FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Sense of White Supremacy

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 clichéd, 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).

More articles by:

Vijay Prashad’s most recent book is No Free Left: The Futures of Indian Communism (New Delhi: LeftWord Books, 2015).

Weekend Edition
July 20, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Paul Atwood
Peace or Armageddon: Take Your Pick
Paul Street
No Liberal Rallies Yet for the Children of Yemen
Nick Pemberton
The Bipartisan War on Central and South American Women
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Are You Putin Me On?
Andrew Levine
Sovereignty: What Is It Good For? 
Brian Cloughley
The Trump/NATO Debacle and the Profit Motive
David Rosen
Trump’s Supreme Pick Escalates America’s War on Sex 
Melvin Goodman
Montenegro and the “Manchurian Candidate”
Salvador   Rangel
“These Are Not Our Kids”: The Racial Capitalism of Caging Children at the Border
Matthew Stevenson
Going Home Again to Trump’s America
Louis Proyect
Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie Sanders and the Dilemmas of the Left
Patrick Cockburn
Iraqi Protests: “Bad Government, Bad Roads, Bad Weather, Bad People”
Robert Fantina
Has It Really Come to This?
Russell Mokhiber
Kristin Lawless on the Corporate Takeover of the American Kitchen
John W. Whitehead
It’s All Fake: Reality TV That Masquerades as American Politics
Patrick Bobilin
In Your Period Piece, I Would be the Help
Ramzy Baroud
The Massacre of Inn Din: How Rohingya Are Lynched and Held Responsible
Robert Fisk
How Weapons Made in Bosnia Fueled Syria’s Bleak Civil War
Gary Leupp
Trump’s Helsinki Press Conference and Public Disgrace
Josh Hoxie
Our Missing $10 Trillion
Martha Rosenberg
Pharma “Screening” Is a Ploy to Seize More Patients
Basav Sen
Brett Kavanaugh Would be a Disaster for the Climate
David Lau
The Origins of Local AFT 4400: a Profile of Julie Olsen Edwards
Rohullah Naderi
The Elusive Pursuit of Peace by Afghanistan
Binoy Kampmark
Shaking Establishments: The Ocasio-Cortez Effect
John Laforge
18 Protesters Cut Into German Air Base to Protest US Nuclear Weapons Deployment
Christopher Brauchli
Trump and the Swedish Question
Chia-Chia Wang
Local Police Shouldn’t Collaborate With ICE
Paul Lyons
YouTube’s Content ID – A Case Study
Jill Richardson
Soon You Won’t be Able to Use Food Stamps at Farmers’ Markets, But That’s Not the Half of It
Kevin MacKay
Climate Change is Proving Worse Than We Imagined, So Why Aren’t We Confronting its Root Cause?
Thomas Knapp
Elections: More than Half of Americans Believe Fairy Tales are Real
Ralph Nader
Warner Slack—Doctor for the People Forever
Lee Ballinger
Soccer, Baseball and Immigration
Louis Yako
Celebrating the Wounds of Exile with Poetry
Ron Jacobs
Working Class Fiction—Not Just Surplus Value
Perry Hoberman
You Can’t Vote Out Fascism… You Have to Drive It From Power!
Robert Koehler
Guns and Racism, on the Rocks
Nyla Ali Khan
Kashmir: Implementation with Integrity and Will to Resolve
Justin Anderson
Elon Musk vs. the Media
Graham Peebles
A Time of Hope for Ethiopia
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
Homophobia in the Service of Anti-Trumpism is Still Homophobic (Even When it’s the New York Times)
Martin Billheimer
Childhood, Ferocious Sleep
David Yearsley
The Glories of the Grammophone
Tom Clark
Gameplanning the Patriotic Retributive Attack on Montenegro
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail