Photo by Ted Eytan
Three years ago a gunman murdered a group of peaceful worshippers in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. We need to alter our policies—and our political discourse—to make sure that such a tragedy never occurs again.
Unfortunately, what happened that day is becoming less of an anomaly. South Asians are the most rapidly growing demographic group in the country. And unrelenting hate violence continues to target South Asians and communities of color in general.
In the last six months alone, there have been violent attacks on Hindu, Arab, and Sikh communities in New Jersey, North Carolina, and California, respectively. Current policies do not allow for such incidents to be easily categorized as hate crimes. This must change.
And, sadly, our current political debate is increasingly characterized by political rhetoric that paints some communities as disloyal, suspicious and un-American. Our organization’s report, “Under Suspicion, Under Attack,” released last September, documented 78 instances of xenophobic political speech over the previous three years.
For example, presidential candidate Newt Gingrich said in 2012 of President Obama, “I think it is very bizarre that he is desperately concerned to apologize to Muslim fanatics while they are killing young Americans.” Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., the first Muslim-American elected to Congress, was called a “radical Islamist” the same year by his opponent Lynne Torgerson, who then falsely declared that Islam was not fully protected by the First Amendment.
We can only expect the debate to get worse this election cycle. GOP presidential contender Donald Trump has already described Mexican immigrants as “rapists and murderers.” Republicans in Congress continue to push an anti-sanctuary-cities bill that will undermine relationships between law enforcement and immigrant communities. We have also seen the Countering Violent Extremism program emerge from the federal government this year that disproportionately focuses on Muslims and not enough on the real threats of white supremacists and domestic terrorism. The Oak Creek and the Charleston, S.C., shootings are the most violent in this alarming trend.
Communities continue to push for change. The Oak Creek murders helped drive a critical adjustment in the FBI hate crimes reporting protocol this year. For the first time, there are now categories for crimes motivated by anti-Sikh, anti-Hindu and anti-Arab sentiment. The White House also created a high-level Interagency Task Force last year focused on addressing hate violence nationwide.
However, it is critical that there are strong hate crime policies at the state and local level, which is where the relationships between local residents, community-based organizations and law enforcement are most important. The mayor of Oak Creek coordinated his city staff, police and fire departments to develop a model first response municipal policy after the shooting. The Arab American Association of New York and others successfully advocated for the Brooklyn district attorney’s office to establish a unit dedicated to investigating hate crimes last year.
We need to build on such policies—and engage in civil political debate. Only then will we truly honor the Oak Creek victims.
Suman Raghunathan serves as executive director of South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT). Lakshmi Sridaran serves as the organization’s director of national policy and advocacy. They can be reached email@example.com.