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Shooting at the Gurdwara: The Sense of White Supremacy

Friday 31 August 2012, by siawi3

AUGUST 06, 2012

Yesterday morning the orgies of the lone gunman took hold
in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, a town in the dragnet of
Milwaukee. He targeted a Gurdwara, the religious home of
the local Sikh community. The gunman entered the Gurdwara,
and as if in mimicry of the school shootings, stalked the
worshippers in the halls of the 17,000 square foot "Sikh
Temple of Wisconsin." Police engaged the gunman, who
wounded at least one officer. The gunman killed at least
seven Sikhs, wounding many more. He was then killed. A few
hours after the shooting Ven Boba Ri, a committee member
of the Gurdwara told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, "It’s
pretty much a hate crime. It’s not an insider."

The local police smartly said that this is an act of
domestic terrorism. The FBI concurred.

This is the not the first act of violence against Sikhs in
the United States.

That story begins in the 19th century, when Sikhs migrated
to the US, fleeing British colonialism for far-flung
pastures. Many landed along the western coast of the
United States, working alongside Japanese, Mexican and
Filipino workers to make California into a fruit-producer
and Oregon and Washington into major lumber producers. But
they were not welcomed. Riots in Bellingham, Washington
(1907) and Live Oak, California (1908) targeted the "rag
heads,“the turban-wearing Sikhs. The mob”stormed
makeshift Indian residences, stoned Indian workers and
successfully orchestrated the non-involvement of local
police." The Bellingham Morning Reveille ran a drawing of
a “Sikh” man with the caption, "This is the type of man
driven from this city as the result of last night’s
demonstration by a mob of 500 men and boys." It was a mark
of pride to have cleansed the city of the Sikhs.

The Sikhs didn’t take this lying down. A decade later, one
Sikh man bragged, "I used to go to Maryville every
Saturday. One day a ghora [white man] came out of a bar
and motioned to me, saying, ’Come here, slave!’ I said I
was no slave man. He told me that his race ruled India and
I hit him and got away fast."

Anti-Sikh violence does not reside only in the early part
of the 20th century. It returned a century later, when,
after 9/11, Sikh men and women were targeted once more for
their turban and head-scarf. Since Osama Bin Laden wore a
turban, it was the turban that attracted the racist to the
Sikhs. As I note in Uncle Swami, within the first week
after 9/11, a disproportionately large number of the 645
bias attacks took place against Sikhs. The statement on
the Oak Creek shootings that came from the activist group
South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT) drew a
straight line between the post-9/11 violence and this
attack, "While the facts are still emerging, this event
serves as a tragic reminder of violence in the form of
hate crimes that Sikhs and many members of the South Asian
community have endured since September 11th, 2001."

Two quick reactions to the Oak Creek violence raised the
hackles of some of the sharp organizers in the South Asian
American community:

* This was an act of senseless violence. “No,” said Rinku
Sen, publisher of Colorlines magazines. This is not
“senseless,” she noted, but “racist.” This is the
fifty-seventh mass shooting in the past thirty years in
the United States. Each one is treated as the work of a
freak. Patterns are shunned. Structural factors such as
the prevalence of guns and the lack of social care for
mentally disturbed people should of course be in the
frame. But so too should the preponderance of socially
acceptable hatred against those seen as outsiders.
Intellectually respectable opinions about who is an
American (produced, for example, by Sam Huntington, Who
Are We? The Challenge to National Identity) comes
alongside the politician’s casual racism (Romney’s recent
suggestion that the US and the UK are "part of an
Anglo-Saxon heritage," erased in a whip lash the diversity
of the United States and Britain). Racist attacks are
authorized by a political culture that allows us to think
in nativist terms, to bemoan the “browning” of America. By
2034, the Census department estimates, the non-white
population of the US is going to be in the majority. With
the political class unwilling to reverse the tide of
jobless growth and corporate power, the politicians
stigmatize the outsider as the problem of poverty and
exploitation. This stigmatization, as Moishe Postone
argues, obscures "the role played by capitalism in the
reproduction of grief." Far easier to let the Sikhs and
the Latinos, the Muslims and the Africans bear the social
cost for economic hopelessness and political powerlessness
than to target the real problem: the structures that
benefit the 1% and allow them to luxuriate in Richistan.

* Sikhs are not Muslims. The second argument, now cliched,
is to make the case that this is violence at the wrong
address. Sikhs did nothing wrong, they are peace-loving
and so on. It assumes that there are people who did do
something wrong, are war-mongering and therefore deserve
to be targeted. The liberal gesture of innocence has
within it the sharp edge of Islamaphobia. It seems to
suggest that Muslims are the ones who should bear this
violence, since their ilk did the attacks on 9/11 and they
are, all two billion of them, at war with the United
States. The attack on Sikhs is not a mistaken attack.
Sikhs are not mistaken for Muslims, but seen as part of
the community of outsiders who are, as Patrick Buchanan
puts it in States of Emergency: The Third World Invasion
and Conquest of America, "a fifth column inside the belly
of the beast...Should America lose her ethnic-cultural core
and become a nation of nations, America will not survive."
Wisconsin’s Governor Scott Walker is not far from all
this, being a fan of the Arizona anti-human legislation.
The Sikh Coalition, an anti-bias group, is fully aware
that this is not simply a situation of mistaken identity.
Its 2008 report, Making Our Voices Heard, notes that
although it is not the case that Sikhs are members of the
Taliban or clones of Bin Laden, it is this recurrent
identification that has by now "created an environment in
which Sikhs are regularly singled out for abuse and
mistreatment by both private and, at times, public
actors." Strikingly, forty-one percent of Sikhs in New
York City reported being called derogatory names, half of
the Sikh children reported being teased or harassed
because of their Sikh identity and one hundred percent of
Sikhs report having to endure secondary screenings at some
US airports.

Sapreet Kaur of the Sikh Coalition offered her take of the
situation, "There have been multiple hate crime shootings
within the Sikh community in recent years and the natural
impulse of our community is to unfortunately assume the
same in this case."

Vijay Prashad is the author of Uncle Swami: South Asians
in America Today (New Press, 2012).