This week we commemorate the one year anniversary of the hate violence that gripped the community of Oak Creek, Wisconsin, when a gunman stormed into the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin on the morning of August 5, 2012. Our hearts are with the families and loved ones of Paramjit Kaur, Prakash Singh, Ranjit Singh, Satwant Singh Kaleka, Sita Singh and Suveg Singh who lost their lives in the massacre. As we reflect on this day one year later, it is important to place the Oak Creek tragedy in a broader history and context of racial and religious injustice in our country. To help us understand, reflect and move forward, SAALT is featuring a blog series with a range of diverse voices.
The views and opinions expressed in this blog post does not reflect the positions or opinions of SAALT. They should be understood solely as the personal opinions of the author.
It is ironic that hate crimes are generic acts. In the mind of the perpetrator, they are specific acts, but in reality, hate crimes are generic attacks against “others”. The tragedy of the attack at Oak Creek one year ago was that Paramjit Kaur, Satwant Singh Kaleka, Prakash Singh, Sita Singh, Ranjit Singh, and Suveg Singh were killed, not because of who were they were as individuals, but because they were “others”. Oak Creek was another in
a long list of hate crimes against “others”. Today, it is those perceived to be Muslim American. Thirty years ago when Vincent Chin was killed, it was those perceived to be Japanese. To Wade Michael Page, it didn’t matter who he killed as long as his victims fit his concept of the enemy.
For 150 years, AAPIs have struggled to gain acceptance as Americans. That struggle led to the creation of the Japanese American Citizens League in 1929, to the organization of OCA in 1973, and more recently to the birth of SAALT. As new AAPI communities join the growing landscape of Americans, they face many of the same hurdles as early Chinese and Japanese immigrants, and today there are over 30 national AAPI organizations.
Within days of Oak Creek, there was a unified AAPI response to the tragedy. JACL members contributed to funds to provide mental health services. The coalition of NCAPA organizations has held together to push for the expansion of data reporting on hate crimes to include crimes against Sikh, Hindu, and Arab Americans. Individually, each of the organizations has a small voice in a country of over 319 million residents. In collaboration, AAPI groups represent the fastest growing segment of the population. Oak Creek was a reminder of the importance of coalitions, and the first steps were an important emergency response.
Now comes the hard part – a coordinated, long-range program to address a belief that is deeply embedded in the psyche of too many that AAPIs and others of color are something other than American. The problem is common to all AAPI communities. Random acts of violence against AAPIs are almost always accompanied by racial epithets. Bullying is the “canary in the mine” for hate crimes, and coalition efforts need to drill down to what is happening in our schools by demanding further breakdown of data on school bullying.
It is important that the American story of AAPIs become part of the larger landscape. Today, most history centers on the accomplishments of white males. Sikh Americans have made enormous contributions to the national story. The work of Dr. Narinder Singh Kapany, the father of fiber-optics, or Congressman Dalip Singh Saund should be a part of our American history. Portrayals of Sikh Americans in network programming should be visible and accurately represented. As long as stereotypes are perpetrated in the media, it is difficult to counter hate philosophy.
This is not just a challenge for AAPI organizations, but for the broader civil rights community. It is a call to action.
Japanese American Citizens League, JACL
Priscilla Ouchida is the Executive Director for the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL). She was appointed in 2012, and is the first female to serve in the position. Ouchida also sits on the Executive Board of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition of leading national civil rights organizations. She is the Vice President of Membership for the National Coalition of Asian Pacific Americans (NCAPA), and Co-Chair of the Asian Pacific American Media Coalition.