From the Field

Born Out of Tragedy, Sikh Coalition Continues to Champion Inclusion & Solidarity

Kalia Abiade • Nov 15, 2013

After learning of the attacks on the World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11, 2001, it didn’t take long for Amardeep Singh to decide his next steps. Singh, a Sikh American and lawyer by training, was living in Washington, D.C. at the time, and knew  all too well the risks of being alone.

“I was born and raised in this country and had seen what happened to Sikhs, for example, during the Iran hostage crisis, during the first Persian Gulf War, after the first attack on the World Trade Center, after the Oklahoma City bombing,” Singh tells Imagine 2050. “My first reaction was to get in my car and drive straight home.”

He was, of course, referring to a history of attacks and hate crimes directed toward Sikh individuals often based on the external signifiers of turbans, beards and brown skin. Singh, who wears a turban and has a beard, says he made the decision to go to his family home in Hoboken, N.J., before even knowing of any such backlash on 9/11.

“If you were a Sikh growing up in America, you kind of knew there was going to be a backlash,” he says. “I mean, you just kind of knew it was coming.”

Unfortunately, he was right. In the New York area, attacks on Sikhs started happening almost immediately the morning of Sept. 11. According to Singh and news reports, Sikhs in the vicinity of the World Trade Center were physically and verbally attacked; a Sikh gurdwara, or house of worship, in Queens was vandalized; a Sikh man coming from another house of worship was beaten with a baseball bat.

That evening, several Sikh individual organizations came together in support of one another, and, thus, the Sikh Coalition was born.

“We issued a release that night saying a coalition of Sikh organizations in New York grieves the attack on our country and call on police to protect all,” says Singh, a co-founder who now serves as the organization’s national director of programs.

Over the past 12 years, the Sikh Coalition has formalized and grown into an organization with a budget of more than $1 million, about a dozen staff members and national reach. The coalition has offices in New York, California and Washington, D.C., and focuses on four major program areas: Advocacy, Community Organization, Education, and Legal. According to Singh, the legal department regularly has 20-30 cases on its docket tackling employment discrimination, profiling, school bullying and hate crimes. The organization even has a Junior Sikh Coalition that runs its own programs and campaigns that intersect with the overall mission of the broader coalition. There is also a broad network of volunteers and activists in communities across the U.S. ready to help launch campaigns and drum up support for the coalition.

“It’s very exciting for us because we’ve always been on this end of knocking on the door and nobody ever answers,” says Education Director Manbeena Kaur. “And finally, we’re now in the position where we make a phone call and they say, “Oh yeah, Sikh Coalition. What do you have to say?”

The coalition recently shared in a victory to improve the way the FBI counts hate crimes to actually recognize attacks against Sikhs, instead of lumping them in the Muslim category. This fall, the organization was successful in getting Walmart and other major retailers to stop selling an offensive “turban and beard” Halloween costume. Last year, Sikh Coalition launched an app called FlyRights, to help air travelers know their rights and immediately report instances of airport security profiling. The coalition is currently running a campaign to urge President Obama to fully accept Sikh Americans, including those who wear turbans, in the branches of the U.S. military. The coalition is also working with state education officials and textbook companies to help publishers include “accurate and comprehensive information on our community as a means of reducing discrimination,” says Kaur.

Even with the impressive growth in structure and influence, there are still many challenges for the coalition. Singh and Kaur agree, the main challenge is that many Americans still have a lot to learn.

“We have to start out by giving a summary of who Sikhs are and what Sikhism is before we can even talk about the rights of Sikh Americans and what Sikhs have gone through in this country,” Kaur says. “That’s the first problem. People just don’t have that basic information.”

Kaur and Singh stress that the presence of Sikhs in America goes back more than 100 years, when early Sikh immigrants came the United States from India. Sikhs were instrumental in the building of the railroads, were depended on in the farms and fields in California and have been crucial to a number of developments in this country. They have also been the targets of discrimination and attacks for almost as long. In 1907, anti-Sikh riots broke out in Bellingham, Wash. Sikhs were chased out of town by xenophobic mobs who accused Sikhs of taking jobs. Today, there is an estimated 500,000 Sikhs in the United States, with concentrations in California and the New York/New Jersey areas.

Despite this long history, Kaur says, “People still look at the turban and beard and think ‘terrorist.’ ”

And, partly because of that perception, Sikh individuals and communities in America continue to be the target of hate crimes, even more than in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. In 2012, a gunman with neoNazi ties burst into a gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, and fired shots, killing six people and injuring three others.

Earlier this year, a Sikh man named Prabhjot Singh was attacked in a possible hate crime in Harlem. He was injured so badly that he needed oral surgery to wire his jaw. He happened to be a professor at Columbia University and well-known within the Sikh community, so his story quickly grabbed the attention of several media outlets and sparked a nationwide conversation about hate crimes. During the coverage of his case, an op-ed he co-write for the New York Times was reintroduced. It stressed the importance of gathering more information on hate crimes against Sikhs.

As was the case with the Oak Creek massacre, many news articles about the Harlem attack emphasized that the attacks were based, at least in part, on the assumption that the victims were thought to be Muslims. In many cases, Sikhs who are attacked are often characterized as being the “wrong target,” as if there is a “right target” for incidents of hatred and violence.

“We are very intentional about not falling into the mistaken identity trap,” Amardeep Singh says. He makes clear that the coalition prioritizes solidarity and refers to many reasons to stick together, including “common experiences in the workplace, in schools, at the border, at the airport.”

“You will not ever hear us say, ‘Hey, we’re not Muslim’ or ‘They got the wrong people,’ ” Singh says. “Civil and human rights are for everyone.”

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