The Mercury News – Sikh massacre at Oak Creek 5 years ago reminds us that we can teach against hate

Jagdeep Kaur Sekhon

Op/Ed, 3 August 2017. On 5 August 2012, a white supremacist opened fire on worshipers at a gurdwara, a Sikh house of worship, in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, killing six and seriously injuring several more. The attack ranks among the deadliest hate crimes in USA history.

As Sikhs mark the five-year anniversary of this tragedy, I worry that the threat of hate crimes will continue to haunt our communities until schools, politicians, and ordinary Americans make bias prevention a priority.

The Sikh religion was founded in Punjab, South Asia five centuries ago by Guru Nanak. Social justice and nondiscrimination are cornerstones of the faith. Devout Sikhs express their commitment by wearing a religious uniform that includes a turban, which is worn as a reminder to lead an ethical life and help the less fortunate.

But there is widespread ignorance among Americans about who Sikhs are and what we believe.

After 9/11, this confusion turned to hostility and violence, as ignorant bigots began to conflate Sikhs with followers of Osama bin Laden. Sixteen years later, the risk of anti-Sikh hate crime is as high as ever, and the rise in xenophobic rhetoric in our political discourse has added another layer of worry.

Recently, a man at San Francisco International Airport told my family and me to “go back” to where we came from, even though we are from California and our nationality is American.

This is not a problem exclusively for Sikhs. The Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that there have been 250,000 hate crimes in the United States each year from 2004 and 2015.

Americans of all races, religions, and sexual orientations are targeted because of hate, and there is no comfort in any of us assuming this is a problem that only affects other people.

I believe proactive steps can be taken to reduce the risk and incidence of hate crimes.

Our schools need to teach children to respect and appreciate diversity.

According to the Sikh Coalition, Sikh students in California experience high rates of bullying. Muslim and LGBTQ students face similar challenges in our state’s public schools.

When children are demeaned or physically harmed at school because of their identity, parents and educators should work together to create bias prevention programs. If bias is normalized in schools, we should not be surprised when it infects future generations.

Our politicians need to create platforms and meeting spaces to unify their communities against hate.

Unlike President Trump, who likens immigrants to snakes, other public officials can use their convening power to organize hate crime prevention forums for their constituents.

Much like neighborhood crime watch programs, if police, schools, businesses, interfaith groups, and concerned citizens can build local partnerships to combat bias, I am confident we can make progress.

Finally, hate crime prevention is largely a function of how we decide to treat one another.

This is a conscious choice for each of us. According to Sikh theology, all human beings are equal under God; the racial, religious, and gendered labels we apply to each other are irrelevant, and what ultimately count are the content of our character and common humanity.

If we all make an effort to see the world through this lens, then collectively we will make major strides toward stopping the spread of hate.

As Sikh Americans remember Oak Creek, I ask my fellow Californians to say a prayer for the lives that were lost on that day and pledge to build a more welcoming society, in whatever capacity we can, one step at a time.

Jagdeep Kaur Sekhon, who was raised in Emeryville, is a student of UC Berkeley and a volunteer for the Sikh Coalition, the nation’s largest Sikh civil rights organization. She wrote this for The Mercury News.


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