👳🏼♂️ How Sikh-Americans Transformed Your Civil Rights
On this MLK Day, a story of relentless advocacy at scale
I have had the privilege of collaborating with and often being being on the receiving end of the relentless advocacy of many Sikh-American organizations. Perhaps no other community of people has impressed me with their ability to raise capital, organize at a grassroots level, and achieve success so rapidly that they almost drove parts of their own advocacy organizations “out of business.”
Here’s what Sikh-Americans have achieved in the last two decades:
September 11, 2001 shattered America’s sense of invincibility and New York City’s sense of safety. But it also ripped apart the cloak of anonymity that shrouded many of America’s small ethnic and religious immigrant communities.
In the wake of the attack, American-Muslims, South Asians, and Arab-Americans found themselves dealing with the burden of explaining who they were. Where before they had all been “Indians” or “Arabs” - now they found themselves going to great lengths to distinguish themselves:
“No, I am from Syria, not Afghanistan”
“Well Sri Lanka is an island and Burma isn’t”
“Yeah, I’m not eating because I’m fasting. And before you ask, yes … I won’t be drinking water either.”
But perhaps most poignantly,
“I am Sikh, and this turban I am wearing does not mean I am a member of al-Qaida.”
Though large in number around the world, the Sikh-American community was and still remains relatively small, accounting for less than 0.1% of the American population.
But since 9/11 their work has led to an outsized impact on your civil and human rights.
I’ll tell you why in a bit, but for now its important that you know that practicing Sikhs maintain a physical identity that is central to their faith, which makes them distinct even in their native South Asia. Five “articles of faith” comprise the ritualistic components of this identity: kesh (unshorn hair), kanga (small comb), kara (steel bracelet), kirpan (religious article resembling a knife), and kachera (soldier-shorts). Beyond identity, these articles and objects represent a vow and a commitment to the values of the Sikh religion.
The turban was historically worn by royalty in South Asia, and the Gurus adopted this practice as a way of asserting the sovereignty and equality of all people - SC
Perhaps the most visual of these physical traditions is the Sikh turban, worn by practicing Sikhs. For a Sikh, wearing a turban asserts a public commitment to maintaining the values and ethics of the tradition, including service, compassion, and honesty.
But they aren’t the only ones who wear turbans … Hindu monks, Sufi scholars, people from Armenia to the Philippines all wear religious or ceremonial headgear to indicate nobility, commitment or self-sacrifice.
In addition to these diverse multitudes, turbans were also worn by the leaders of al-Qaida, the Taliban and later by many members of ISIS, a characterization emphasized in the wake of 9/11 by American media which often focused on depicting a turban-clad Osama bin Laden in traditional garb.
A Sikh person’s visual identity, combined with the fact that many Americans had no idea who Sikhs were, led to the mistaken assumption by many Americans that Sikhs were Muslims. After 9/11, those who blamed American-Muslims for the attack proceeded to harass, and in some cases violently attack, those who most clearly “looked like Osama,”
Sikh-Americans reported over 300 hate crimes within a month of 9/11. The most notorious of these was the murder of Balbir Singh Sodi, who was mistakenly profiled as an American-Muslim by a man looking to “shoot some towel-heads”
By 2008, a tenth of all Sikh-Americans reported having experienced harassment or being the target of violence. Things got even worse in 2012 when Michael Page shot and killed six people at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin.
Sikh-American organizations responded by becoming some of the most successful civil rights advocates in the world
Faced with this, the small, tight-knit Sikh community eschewed victimhood and instead chose to fight aggressively for their place in the pantheon of American civil rights leaders, and by doing so they have protected your rights as well.
Amongst their greatest achievements:
They helped make schools safer for kids.
Because Sikh-American children are bullied at a rate more than two times the national average, organizations like the Sikh Coalition have conducted significant research into anti-bullying programs and policies. Much of this research now informs nationwide anti-bullying programs, from which your children likely benefit.
They made it easier for religious minorities to serve in the armed forces.
Practicing Sikhs serve proudly in the armed forces of dozens of nations, but were prevented from serving with their articles of faith in the United States. After a lengthy legal battle, U.S. Army Captain Simratpal Singh won a long-term religious accommodation in 2016 that allowed him to maintain the articles of his Sikh faith while serving. He created precedent for numerous other vets from different faith and lifestyle backgrounds to begin advocating for themselves, like Muslim JAG Corps officer, Captain Maysaa Ouza, who was granted an accommodation that allowed her to wear the hijab (religious head covering) in 2018.
They transformed the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).
Throughout the early 2000’s TSA officers were being hired at a rapid pace and dealing with a slate of new rules and regulations that seemed to be issued on a whim every month. 550 million people transit the United States every year from all parts of the world and religious backgrounds, but incoming TSA officers had almost no cultural competency - male officers would often touch female religious garments, other officers would ask improper cultural questions, and some would get angry at travelers with limited English proficiency.
And perhaps no single community felt the brunt of these issues than the Sikh-American community. A turban was dense and would set off alarms, and taking one on or off in public was impractical and improper. And the kanga, kara and kirpan - all metallic objects - made it a nightmare to go through airport security without arousing undue suspicion.
But through the consistent application of public pressure, hard-nosed advocacy (much of which I witnessed first-hand), litigation, media attention and the creation of practical advocacy products like the FlyRights app, Sikh American organizations transformed the TSA from an aggressive, overly securitized organization to a friendlier, less intrusive and far more diverse government agency.
So what can we learn?
Here’s what many Sikh-American organizations and sub-communities did that worked:
They collaborated and cooperated. Even though many Sikh-American advocates could have refused to cooperate with American-Muslim organizations out of unfounded resentment, distrust, or anger - they did not. Instead, they formed coalitions and mutual cooperative agreements, often directly advancing the work and interests of Muslim Americans - because securing the rights of that community also led to a safer country for all Sikh Americans. Something I am personally so grateful for.
They focused on what was in their control. Self-pity is a common reaction to trauma … organized advocacy as a response to violence is phenomenally uncommon. For a number of reasons, some of which have yet to be analyzed, the Sikh-American community responded to stress and trauma by focusing on what they could do about the problem, rather than obsessing on the problem itself.
They pursued practical and concrete solutions to complex problems. An app that tracks discrimination at airports, specific legislation to address school bullying, an art exhibition, documentaries … it is truly remarkable what a practical approach to social justice has allowed a community of less than half a million people to achieve in so short a time.
MLK would have been 93 today, on the day we honor him. Sikh-Americans aren’t a monolith, but I’d like to think he would have been proud of the work this community of advocates has done to advance the rights of all Americans.
🎧 Up Next on the UnfairNation Podcast
Next week: My interview with Amy McGrath!
✈️ Catch Me If You Can
Phoenix, AZ | Jan 19
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A new year means a new way to connect with your colleagues and co-workers - check out Accent - a new startup looking to change the way we do corporate gifts - started by one of my favorite cousins :)
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The New Localism: How Cities Can Thrive in the Age of Populism, by Gene Kim
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