Asian American congregations, this has become a source of conflict in a number of communities around the country in the past three decades.
Additionally, the inability to distinguish between Sikh and Muslim Americans in the minds of many fellow citizens has resulted in numerous instances of mistaken identity, with sometimes terrible consequences. In the wake of such incidents as the Iran hostage crisis, the Gulf War, the Oklahoma City bombing, and, most recently, the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Sikh Americans have been targeted for hate crimes by racists who found them to be convenient scapegoats for dehumanized, nonwhite “others” at whom they wanted to strike. The stereotypical characterizations that proliferate about followers of Islam offer excellent points of comparison with Sikh Americans, who many Americans find indistinguishable from Muslims because of their ostensible “racial uniform — a turban and beard in the case of male Sikhs — which to Sikhs is actually a religious uniform. Over the past two decades, the international image of the Sikh community has suffered greatly. It has been tarnished considerably — anal ogous to the situation endured by Muslim Americans–by the involvement of a very small number of Sikhs in isolated, violent incidents, primarily in India. Sikhs have also suffered from official efforts by the Indian state to generally depict Sikhs as violent terrorists, in the wake of the militant Sikh independence movement of the 1980s and early ’90s, which India brutally repressed through massive human rights violations.
The Western media has tended to sensationalize these isolated events when covering Sikhs.
The recurring depiction of the “Sikh terrorist” was revived in December 1999, when most of the country’s major media outlets mistakenly reported that a plane hijacked in India had been seized by Sikhs. Although many media outlets later apologized and printed corrections in the wake of this erroneous attribution, the hurtful initial reports confirmed the validity of the siege mentality many Sikh Americans feel. This is an especially disquieting notion to Sikhs, because a number of them came to the United States to escape the religious persecution suffered by the tiny Sikh minority in Hindu-dominated India. Why was it even necessary to include the religious background of the hijackers at all?
In the Wake of the Attack on America
By failing to immediately investigate seriously and condemn forcefully the national epidemic of hate crimes–which began for at least one Sikh American as he was fleeing for his life from one of the collapsing towers of the World Trade Center–the media failed miserably in its duty. Like most of us, they were instead entranced by the images of mass destruction. However, unlike most Americans, the free press defined in our Constitution had a duty to report that Americans were attacking other Americans in the wake of the terrorist assault on our nation, and to use its immense power to help end the violence.
Instead, the media followed the erroneous lead of then-New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who downplayed the initial reports of hate crimes being directed at dark-skinned and turban-wearing people. While Giuliani spoke about how few hate crimes were actually occurring, terrified immigrant cab drivers around the city were rushing to place American flag stickers on their cars, to deflect the violence and hatred with which they were suddenly confronted.
The same outpourings of racial hatred occurred during the Iran hostage crisis and the Gulf War, as well as after the Oklahoma City bombing. There was every reason to believe it would happen again. Nonetheless, the media was far too late in reporting the nationwide surge in hate crimes, initially reporting that they had scattered, unconfirmed reports of a “backlash” against innocent Americans from the terrorist attacks. The clear implication was that the press did not believe the many people of color decrying these incidents. As for the so-called “backlash,” the term implies the commission of a deed that resulted in a response. What had the Sikhs in the United States done?
The media also failed to pick up on the fact that, in keeping with Bush’s initial Wild West rhetoric, angry “patriots” throughout the nation had become bounty hunters–racists looking for a good excuse to act on their bigotry. Both of these irresponsible omissions have had dire effects for Sikh, Muslim, and Arab Americans.
Journalists took an inordinate amount of time to report that in addition to hate crimes being committed by bigots, law enforcement officials were waging their own war on the “other.” Racial profiling returned with a vengeance in the wake of the terrorist attacks, and most Americans–sadly even many African Americans and Latinos, who know firsthand the injuries caused by this racist policy–were reported to be in favor of it. Emboldened with this knowledge, law enforcement officials across the United States detained and mistreated hundreds of innocent Americans because of their appearance. Others were forced off planes by pilots or crew members for the same reason.
Due to their visibility and appearance, Sikh Americans were proportionately singled out for harassment more than any other ethnic or religious group in the country during the hate crime epidemic. A Sikh community website (www.attacksonsikhs.com) documents the number of incidents at 288- half that reported in Muslim and Arab communities. This is despite the fact that Sikh Americans number less than one-tenth the population of Muslims in the U.S.
While Sikh Americans were among the main targets of the hate crime epidemic, the media failed, in many instances to mention them in the headlines of news stories examining the issue. The titles of many such articles usually mentioned only Muslim and Arab Americans, although the body of many of these pieces began with or referred to the murder of Sikh American Balbir Singh Sodhi–the first person murdered by domestic terrorists in the wake of the attacks in New York and Washington, D.C.-as well as numerous other attacks directed at members of the Sikh faith.
The salience, weight, and lasting power of those first images broadcast by the media, subsequently had a devastating effect on the lives of 450,000 Sikh Americans. This fact became all the more poignant in the following days, as it became evident from the pictures of the hijackers and their suspected accomplices, that not one wore a turban. Still, the attacks against Sikh Americans did not abate in any appreciable way. Sikh Americans continued to receive verbal and gestured threats, were spat upon, had garbage thrown at them, were run off the road and tailgated, were shot at with guns, and suffered numerous cases of arson, firebombings, beatings, and at least one murder.
The very first attack on a Sikh took place shortly after the second plane hit the World Trade Center. Amrik Singh was looking up at the crash when he realized a small group of men across the street were yelling at him, “Take that fucking turban off, you terrorist!” They chased him into a subway station before Singh escaped. A few miles away in Richmond Hill, Queens, a group of young white men attacked 60-year-old Attar Singh with a nail-studded baseball bat. In response to the beating, which left Singh severely injured, local leaders told Sikh residents in the area to stay indoors as much as possible.
Balbir Singh Sodhi, who wore a turban and beard and worked in Mesa, Arizona, was the first person murdered in the post-attack hate crimes. Despite the national significance of his murder, very few of the national tele-vision reports or print media articles about his death, included a photo of him–a fact made even more appalling because Sodhi was killed precisely because of his appearance. His face was never shown, and he was never truly humanized, thus preventing Americans from actually imagining him as a person, murdered because of the way he looked.
The one image of a Sikh American that was transmitted across the country by nearly every major media outlet was of Sher Singh, who was pulled off a train by authorities in Providence, Rhode Island for looking “suspicious.” The news that a possible terrorist had been arrested spread like wildfire, and national media outlets quickly picked up the story. Almost immediately, video clips of a young man with a green turban and a long, flowing beard being led away in handcuffs flooded the airwaves. CNN, Fox, and the Associated Press carried video and photos of Sher Singh, who was subsequently released and charged only with a misdemeanor for carrying a kirpan. A kirpan–a small, ceremonial sword–is a Sikh religious article of faith that those who agree to live according to the strict discipline of the Sikh faith must carry at all times. The charge against Sher Singh was later dropped because of the obvious religious nature of the kirpan. Nonetheless, his image flooded the airwaves and internet over the next few days –long after it had been established that he had nothing to do with the terrorist attacks.
The images on television neatly fir the stereotype of a terrorist that the American media had concocted. By showing Sher Singh being led away in handcuffs, and mentioning that the train was stopped because of the presence of “suspicious” individuals, the media managed to firmly associate Sher Singh–and those who look like him–with the terrorist attacks. In fact, they ignored the real story, that of racial profiling by authorities who arrested and harassed an innocent American. It is unimaginable that a story about a man arrested on a minor weapons charge could have risen to such a level of national prominence if the accused had not been wearing a turban.
Race, Representation, and the American Media
The racial bias in the media is finally being recognized by editors and reporters, who have begun to realize that that lack of diversity in their ranks undermines their journalistic credibility. Explained David Yarnold, managing editor of the San Jose Mercury News and diversity chairman of the Associated Press Managing Editors, “In order for a newspaper to be accurate, it should look like its community.” He went on to confess that, “In essence, we’re admitting that America’s newspapers are fundamentally inaccurate on this critical measure. This recognition, although hardly revelatory for anyone studying the media and its work, is a start. Media bias must be earnestly confronted and addressed by reporters and editors, and not only through overdue efforts at diversifying the newsrooms. The upper echelons of media organizations, where the real decisions are made, must also begin to reflect the racial and gender makeup of our nation. Most importantly, members of the media must begin to critically assess the bias that repeatedly seeps into their work, and attempt to reassess the manner in which they engage in their vocation. They must ascertain why reporters across the nation continue to depict people of color and members of non-Christian faiths with stereotypical formulas that have long since been discredited. Without such honest and painful introspection, the American media will never be able to play the critical role demanded of it in a democratic society.
Jaideep Singh is managing director for the Sikh Mediawatch and Resource Task Force (SMART), a media and civil rights advocacy organization.
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