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Deepa Iyer Headshot

One Year After Oak Creek: Changing America's Racial Landscape

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This weekend, I am traveling to Oak Creek, Wisconsin, to take part in events that mark the anniversary of the devastating hate crime that occurred at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin a year ago. In the wake of the tragedy on August 5, 2012, when a gunman stormed into the gurdwara and killed six people, Sikh Americans around the country asked: "What do I tell my children?" and "How do I protect them?" These questions have sadly become a familiar refrain that Sikhs, Muslims, South Asians and Arab Americans have repeated with increased frequency since 9/11, while the incidents of bullying, harassment, profiling and vandalism show little sign of abatement.

Over the past month, since a jury in Sanford, Florida acquitted George Zimmerman of the murder of Trayvon Martin, we heard echoes of this same refrain: What do we tell our children . I evoke this with a keen understanding that the experiences African-Americans have with discrimination, violence, and profiling are deep and distinct from those facing other people of color in America, including South Asians. At the same time, I wonder whether there are common threads we can weave together to understand the scope and depth of racial injustice in America, and to find shared solidarity and solutions that will create a different future for our black, brown, white and multiracial children.

In the wake of the Oak Creek shooting, we had a national conversation about how the tragedy illustrated so many of our society's problems. We talked about gun violence, given the proximity in time between Oak Creek and Aurora. We raised awareness about the alarming increase of hate groups (by almost 70 percent since 2000, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center), given that the shooter in Oak Creek had allegedly belonged to a white supremacist group. We called for mutual understanding and respect and for the importance of policies and institutions to stem the tide of profiling and backlash.

The tremendous outpouring of public outrage and support after the Oak Creek tragedy, coupled with the collaborative efforts of racial justice, faith-based, and immigrant rights organizations, led to a Senate hearing championed by Senator Durbin on hate violence last September with moving testimony from Harpreet Saini who lost his mother in the Oak Creek massacre. It led to the decision by the Federal Bureau of Investigation to track hate crimes against Sikhs (as well as Hindus and Arabs). And in Oak Creek itself, residents have come together to learn about each other and care for the families of the victims through programs such as the Sikh Healing Collective, which provides trauma-focused intervention to children in the Oak Creek gurdwara.

This is important, meaningful progress. And as I meet and talk with folks in Oak Creek this weekend, I am also reminded that we must engage each other with the complexities of America's changing racial landscape and with the broader context of racism and xenophobia continually and thoughtfully -- not only at times of tragedies and commemorations of them. Tackling the ways in which racial bias plays itself out in our interactions, our policies, our neighborhoods and schools, and the impact it has on the psyches of youth and children, requires daily vigilance and persistence.

There are opportunities to intervene, disrupt, and build. We can start by recognizing and acknowledging the broader climate of racism and anti-immigrant sentiment that leads to hate violence in this country. We can hold elected leaders and public officials accountable for engaging in xenophobic and racist rhetoric, which sends the message that it is perfectly acceptable to use negative words and images to describe people of color and immigrants. Let's enact strong policies that prohibit racial and religious profiling, such as the End Racial Profiling Act pending in Congress, while eliminating harsh state laws such as Stand Your Ground, taking inspiration from the Dream Defenders in Florida. Let's call upon the federal government to institute a taskforce to address the epidemic of hate violence, which includes victim and witness services, enforcement and investigation, outreach and prevention plans, and coordination with state and local agencies. And, let's build bridges with one another by understanding how our own points of entry into racial consciousness, race-based privilege, and encounters with injustice have strands that connect and interweave with one another.

This is how we can continue to honor the memories of people like Travyon, and of Satwant Singh Kaleka, Ranjit Singh, Sita Singh, Prakash Singh, Suveg Sing Khattra and Paramjit Kaur, the six innocent men and women killed at the Oak Creek gurdwara a year ago this month. To honor them is to tell our children powerful, interconnected and hopeful narratives about their precious skin colors, faiths and cultures. To remember them is to envision and bring about a different racial landscape in our country.