Full Testimony Below:
On behalf of the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF) and the Sikh American community, we want to thank you for holding the recent hearing, “Examining the ‘Metastasizing’ Domestic Terrorism Threat After the Buffalo Attack.” Our hearts are heavy as we contemplate the spate of mass shootings that have only seemed to accelerate in the wake of the act of vicious hate in a Buffalo Tops that precipitated this hearing. As lone wolf gunmen continue to attack targets like grocery stores and schools, we fear that the longer Congress takes to pass legislation taking a clear-eyed and comprehensive approach to domestic terrorism, more families and communties will continue to experience avoidable tragedies.
SALDEF remains committed to working with all stakeholders to prevent, address, and combat hate crimes and domestic extremism. It is our hope that our written testimony will shed light specifically on the Sikh American community and its long and tragic history of experiencing the deadly and damaging consequences of hate and domestic terrorism: acts of bias like physical assaults and bullying; acts of community intimidation like vandalism of community-owned businesses and houses of worship; and being targeted in deadly attacks with assault weapons designed to maximize casualties and make people across the nation feel unsafe and unwelcome. From the retaliatory murder of Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh Arizonan misidentified as Muslim and killed in broad daylight in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, to the Oak Creek mass shooting in 2012, to the Indianapolis mass shooting in 2021 and countless smaller-scale acts of bias and hate, Sikh Americans are the most disproportionately targeted group in the United States – at a rate of four times the national average, according to an analysis of FBI data controlling for population size.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) released the annual report on hate crimes showing that 8,052 single-bias incidents involving 11,126 victims occurred in 2020. Nearly 62% of victims were targeted because of the offenders’ bias against the race/ethnicity/ancestry of the victims. Anti-Sikh hate crimes also hit a record high of 89 documented incidents, reflecting an 82% increase over 2019, despite an overall decrease in the number of anti-religious hate crimes.
SALDEF continues to urge all federal agencies and reporting to fully disaggregate data about communities of color, which are often the targets in attacks like the ones in Buffalo. To better understand the Sikh American community’s experiences, we have conducted surveys to paint a picture of our nationwide community. One survey, the National Sikh American Survey, involved reaching out to over 2000 Sikh individuals around the country during 2020. The survey built on understanding from our pioneering work on attitudes towards Sikh Americans, Turban Myths.
The Sikh American Survey revealed some disheartening figures: 15% of respondents said they only sometimes felt safe practicing Sikhism, with respondents living in the South feeling the least safe. 58% of respondents reported being bullied or harassed because of their Sikh identity, with 60% of respondents living in the Midwest reporting such mistreatment. 63% of turbaned respondents reported being discriminated against for wearing a turban. When sorted regionally, 70% of turbaned respondents living in the South experienced turban-related discrimination.
While there are many cases of bias and hate reported against our community, and countless more unreported cases, few are as burned into our collective memory as the hate crime at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in Oak Creek.
This summer will mark ten years since an avowed white supremacist opened fire with a semi-automatic weapon on volunteers preparing a communal meal at the gurdwara (Sikh house of worship) in Wisconsin. The six fatalities and three hospitalizations made the attack the deadliest on any house of worship on American soil since the 1964 Birmingham church bombing, until the 2015 mass shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston and then the 2018 mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.
In its misplaced hate, its deliberate targeting of a minority community in advancement of a white supremacist agenda, and its use of military-grade hardware, Oak Creek was a tragic precursor to Buffalo. The fact that two men acted in such a similar fashion ten years apart, with only a difference in targeted community and geography separating their crimes, is the most searing indictment of our country’s inaction as young men continue to legally equip themselves to convert feelings of hate into hundreds of bullets fired per minute. Unfortunately, as is the case for many minority communities relaying a story of survival, Oak Creek was not the last time.
On April 15, 2021, a gunman launched an attack on a FedEx ground facility in Indianapolis, Indiana. The facility was widely known for employing a high concentration of Sikh and immigrant workers. In the shooting, eight innocent people were killed, four of whom were Sikhs in the Indianapolis Sikh community.
In our work in Indianapolis, we encountered many of the same structural issues that continue to hamstring the government’s work to address hate crimes. There was no centralized point of contact or central source of information to distribute information to the community to answer questions or explain what was happening. It largely fell to national organizations, with limited local government contacts and primarily federal relationships, to act as intermediaries. All of these gaps and silos must be addressed through targeted policy solutions. At a high level, Congress must incentivize and provide support for better identification, reporting, and collection, including through the establishment of centralized and unified reporting structures that are focused on addressing the needs of victims rather than jurisdictional divisions. We outline a few potential fixes below.
In presenting recommendations on combating hate crimes to the Senate Judiciary Committee, SALDEF would like to fully echo the recommendations of Pardeep Singh Kaleka, executive director of the Interfaith Council of Milwaukee and the son of a Sikh worshiper slain in the hate crime against the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in Oak Creek. Mr. Kaleka presented his comments at a House Judiciary Subcommittee hearing on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security in early March 2022.
It is essential, as Mr. Kaleka argued, to pass the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act, which will give the federal government essential tools and funding to track and combat hate crimes and bias incidents at a scale proportionate to their perpetration. We were disappointed in the vote on the DTPA some time ago, but we strongly urge the Senate to take it up once more in the wake of this spate of violence. Similarly, the Justice for Victims of Hate Crimes Act must be passed, to close a loophole in how hate crimes are prosecuted at the federal level.
Mr. Kaleka’s recommendations echo what we have outlined throughout this written testimony: that action to protect minority communities must be taken urgently through new laws, more resources, and deeper engagement with and between local law enforcement and advocates. We must invest in early-stage interventions to correct the pain that precedes acts of violence, through accurate and inclusive education and holding social media platforms accountable for hosting hate speech.
SALDEF would also like to highlight the recommendations made in a recent Homeland Security Advisory Council Report, particularly the critical gap flagged by the report: the lack of a domestic terrorism statute. This is a real threat disproportionately faced by minority communities like Sikh Americans, manifesting in ways both large and small. Congress, working with DHS and the Department of Justice, must pass a statute defining acts of domestic terrorism and funding the monitoring of these acts so law enforcement can better monitor, understand, investigate, and prosecute acts of domestic terrorism. Domestic terrorism has been painfully real for our community for much longer than ten years, and it is our hope that today’s hearing represents a meaningful step toward naming and fighting it as such.
Hate crimes against Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) communities also exacerbate a problem unique to our community: lack of in-language support. We face continuing common problems of cultural fluency, bias, accessibility, and lack of trust due to years of neglect and/or perceived hostility and profiling. However, many agencies and individuals have engaged in models of bridge building and community-oriented outreach that should be highlighted and replicated throughout all levels of government across the country.
We are happy the Committee is paying closer attention to the plague of violence that continues to afflict our and other minority communities. We look forward to continuing our work striving together with the members of the Committee and all of your colleagues to build an America where acts of hate from the members of one community against the members of another are an artifact of the past, and where all Americans can help build a better future in which all colors, orientations, and faiths are truly equal. The innocent lives lost in only the last couple of weeks in Buffalo, Tulsa, and Uvalde, in addition to all the ones lost due to governmental paralysis over the past several years, demand and deserve nothing less.