In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Balbir Singh Sodhi — a Sikh father, husband, and business owner living in Mesa, Arizona — was stunned and heartbroken just like the rest of the United States. He donated to a victims fund while out shopping, reportedly handing over all the cash in his wallet on a whim. He urged his brother and members of the local sangat (Sikh community) to hold a press event calling for interfaith unity. And he bought flowers to plant in front of the Chevron gas station he and his family owned, seeking to remind the world of its beauty during a time of immense grief.
But on September 15, just days after the Twin Towers fell, Mr. Sodhi was shot to death while planting those flowers. It is a cruel irony that he was killed by a man seeking revenge for the very terrorist attacks that Mr. Sodhi was trying to commemorate. According to reports at the time, his murderer said he killed Mr. Sodhi because “he was dark-skinned, bearded, and wore a turban.”
The Sikh articles of faith, including the turban and unshorn hair, are intentionally highly visible markers of Sikh identity. They are meant to remind Sikhs of their obligations to their faith and ensure non-Sikhs can find someone in a crowd to help them during times of need. In the United States, however, they have also served as a beacon for attracting the suspicion and anger of those who single out others as “different” or “un-American.” Older Sikh men will tell stories of being called “Ayatollah” in the 1980s and “Saddam” in the 1990s, just as younger generations have been called “Osama bin Laden” and “Taliban” in the past 20 years.
Mr. Sodhi’s murder, however, not only marks the first known death from a post-9/11 hate crime, but also signifies the institutionalization of anti-Sikh hatred in the United States.
THE UNIQUENESS OF ANTI-SIKH HATRED
In the aftermath of 9/11, news stations repeatedly ran images of Brown-skinned men with beards and turbans in connection with stories about the attacks and the newly started Global War on Terror (GWOT). Subsequently, associations between these identity markers and terrorism became common in the public sphere — and as they trickled down from the national media conversation through educational settings, pop culture, and everything in between, the effect of these associations on the lives of Americans began to become clear.
In the first month after 9/11 alone, the Sikh Coalition, a national civil rights organization tracked more than 300 incidents of discrimination and violent backlash against Sikh Americans. In fact, our organization was founded by a group of volunteer lawyers specifically in response to this kind of violent backlash, and in anticipation that the community would need a source of free, expert legal support. Twenty years later, as we continue working to ensure Sikh Americans can practice their faith fearlessly, the scope of our efforts in courtrooms, classrooms, the community, and the halls of Congress demonstrate how hate against the Sikh community is deeply embedded in our institutions — and how the work required to address it must be pushed forward at the grassroots level.
Anti-Sikh bias takes place at the most personal levels, affecting individuals and communities in public and private spaces where many other Americans are free to exist peacefully.
The Sikh community was, of course, not the only American group targeted by a wave of hate in the aftermath of 9/11. Muslims Americans felt the full brunt of post-9/11 Islamophobia, which spread like wildfire despite early assurances from the Bush administration that the Islamic world was not the enemy of the United States. Other Brown-skinned people beyond Sikhs — Arabs, South Asians, Latinos, and others — were similarly targeted for supposedly being terrorists. But to characterize these hate crimes and bias incidents as cases of “mistaken identity” is deeply problematic: The supposition implies that there is a right or proper target for such hatred, which is fundamentally untrue.
Here is what we know: The post-9/11 experience for Sikh Americans has been uniquely shaped by the tragedy that took place on September 11, 2001. In addition to joining their fellow countrymen and women in grieving the lives lost in the attacks, the Sikh American community has also had to carry an immense weight of trauma and backlash in response to the attacks. Then and now, Sikhs remain disproportionately targeted for hate crimes and bias incidents, relative to the roughly 500,000-strong population in the United States. Recent FBI hate crime data has shown Sikhs to be among the top five most frequently targeted faith groups in the United States; the numbers behind this data, however, are known to be dramatically undercounted, and the federal government only started tracking anti-Sikh hate in 2015.
When considering the institutionalization of hate, we look to how Sikhs have long faced workplace discrimination, wherein companies concerned with image and uniformity push back against simple requests to maintain unshorn hair and wear turbans. Workplace segregation — the practice of separating or hiding certain employees who do not fit formal or informal standards of uniformity in job positions that are not visible to the public — became a more visible issue after 9/11. Sat Hari Singh, also known as Kevin Harrington, was hailed as a hero in the days after 9/11 when his quick thinking as an MTA operator saved lives: He made a unilateral decision to drive his train full of passengers away from downtown in the midst of the attacks. Despite the public praise, however, Singh was told that he had to either “brand” his turban with the MTA logo or be moved to a different position within the organization. Ultimately, it took a lawsuit to keep Singh in his job with his turban unaltered — and later, laws passed in both New York City and statewide to combat the practice of workplace segregation.
The US government also institutionalized discriminatory policies that dramatically affected a wide range of marginalized communities — again, most notably Muslims, but also Sikhs and others. A prime example vis-a-vis the Sikh community is TSA profiling, which in continuing to disproportionately affect turbaned Sikh men not only humiliates individual travellers but perpetuates the public perception that individuals who maintain articles of faith are worthy of fear and suspicion. As a result, when profiling is made permissible by discriminatory policies, it further perpetuates negative stereotypes of entire communities.
Anti-Sikh bias takes place at the most personal levels, affecting individuals and communities in public and private spaces where many other Americans are free to exist peacefully. When young Sikh girls and boys are bullied in school for keeping their long hair, or a Sikh man in a turban is walking to the train and told “go back to your country!,” or a gurdwara (Sikh house of worship) is vandalized with hateful graffiti — these are all markers communicating that Sikhs are not welcome and do not belong in the United States. On their own, these issues have a traumatic effect, and they are only compounded and made more painful by discriminatory policies from government and workplaces, xenophobia in politics, and racist portrayals in the media.
It is also worth noting that in the years since 9/11, the xenophobia fueling anti-Sikh bias has metastasized and shifted, blending with other threats long-present in the American DNA — most notably, white nationalism. On August 5, 2012, a gunman with neo-Nazi ties murdered six Sikhs at their gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. Additional people, including a responding officer, were seriously injured; some, including Baba Punjab Singh, who passed away just last year from injuries he sustained during the attack, had their lives altered forever. At the time, it was the deadliest assault on an American house of worship — and the tragedy that compelled the federal government to finally start tracking anti-Sikh hate crimes. In hindsight, the assault in Oak Creek now looks like something of a bellwether for how post-9/11 hate was evolving into the more virulent white nationalist extremism that increasingly drives mass-casualty events in America today.
That’s why, almost 10 years after Oak Creek and a full two decades past 9/11, we must pause to honor all of the lives that have been lost to hate. Hate does not happen in a vacuum; it grows from fear and prejudice, and can be either nurtured or stunted by anyone from parents to peers or elected officials to strangers on the internet. And like all issues, if left unaddressed, it will continue to grow and divide families, neighbors, and colleagues — and in doing so will continue to intertwine itself with our institutions, furthering systemic discrimination at a point in our history when we should be putting our full efforts into tearing it down.
PUSHING FORWARD WITH OPTIMISM
The work to counter hate goes beyond frank conversations with loved ones, colleagues, and strangers in the grips of xenophobia or prejudice. It means adopting inclusive educational policies and curricula that address hard topics head-on and prioritize learning about diverse faiths, cultures, and histories. It means passing and implementing better laws and policies around hate crimes, from mandating reporting to facilitating effective prosecution. It means encouraging representation and decreasing stereotypes in media portrayals. And it means ending discriminatory practices like profiling and surveillance at the federal level that first epitomized institutionalized hate in the early days after 9/11.
And in the course of this work, there is a lesson from the Sikh faith that can provide guidance for how we can move forward and ensure this problem of hate does not continue to metastasize throughout our society. Sikhs believe in facing adversity with chardi kala, or relentless optimism. When faced with hate over the past two decades, the community pushes forward with strength and resilience rather than fear or blame.
Balbir Singh Sodhi’s family chooses to remember his life and legacy each year with chardi kala, when they gather each year at the gas station where he was killed. That same spirit can be a guiding light for all Americans in how we choose to honor all of the lives lost to and affected by hate in the aftermath of 9/11 — and how we commit to ensuring that all can practice their faith fearlessly for the next 20 years and beyond.
Graham West and Rajanpreet Kaur serve as the Media and Communications Director and Senior Media and Communications Manager of the Sikh Coalition, respectively. Together, they publicize the work of the largest Sikh civil rights organization in the country and push for respectful and responsible coverage of the Sikh American community and the issues that matter to them. Views expressed are their own.
“The Long Tunnel” is a series of articles reflecting on the impact of September 11 and how it has shaped the world we live in today. You can read more in the series here.