Groundswell’s Testimony for the U.S. Senate Hearing on Hate Crimes

  |September 19, 2012


Update: Senator Dick Durban recognizes Groundswell for submitting our testimonial (at 00:48)!

Written Statement of
Valarie Kaur
Director of Groundswell
Auburn Seminary

To the

Committee on Judiciary
Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights
U.S. Senate
Room 226
Dirksen Senate Office Building
September 19, 2012

Honorable members of the Judiciary Committee:

Thank you for holding a congressional hearing on the need to address hate crimes and the proliferation of hate groups in the United States. My name is Valarie Kaur, and I am the founding director of Groundswell, a national non-profit initiative based at Auburn Seminary in New York City that mobilizes faith communities in social action.  We represent a base of 40,000 people who take collective action around shared moral imperatives, such as protecting religious pluralism, ending child sex trafficking, and standing for LGBTQ dignity. I’m here today to urge the Senate to work with us to combat the rise of hate in America.

It has been more than a month since the tragedy at Oak Creek, WI where a white supremacist massacred six worshippers and injured three others at a Sikh gurdwara [house of worship] on August 5, 2012.  As people of many faiths and backgrounds – Christians, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists and Humanists  we at Groundswell believe that an attack on one of us is an attack on all of us.  In a few days, we collected four thousand letters of support for the Sikh families of Oak Creek, WI.  We believe that the tragedy in Oak Creek calls for a national conversation about how to address the rise of hate and hate groups in America. We are working with the White House, the Interfaith Youth Core, the Sikh Coalition the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund, and other organizations as a committed multifaith partner on education and advocacy efforts. We commend the Senate hearing as a critical moment for introspection and action, not only in the halls of power but in congregations and communities across the U.S.

I speak here as an independent filmmaker and civil rights advocate who has chronicled and combatted hate crimes against the Sikh American community for the last eleven years.  I began this work in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, when I crossed the country to capture stories barely reported on national news, most notably the hate murder of turbaned Sikh American Balbir Singh Sodhi on September 15, 2001. As a third-generation Sikh American, I did not want the stories of hate and discrimination against my community to remain invisible.  I was not alone.  Together with a team of people from many faiths and backgrounds, we created the award-winning film Divided We Fall (2008), the first feature documentary about hate crimes against Sikh and Muslim Americans in the aftermath of 9/11.  Produced with Sharat Raju, the film won a dozen international awards, earned national attention, screened in 200 U.S. cities, and continues to be used as a dialogue tool on U.S. high school and college campuses.  In response to the massacre in Oak Creek, WI, my team and I spent weeks on the ground organizing, reporting, and filming to tell the stories of the tragedy to the broader American public.

Today, as a Sikh American and the director of a multifaith initiative, I commend this congressional hearing as a necessary response to the threat of hate crimes and proliferation of hate groups in America.  The tragedy in Oak Creek is not only a Sikh American tragedy: it may be the largest racially-motivated mass shooting in recent U.S. history.  It is important to put the tragedy in context in order to chart the way forward.

First, the tragedy in Oak Creek was not an isolated incident.  It is the deadliest act in a history of violence against the Sikh American community which has roots in America dating back more than one hundred years and certainly since the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.  When early Sikh immigrants arrived from Punjab, India to the Pacific Coast of the U.S. in the early 1900s, they were targets in race riots and faced discriminatory laws that did not permit them to become citizens, own land, or return to the U.S. if they left.  Even after changes to the law permitted Sikhs and other Asian Americans to become citizens, many continued to be treated as perpetually foreign and automatically suspect rather than fellow Americans.

The Sikh faith is the fifth largest organized religion in the world and more than 500 years old.  Sikhs believe in one God, equality between all people, and service to the community, values compatible with the American ethic.  Many Sikhs wear articles of faith to express these values, most visibly, long uncut hair which men and some women wrap in a turban. Nearly every person in America who wears a turban is Sikh.  However, Sikh turbans have marked the community as targets for discrimination and hate on U.S. soil for more than a century.

In recent decades, Sikh Americans became targets for scapegoating in the aftermath of the Iran Hostage Crisis, the first Gulf War, and even the Oklahoma City Bombing.  In the aftermath of 9/11, hate and discrimination against Sikh Americans soared to new levels.  Turbaned Sikh American named Balbir Singh Sodhi was the first of at least two dozen people murdered in post-9/11 hate crimes.  The FBI reported that hate crimes against Muslims or in its estimation, those perceived to be Muslim, increased by 1600 percent in the year after the attacks.  Community organizations such as the Sikh Coalition and South Asian Americans Leading Tomorrow (SAALT) estimate much higher numbers, including more than a thousand reported incidents in the weeks after the attacks.

In the years since 9/11, Sikh Americans alongside Muslim, Arab, and other South Asian Americans continued to face discrimination in all areas of public life, most notably bullying in schoolyards, discrimination in workplaces, and racial profiling in immigration and national security arenas.  Hate crime levels remained relatively low – until 2010.  The FBI reported a 50 percent jump in hate crimes against Muslims or those perceived to be Muslim in 2010 compared to 2009 levels, just when anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant rhetoric flooded airwaves in the last election season.  Anti-Muslim hate crimes are now at their highest level since 2001.  At the same time, hate groups in America have been on an alarming rise. The Department of Homeland Security released a report in 2009 that showed white supremacist groups, most notably antigovernment groups, increased significantly since President Barack Obama’s election.  According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the number of hate groups in the U.S. has grown by almost 60 percent since 2000.  Hate groups now number more than a thousand.  While it has been nearly three years since the Matthew Shepherd and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crime Prevention Act (HCPA) strengthened existing legal protections, hate crimes and hate groups continue to be a serious and growing threat facing this country.

The Sikh American community is one of many communities threatened by the rise of hate groups in America.  The Jewish community continues to experience persistent bias, accounting for 65 percent of all religiously motivated hate crimes documented by the FBI in 2010.  Hate crimes based on anti-Hispanic bias accounted for nearly 67 percent of ethnically-motivated crimes in 2010, and despite comprising only 12.4 percent of the U.S. population, African-Americans accounted for 70 percent of all racially motivated hate crimes.  According to FBI hate crime statistics, over 6,600 hate crimes were reported in the U.S in 2010, with the actual number of incidents likely higher on account of hate crimes often going underreported.  Earlier this year, over the span of 30 days which included the tragic Oak Creek shooting, approximately ten Islamic institutions and Muslim communities in seven states experienced attacks including vandalism, a suspicious burning, shootings, and the desecration of religious sanctuaries.

The massacre in Oak Creek, WI and these recent acts of violence call upon us to renew our commitment as a nation to combat hate in America – not just against the Sikh community but against all communities.  Hate crimes send the message that entire groups of people are not welcome in America.  The U.S. government has the power to signal assurance that all people are welcome to live, work and worship as fellow Americans.  We humbly request that the U.S. Senate consider the following proposals for ways to respond to the threat of hate crimes and domestic extremism:

1.    The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) should specifically track hate crimes against Sikh Americans, as well as other groups such as Hindu and Arab Americans.  The FBI currently tracks hate crimes against these groups in a single anti-Muslim “catch-all” category.  This categorization reflects the flawed logic that all hate crimes against Sikhs, Arabs and others are cases of “mistaken identity.”  This assumption is not supported by the evidence and prevents us from marshaling the resources to combat hate crimes effectively.  How can we respond to a problem we’re not accurately measuring?  In a few short weeks, Groundswell and the Sikh Coalition collected nearly 4000 signatures of people of many faiths asking the FBI to change its policy.  We ask that the U.S. government give the victims of Oak Creek at least the dignity of being counted as a statistic.

2.    The Department of Homeland Security should pursue domestic terrorists with the same vigor as attackers from abroad.  The gunman Wade Michael Page was on the watch lists of public interest organizations for many years.  We respectfully believe that the government should have tracked him long before he went on the shooting spree.  We request that the government invest resources in tracking all homegrown hate groups in America rather than assuming that threats arise primarily within communities of color.  Since 9/11, there have been twice as many attacks on U.S. soil by white supremacist groups than by Al-Qaeda inspired groups.  We call upon the government to combat all forms of terrorism while continuing to respect free speech in America.

3.    The U.S. government should establish a constructive framework for combating hate crimes and domestic extremism, much like President Clinton declared the large number of attacks on African American churches in the mid-1990’s a national priority.  There is no mistake about it: A signal from leadership changed the culture, added resources and resulted in a real and measurable difference.  By the end of the 1990s, attacks on African American churches decreased.  Similarly, we call upon the government to ensure robust and comprehensive implementation of the HCPA, and for improvement to federal hate crime data collection, disaggregation, categorization and reporting.  We request the allocation and prioritization of federal funding for initiatives that prevent, investigate and combat hate crimes and domestic extremism.  Finally, the government should establish formalized interagency efforts and positions at the highest levels of government, in partnership with community stakeholders, to address hate crimes.

4.    Elected officials and candidates should commit to speaking out against the use of hateful rhetoric for political gain.  Since 2010, we have seen political figures use anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric in order to score political points – including calling for special investigations into Muslim American communities, supporting anti-sharia legislation, and denigrating Islam in public.  The Center for American Progress reported that between 2001 and 2009, seven foundations poured $42.6 million into think tanks that promote anti-Islam sentiment. We believe that actively fostering a divisive political climate of racism, homophobia, sexism, religious bigotry, and xenophobia has real consequences.  As lawmakers and leaders, you have the power to shape public opinion.  Your words carry weight.  We humbly request that you speak against scapegoating, discrimination, profiling, and hate crimes.  We call on the government to curb actions and discourse by government agencies and public officials that promote a dangerous political climate. As Americans, we call upon our leaders to use rhetoric that unites rather than divides us.

We at Groundswell believe that our government must work in concert with community efforts to combat hate and build community in a critical moment in our nation’s history.  In a time when our economy is recovering, guns are easily accessible, hate groups are on the rise, and political rhetoric divisive, we cannot afford to wait.  That’s why we are joining our partners to generate storytelling, dialogue, and interfaith service projects in response to the tragedy in Oak Creek on campuses and in congregations across the U.S.  These projects aim to deepen engagement with local Sikh communities and support bold new avenues to promote racial and religious dignity.  We believe that education and interfaith outreach efforts, combined with robust changes in law and policy, can help prevent another tragedy like Oak Creek.

On a personal note, as a Sikh American whose grandfather sailed by steamship from Punjab, India and settled in California one hundred years ago, I believe that my community’s struggle for civil rights and human dignity is vital to the success of the great American experiment.  There are now more than half a million Sikhs in the U.S.  Our struggle is bound up with the struggle of African Americans, Latino Americans, Jewish Americans, Native Americans, LGBTQ Americans, and all people who seek to live, work, and worship without fear of hate or discrimination.  We can understand the health of the Sikh American community as a barometer for the health of diversity in the U.S.  The day we can see a turbaned man on the street and think – not “foreigner” or “terrorist” but “American” – will be the day that all people, with all our diversity, are truly embraced in America.  With your commitment, I believe that the U.S. government can help us realize this day.

Thank you for considering my testimony.