On the evening of Sept. 21, Prabhjot Singh was attacked by a group of young men on bicycles as he walked near his home in Harlem. Singh is a Sikh man of Indian origin who wears a turban and has a long beard. As the young men punched him in his face and upper body, they shouted “get Osama” and “terrorist.” Moments later, a Somali Muslim woman wearing a headscarf was attacked nearby.
The attack on Singh has received widespread media attention, thanks in part to the continued efforts at the Sikh Coalition to shed light on intolerance and hatred. Singh has also been outspoken about hatred before and since the attack and co-authored an op-ed in the New York Times last year calling for improved hate-crime tracking.
In the news coverage, one common narrative that has followed this incident, and that of other crimes against Sikhs, is that the attack was the result of a “mistaken identity” and that is was a “misdirected” hate crime actually intended for a Muslim.
A recent survey, titled “Turban Myths,” revealed that 70 percent of Americans misidentify turban-wearers in the United States as Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or Shinto. The study also found that nearly half of Americans surveyed incorrectly believe that Sikhism is a sect of Islam and associate the turban with Osama bin Laden.
Given these perceptions, it’s easy to understand why the concept of “mistaken identity” has taken hold. But this rationale is problematic. It suggests that there is a “correct” target of hate crimes, which we know is never true. The problem is not that Singh’s attackers mistook him for a Muslim; the problem is that some individuals feel justified in expressing xenophobic hatred through violence.
Further, to only see Singh’s attack through the lens of Islamophobia — which, no doubt, is a factor in many cases — ignores the long history of Sikhs as part of American communities and their ongoing struggles against xenophobia, racial profiling, job discrimination, harassment and violence.
While 9/11 heightened the fear of and violence toward Sikhs, Muslims, South Asians and Arabs, there is a documented history of hatred intentionally directed at Sikhs dating back to at least 1907, according to Singh’s op-ed.
Just last year, a white supremacist attacked a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, killing six Sikh Americans. Again, the speculation was that the perpetrator, Wade Michael Page, intended to attack Muslims. It is impossible to know exactly what motivated Page, who killed himself after the attack. What is known is that he had white supremacist ties and several individuals with similar leanings sympathized with him after the attack.
One such supporter was Alex Linder, a neo-Nazi who runs the racist website Vanguard News Network.
“Take your dead and go back to India and dumped their ashes in the Ganges, Sikhs,” Linder wrote on his forum. “You don’t belong here in the country my ancestors fought to found, and deeded to me and mine, their posterity. Even if you came here legally, and even if you haven’t done anything wrong personally. Go home, Sikhs. Go home to India where you belong. This is not your country, it belongs to white men.”
This summer, the FBI announced it will finally track hate crimes against Sikhs, Hindus and Arabs starting in 2015. The move was a victory for advocacy groups who have spent years fighting for the change. Previously, all such crimes were categorized broadly as anti-Muslim, contributing to the “mistaken identity” trope.
Having an improved way to track hate crimes is major step toward implementing policy to prevent future attacks. Yet continued attacks and rhetorical endorsements of them show us that bigotry remains a serious problem and that there is still work to be done.