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Simran Jeet Singh: Systemic racism must be addressed to prevent future hate crimes

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JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.

On Saturday night, Dr. Prabhjot Singh, a physician and visiting professor at Columbia University, was brutally attacked and beaten by a group of at least 15 to 20 young men just north of New York’s Central Park. Singh is of the Sikh religion and, like many men of his faith, wears a turban and a beard. He says he was called “terrorist” and “Osama” by his assailants, who left him bloody and bruised and with a fractured jaw, among other injuries.

At a press conference on Monday, Singh said, if I could speak to my attackers, I would ask them if they had any questions about me, the Sikh faith. I would invite my attackers to the gurdwara, a Sikh place of worship, make sure they have an opportunity to learn who we are, get to know us, so that they too can get past this.

The attack was just the latest targeting those of the Sikh religion and those perceived to be of Middle Eastern descent.

Also on Saturday in New York, a Muslim woman wearing hijab was called an effing terrorist and assaulted in Times Square. The incident was captured on video.

In August, The Real News covered the one-year anniversary of the Wisconsin Sikh temple massacre, where Army veteran and neo-Nazi linked extremist Wade Michael Page gunned down six Sikh worshipers in the deadliest attack on a house of worship in America since the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.

And for our viewers I’d like to add that although I no longer keep my hair, I too am of the Sikh faith, so this issue is very deeply important to me.

Now joining us to discuss this is Simran Jeet Singh. He’s a PhD candidate in religion at Columbia University and senior religion fellow for the Sikh Coalition.

Thank you so much for joining us, Simran.


NOOR: Can you describe what happened to him and also share your own thoughts and reactions to the news of his attack?

SINGH: Sure. I can start with my own story. I was actually walking to a TV interview for International Peace Day when I received a call from Prabhjot’s wife. And she was panicked. And she said–all she said was, Prabhjot’s been attacked and can you go to the hospital. So I did. I hopped in a taxi with my older brother, and we just went straight to the hospital. We arrived before the ambulance did, and we were there as Prabhjot was wheeled out in a wheelchair. He couldn’t speak because his teeth had been damaged. His mouth was very swollen. But he waved to us to let us know he was okay. And then he was wheeled into the emergency room.

We found out later Prabhjot’s mouth kind of–the swelling went down a bit with some treatment, and he described to us what had happened. He was out for dinner with his family, and he had walked home with his family, dropped off his wife and his one-year-old son at their apartment, and he and a companion of his, another Sikh American, they were walking in their neighborhood, and a group of young teenagers, males, Prabhjot describes–and he says there were about 15 to 20 of them–they essentially swooped in on their bikes, their bicycles, and circled Prabhjot and his companion and began verbally and physically assaulting them.

The verbal assault. There were two racial slurs that Prabhjot recalls. The first is he heard them yell, “Let’s get Osama.” And the second slur that he heard them yell was “terrorist”. And before they started punching him, they grabbed his beard and pulled at it, which further indicates some sort of hate motivation. They began punching Prabhjot and his companion. Prabhjot fell to the ground. And when he fell, they continued punching him, and they also started kicking him on the ground.

The extent of his injuries. He has several displaced teeth, fractures in his lower jaw. He has a puncture, a small puncture in his elbow area. And he has some bruising, severe bruising around the places where he was punched most furiously, his torso area. That’s where he was kicked most. And his face around his mouth area is where he was punched the most.

But Prabhjot was discharged from the hospital on Saturday night, late Saturday night. On Sunday morning, he drove upstate and had some oral surgery done to correct the fracture and the teeth. They put some hard metal wiring inside his mouth to correct that.

Overall, now Prabhjot is in relatively good shape. He has a little bit of trouble speaking. He has a little bit of pain. But considering how bad things really could have been, he says he is eternally grateful, that he feels lucky that he made it out alive and made it out as well as he did.

NOOR: What you’ve described, this attack, it’s become all too common against those of the Sikh faith and others perceived to be of Middle Eastern descent in the United States, especially after 9/11, but also well before 9/11 as well. You and Prabhjot co-authored an op-ed in The New York Times last year asking for the FBI to track hate crimes against those of the Sikh faith and other faiths. They finally adopted that policy on the one-year anniversary of the Wisconsin Sikh temple massacre in August. And often when these type of incidents happen, people are looking for answers and for trying to understand the situation. But I wanted to talk about the deeper issues that need to be discussed here, these issues of racism, violence, and hatred that are all too common in America today. Could you share your thoughts about why this happened and what needs to be done to address this type of hate crimes and racism that exist today?

SINGH: No, I think you’re exactly right that there is a very important difference between the policy ask of tracking hate crimes and bringing in cultural and systemic changes that resolve these issues of racism and bigotry.

The hate crime tracking was an important achievement for all people of American descent, all of us Americans, and it was especially important for religious minorities, because up until now we have never had appropriate data to understand how serious of a problem it really is and to really demonstrate that this needs serious attention. So that has been a very important achievement for all of us.

With that said, the attack on Dr. Prabhjot Singh really shows us that there is a lot of work to be done and a lot of urgent work to be done. And the urgency of this is not lost on any of us, especially those of us who are close with somebody who’s been attacked in a hate crime.

Prabhjot today mentioned that what he would like to see–how he would like to respond to this is not to say that he is giving up on the people who attacked him, but instead it pushes him to redouble his efforts and really commit further to engaging in outreach and education and awareness.

From my perspective, there are many different ways of doing this, and it has to be a multi-pronged approach. It’s a complex problem, so it requires a complex solution. And this occurs in various different aspects of our lives.

One of the things that we’re seeing right now is the Sikh Coalition has engaged with the largest textbook publishers in the country to bring in material that sheds light on the Sikh tradition. It’s very interesting that other religions are–world religions are discussed in school curriculum, but the Sikh religion, the fifth-largest religion, typically receives no mention. And this contributes to the lack of awareness about Sikhs.

Another way of looking at this is outside of the classroom. We believe interpersonal relationships are very important. There has to be, I think, in order to combat the superficial stereotypes that people have of one another, there really has to be a direct engagement with people to break through those boundaries. And what I mean by that is basically you just have to show each other that you’re human and allow people to see that humanity.

So I can give you an interesting example of something that’s worked really well for us. An organization with which I work called the Surat Initiative started a project called “turban day”. And we’ve been doing it around the country. It’s been running in the country for several years. And a few weeks ago in New York City the Surat Initiative hosted a turban day in Union Square, one of the most densely populated areas in the city. It’s a great park area. A lot of people go there to hang out. And we set up tables and brought out 700 turbans and used it as an opportunity. We would tie turbines on people who were walking by and interested. And as we did so, we used that as an opportunity to talk to people, tell them what we were doing, tell them about the significance of the Sikh tradition, what the turban means to us, and also tell them in our own way that, look, we’re normal people, we’re just as American as you are. And that’s kind of been central to the project of challenging these hate crimes, challenging these senses of bigotry. It’s a deeper kind of outreach that really needs to happen.

NOOR: Simran Jeet Singh, thank you so much for joining us.

SINGH: Really appreciate it.

NOOR: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Simran is a professor of South Asian Religions at Columbia University, the Deputy Director of Sikh Spirit Foundation, and serves on the National Advisory Board of the Sikh Coalition as well as the Advisory Board of the International Center of Advocates Against Discrimination. He is also Chair of the Interfaith Committee for the World Sikh Council, and recipient of the 2013 Junior Research Fellowship from the American Institute of Indian Studies.