On the morning of August 5, 2012, Paramjit Kaur Saini left her home in Oak Creek, a small town located outside Milwaukee, and drove to her local temple — the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin. Paramjit arrived early to prepare the langar — the Sikh communal meal — and arrange the space for children’s classes.
A few hours later, Wade Michael Page, a white supremacist, shot and killed Paramjit and six others, leaving four critically wounded. Eleven children lost parents that day.
This incident does not stand alone nor is it contained by our borders. On Sunday, a white supremacist killed six people in a mosque in Quebec City. Today, according to the FBI, anti-Muslim hate crimes — targeting South Asian, Arab-American and Muslim communities — are at their highest levels in our country since the aftermath of 9/11. Still, these incidents have yet to gain a foothold in the broader American national narrative. Recollections of post-9/11 America evoke images of a country unified in the face of terrorism. All too absent from the narrative are homegrown American terrorists like Page who intimidated, harassed and even murdered innocent people, destroyed gurdwaras, temples and mosques and normalized Islamophobia nationwide. These hate crimes are symptomatic of a historic American impulse to use vulnerable communities as scapegoats.
We must find ways to mitigate this trend. After former President George W. Bush advocated for tolerance at a mosque on September 17, 2001, anti-Muslim hate crimes dropped more than 50 percent the following week. Whereas today, we cannot expect even basic civil discourse from our government. Ben Carson — the pending secretary for housing and urban development — referred to Syrian refugees as “rabid dogs.” Mike Flynn — the current national security advisor — referred to Islam as a “cancer.” Not to mention the unfolding actions of our current commander in chief.
Xenophobic political rhetoric normalizes and engenders hatred and violence. Denouncing such rhetoric is an issue of public safety and even a matter of life or death for Muslim, South Asian and Arab-Americans.
Last Wednesday, civil rights activist Diane Nash visited Yale. Speaking to a crowded Battell Chapel, she noted that in the 1950s, “Citizens had to take matters into their own hands. If we’d waited for elected officials [to desegregate], we’d probably still be waiting now.” Today, the same truth remains: Now — as always — change will only result from grass-roots and community-based work.
For example, city councils can establish “hate-free zones” that institutionalize protections for vulnerable communities and create frameworks for collective resistance to unconstitutional policies. We also need to promote civic engagement and youth leadership within Muslim, South Asian and Arab-American communities. Additionally, we must work within and beyond our communities. Currently, 30 percent of the South Asian-American population lives in the South. That number has doubled in the last 15 years, and these communities have been particularly at-risk of violence.
This work is not starting now. We should seek both solace and inspiration that such work has been ongoing for years.
For example, last Wednesday, Desis Rising Up and Moving — a grass-roots organization that works with South Asian workers and youth — campaigned for the Kensington neighborhood of Brooklyn to be a hate-free zone. The organization is working to offer self-defense classes and bystander intervention training in the neighborhood and to create an anti-raid response network to respond to unlawful searches. And national organizations such as South Asian-Americans Leading Together and the Council on American-Islamic Relations offer public education tools and youth leadership programs that engage students in community organizing, leadership development and public speaking.
This Saturday, Feb. 4, the South Asian Society — an undergraduate group of South Asian students and their peers — will host the South Asian Millennials Conference at Yale Law School. The daylong event, which is open to all, will feature over 20 speakers as well as workshops and panels on Islamophobia, immigration bans, building multiethnic coalitions, issues of representation, activism and more.
The conference offers a vital space for students and activists to learn, converse and engage deeply about issues affecting South Asian-American communities. For those unsure of how to get involved, it will provide important knowledge, a sense of community and concrete steps for action.
Marching is crucial, but often it is not the only form of protest. To create lasting, positive change, we also need to support the aforementioned organizations. If you are able, please consider donating your money and time. In the coming months, their work will be more important than ever.
At this year’s remembrance of the Oak Creek Massacre, Paramjit’s son Kamaljit Singh Saini spoke about his late mother’s deep-rooted faith in our country. Last year — with his mother in mind — he joined the U.S. Marine Corps to show his love and patriotism for America.
We must remember that our country is much more than a few elected officials. It is people like Paramjit and her son, DRUM organizers and those struggling every day to survive. And it is for them that we must fight.
Rohan Naik is a junior in Ezra Stiles College and co-president of the South Asian Society. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .