Members of the Sikh Coalition gather at the Sikh Satsang of Indianapolis in Indianapolis, Saturday, April 17, 2021 to formulate the groups response to the shooting at a FedEx facility
( AP Photo/Michael Conroy
Tanzina Vega: I'm Tanzina Vega and this is The Takeaway. Last week, a gunman in Indianapolis shot and killed eight of his former colleagues at a FedEx warehouse, and among the victims, four were members of the Sikh community. In response, eight Sikh houses of worship in Indianapolis issued a joint statement that reads in part, "Given everything our community has experienced in the past, the pattern of violence, bigotry, and backlash we have faced, it's impossible not to feel that same pain and targeting in this moment." Here's what one member of the Sikh community in Indianapolis had to say about the shooting.
K.P. Singh: This is K.P. Singh, calling from Indianapolis, Indiana. We send our prayers and blessings to everyone, as the Sikh community in Indiana and around the world commemorates one of the most significant days in the history and journey of the Sikh faith. Yet there is a pale, dark cloud of this event that has taken place the past few days. Together, we shall fight and overcome the sadness and rise to comfort those directly impacted. We all have a responsibility to bring back the light and bring back the promise of this blessed land.
Tanzina Vega: If you'd like to share your thoughts with us, please call us at 877-869-8253. I'm joined now by Simran Jeet Singh, senior fellow at the Sikh coalition and visiting professor at Union Theological Seminary. Simran, thanks for joining me.
Simran Jeet Singh: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
Tanzina Vega: We heard a little bit from a member of the Sikh community in Indianapolis in the introduction. I'm sure you're hearing from lots of people in the community. How are they processing this most recent mass shooting?
Simran Jeet Singh: First and foremost, the community is devastated, and that's the families who lost loved ones, whether they were Sikh or not. Half of the families who were affected were Sikh families and half of them were not. Regardless of your background, losing your loved ones to violence like this is painful. There's no other real word for it. That, I think, is part of the experience.
Then another part of the experience is the feeling across Sikh communities in Indianapolis, around the country, across the world, they feel targeted. They feel like this was intentional. The police are reporting today that the killer had visited white supremacist websites. We know that he should not have had access to guns. They had been taken away from him previously, he got access to guns again.
We know that he used to work with these people, many of whom were Punjabi Sikh immigrants at this FedEx facility. They would have turbans and beards just like me and brown skin and accents. For him to go into a place like that and to massacre his former co-workers, it doesn't feel anything short of targeted hate. That's an experience and a feeling that our community knows all too well, but to have to go through it at this scale once again, it's just painful for everyone involved.
Tanzina Vega: When you say the Sikh community knows this experience all too well, you point that out in an op-ed you wrote for CNN, where you talk about the 20 years since the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the backlash that ensued. I remember interviewing a woman who married into a Sikh community and was a taxi driver here in New York City and who was wearing her outfit and her shalwar kameez and was attacked by her passenger around that time. Is that the type of hatred and violence that you're concerned about?
Simran Jeet Singh: Right, exactly. Living here in New York City for the past 10 years, I can give you all sorts of personal stories like that. Working with The Sikh Coalition, the civil rights organization based here in New York City, I can share anecdotes from people of all backgrounds within the city who have been attacked in all sorts of spaces.
I've been subjected to racist hate while running the New York City Marathon. I've had it while taking my kids to school. It comes in all forms. That's part of the experience, too, that in a moment like this, when the climate is such that hate is affecting all types of communities across the board, and to have to reconcile its reality in the most visceral way, to face death within this community, you can't help but wonder, "What's next? Is it my parents? Is it me? Is it my kids?" That reality, it's too much to carry on a day-to-day basis, but we do. We have to.
Those are the kinds of attacks precisely that have been part and parcel of the Sikh experience in America. So much of our conversation when we talk about this, the narrative is, "Well, this is a post 9/11 phenomenon, this is a post-Trump phenomenon." Those things are true. Things have gotten worse in certain moments where our community has been targeted increasingly, for example, from 2007 to 2018, we saw 200% increase in reported hate crimes against Sikhs. Ask any statistician, 200% increase is ridiculous. We don't hear those kinds of numbers.
Those are true, but also at the same time, when we limit our understandings to the current moment, to our own experiences, we fail to recognize the long history of white supremacy and racism in this country. To really understand that, we have to look to the very foundation of this country and also to the beginnings of Sikh experiences here where within years of coming, racist backlash, attacks, race riots targeting Sikhs and South Asians. I think that's an important part of the story in our psychology as well.
Tanzina Vega: Simran, we should just be clear that the police in Indianapolis have yet to determine or at least to call this a hate crime as they continue to seek some motivation here on the part of the shooter, but your point remains in that the shooter had visited white supremacist web sites, had already been interviewed by the FBI at least a year prior to this shooting. One thing I don't think a lot of folks know about is that there is a sizable Sikh population in Indiana and Indianapolis. How did that come to be?
Simran Jeet Singh: It's a great point, first of all, that we don't actually know the motive of the killer. We know enough to say that in a situation like this hate was part of his motive. How do you massacre people, human beings without hate being part of the equation? We don't know if racial bias was animating him. There's a really important distinction here to be made between bias and our legal categories of what constitutes a hate crime.
In a hate crime we need pure, clear evidence that he was doing this, that he killed these people out of racial hate. In most situations, whether it's in a case like this or it's in a case like someone attacking a Sikh taxi driver here in the city, in most situations, no one is announcing why they're attacking you. It's very rare that somebody comes after me and says, "I hate you because of your turban and your beard." I think that's a challenge in our understanding of what constitutes a hate crime in this country.
At the same time, we know with the research that is increasingly pointing to this reality that we all have biases and we all have racial bias. In a situation like this where he would have known these people at this facility were largely Punjabi Sikh immigrants, it's hard to separate out the bias that he would be carrying like the rest of us carry from his actions. I think that's an important point to be made.
With regard to the Indianapolis Sikh community, I would say, Sikhs have been in this country now for about 125 years. They initially, like most immigrant communities, came to the West Coast, came to the East Coast, and as the communities grew, they started dispersing across the country. Indiana has about 8,000 to 10,000 Sikhs within the state. Indianapolis itself, they have 8 to 10 Gurdwaras, places of Sikh worship. It's a substantial community there. Many of them worked at this FedEx facility. Many of them in Indianapolis are working-class, backbone of America people. I think that's really important to recognize, too, because it's heart-crushing to hear some stories coming out of this community.
One of the men who was killed just went there saying he had just started working there and one of the reasons he started working there was because he was bored at home and he wanted to be in community with fellow Punjabi Sikhs where he could speak his native language and talk about life back home. A classic immigrant experience. I've heard that so many times from people who work at that facility. Part of what's brought these Sikhs to Indianapolis is jobs like this in the same way that we see a lot of folks moving to the Midwest looking for better opportunities and more affordable lives for their families.
Tanzina Vega: You were part of a White House virtual gathering with members of the American Sikh community. Tell us about that event and what exactly would you like to see from the Biden-Harris administration in response to this shooting because we know that the hate crimes towards Asian-Americans have been on the rise, and the Biden administration is aware of that it has made at least initial efforts to respond to that. What would you like to see specifically in regard to this?
Simran Jeet Singh: One of the strange parts of the experience for me was the first person who informed me about the shooting in Indianapolis was actually a friend who works at the White House. He called that morning and asked if I'd heard about the shooting and I had said, "Yes, I saw the headline." I think like most Americans, I sighed heavily and felt sad and moved on because it felt like just another mass shooting.
Then he informed me that a number of Sikhs had been killed us as far as he had understood at that point. It hadn't yet been confirmed, but he was hearing the reports. He wanted to set up a conversation and he asked me to help facilitate that. To me, that demonstrates is the humanity of this administration, the outrage, the personal connection, which I think has been missing in this country for far too long. Especially in our case, as a community that's largely invisiblized. People don't see us, we're not part of the conversation for them to reach out and to say, "Let's convene a meeting with local leaders on the ground, and folks at the Sikh Coalition who are the leaders in the civil rights space to figure out what to do."
We had a wonderful call. A very productive conversation with many federal officials in attendance. Many members of the local Sikh community who were affected directly, and many folks from the Sikh Coalition. We heard the stories of those who were hurting most, and we heard from the experts in the room in terms of what we would like to see. I'll name a couple of the big asks and one was to appoint a liaison for the Sikh community and the White House, given our particular needs and concerns. Another was to pass stronger legislation dealing with hate crimes and supporting communities who are dealing with hate. The third big ask for the White House officials was to help support places of worship that are affected by violence and hate, and for these communities to get the active support of the federal government.
Tanzina Vega: Simran Jeet Singh is a senior fellow at the Sikh Coalition and a visiting professor at Union Theological Seminary.
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