Oak Creek: Legacies of Racism and the Road Ahead

August 22, 2012

photos of candlelight vigil at Union Square, courtesy of author

The recent killing of six people at the Sikh temple in Oak
Creek, WI, has forced us to think about how we should understand such
expressions of hatred and violence. The incident is being discussed primarily in
terms of “mistaken identity,” rooted in lack of knowledge about different
religions and cultures, or in terms of individuals associated with fringe white
supremacist groups. But where do these popular tropes lead the conversation

Those who make the case about ignorance and misdirected
violence argue that Sikhs are being wrongly associated with Muslims, 9/11
attacks, Al Qaeda, and terrorism. The principal problem with this analysis is
the assumption that there is a
community that can be rightly associated with terrorism and thus targeted. We need look no farther than the deceased
gunman himself, a white Christian, to understand that terrorism based on hatred
of those who are different cannot be attributed to any one community or

The other argument that has gained ground, after the gunman’s
association with white supremacist groups came to light, attributes this action
to a crazy fringe of the political spectrum, far removed from the American
mainstream. This analysis of the Oak Creek incident presumes that racial
hostility against Sikhs, Muslims, and South Asians is an aberration, without
seeing the ways in which these attitudes are extensions of the mainstream. Both
these responses -- the mistaken identity and far right fringe analysis --
minimize the depth and breadth of racial dynamics in US society that produce
incidents like Oak Creek.

Sikhs have a long history in the US that is deeply intertwined
with the evolution of the US racial order. Sikh migration began in the late 19th century when they first reached the West Coast and found work in agricultural
fields, lumber mills, and railroads. However, they were brutally attacked as
“ragheads,” by white workers and became
targets of race riots in Bellingham,
WA (1907), and Live Oak, CA (1908). The racial hostility found legal manifestation
in the 1923 case Thind v. United States,
in which the Court decided to deny citizenship to Thind, a Sikh from India,
because even if technically Caucasian, he was not what the mainstream would consider white, and was hence ineligible
for citizenship. Even though the US racial structure has changed dramatically
since then, it is critical to keep in mind the deeply racialized historical constructions
of who belongs to the nation.     

Sikhs embody racial, religious, and cultural differences in highly
visible ways, which makes them easy targets. The first person killed in a hate
crime following 9/11 was an Indian Sikh from Mesa, AZ. His killer was reported
to have told the police that he thought that the victim was somehow associated
with the community that the 9/11 attackers belonged to. Such egregious hate
violence has been accompanied by numerous cases of discrimination, verbal and
physical hostility, and attacks on places of worship that have not received as
much media attention. The Oak Creek killings thus have to be seen as a part of
this ongoing targeting rather than a fringe action.  

There is no doubt that anti-Muslim sentiments are a big part
of how Sikhs, South Asians, and Arabs have become the targets of attack, but to
expect that such sentiments would lead to attack on Muslims alone is not to
understand the true nature of racism.  Racism, after all, is not based on an enlightened
knowledge about religions, cultures, and people. Rather, it approaches
physical, cultural, and religious differences through the lens of ethnocentrism
and white superiority. Racism does not care who you are because ultimately
racism is about the racists: about their self-perception as  victims. After all, for the Oak Creek killer,
it was the apparent loss of white domination that propelled his anger, and for
him all nonwhites were “dirt.” The extreme white supremacist views of Michael
Page may have motivated him to resort to this violent act, but the ideology of
white racial and cultural entitlement is more commonplace. In fact, any
analytical or political response to the Oak Creek tragedy has to confront this
ideology squarely.

Faced with innumerable counts of attacks and intimidation, the
affected communities reacted differently: some emphasized educating the public
about differences in identities, others overtly tried to distance themselves
from ‘suspect identities,’ and still others highlighted the centrality of
anti-Muslim sentiments in understanding the experiences of these communities. The
Sikh community continues to struggle with the issue of mistaken identity, and while
some leading Sikh organizations have cautioned against  this trope, it remains an important frame of
analysis both within and outside the community. My own research suggests that
despite continued racial targeting of all segments of  the community after September 11, 2001,
mobilization against targeting has been primarily along religious lines,
barring a few exceptions. A panethnic mobilization among South Asians,
inclusive of different religious groups and nationalities, has been rather slow
in developing.

This is a moment to learn from other Asian American
communities who realized the pitfalls of 
the “mistaken identity” trope, through their own painful history. The 1982 killing of Vincent Chin, a Chinese American mistaken
as Japanese and killed in retaliation for job losses due to increasing Japanese
autos, became a teaching moment for the community. His death resulted in
significant pan-Asian antiracist organizing and was a major contrast to the World
War II Japanese internment experience, when other Asian communities wore
buttons and posted signs explicitly dissociating themselves from the Japanese. Challenges
to maintaining and building this solidarity are numerous for Asian Americans,
but it is important for Sikhs, Muslims, and South Asians to draw upon this history
to understand the divisive potential of racism, and to be aware of multiple responses.
One can hope that Oak Creek becomes a moment when communities impacted by post
9/11 racial hostility reject the “mistaken identity” trope and build coalitions
among those who are faced with similar racial experiences.  Let the spirit of Chardi Kala, an expression in Sikh tradition symbolizing eternal optimism
lead to new possibilities in response to the Oak Creek tragedy.

* * *

Sangay Mishra is a
postdoctoral scholar at the department of Political Science and the Center for
Global Islamic Studies at Lehigh University, PA. He can be contacted on gmail
at sanmishra68.