WASHINGTON, D.C. (Aug. 5, 2015) — Three years ago today on August 5, 2012 a known white supremacist murdered six Sikh-Americans at their Gurdwara or place of worship in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. SAALT continues to mourn and honor the victims: Suveg Singh, Satwant Singh Kaleka, Ranjit Singh, Paramjit Kaur, Sita Singh, and Prakash Singh. This past weekend, the Oak Creek community came together along with hundreds from around the country for the annual Chardi Kala 6K Run/Walk in the spirit of hope and relentless optimism.
Oak Creek was a tragedy – not only for South Asian and Sikh American communities, but for the nation as a whole. Unfortunately, what happened that day is becoming less of an anomaly due to a number of reasons: South Asians are the most rapidly growing demographic group in the country settling in new destination communities. And, unrelenting hate violence continues to target South Asians and communities of color at large.
In the last six months alone, there have been violent incidents targeting Hindu, Arab, and Sikh communities in New Jersey, North Carolina, and California, respectively. Current policies do not allow for such incidents to be easily categorized as hate crimes. This must change. These events are also part of an alarming trend of white supremacist activity, further illustrated by the deadly shooting at the Mother Emanuel AME church in Charleston in June followed by a wave of arsons at Black churches in the South. Communities of color are increasingly facing a common threat of violence from white supremacy, even as our nation grows more racially and ethnically diverse. In a 2011 study, PolicyLink estimated that the United States will be majority people of color by the year 2040.
Sadly, this growth is paired with a current political debate that is increasingly characterized by political rhetoric that paints our communities as disloyal, suspicious, and un-American. SAALT’s report Under Suspicion, Under Attack, released last September documented 78 instances of xenophobic political speech over a three-year period spanning 2011-2014, of which nearly two-thirds occurred at the national level.
We can only expect the debate to get worse this election cycle. GOP presidential contender Donald Trump has already described Mexican immigrants as “rapists and murderers.” Republicans in Congress continue to push an anti-sanctuary cities bill that will undermine relationships between law enforcement and immigrant communities. We have also seen the Countering Violent Extremism program emerge from federal government this year that disproportionately focuses on Muslim communities and not enough on the real threats of white supremacy and domestic terrorism.
But, our communities continue to push for change. The Oak Creek shooting helped drive a critical change in the FBI hate crimes reporting protocol this year. For the first time, there are now categories for crimes motivated by anti-Sikh, Hindu and Arab sentiment. The White House also created a high-level Interagency Task Force last year focused on addressing hate violence nationwide.
However, it is critical that there are strong hate crime policies at the state and local level, which is where the relationships between local residents, community-based organizations, and law enforcement are most important. The mayor of Oak Creek coordinated his city staff, police, and fire departments to develop a model first response municipal policy after the shooting. The Arab American Association of New York and others successfully advocated for the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office to establish a unit dedicated to investigating hate crimes last year. This is the kind of infrastructure that all communities need to address and hopefully prevent hate violence.
In the spirit of Chardi Kala or relentless optimism, we honor the victims of that tragic day three years ago and stand with our 51 community partners nationwide to help stem the tide of relentless violence targeted at our communities and all communities of color.