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Simran Jeet Singh

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Sikhs & Civil Rights: Standing on the Shoulders of Dr. King

Posted: 06/19/2012 12:45 pm

This past Friday, the White House hosted the first-ever policy briefing on Sikh civil rights issues.

Amardeep Singh, Director of Programs for the Sikh Coalition and Commissioner for the White House Initiative on Asian American and Pacific Islanders, opened the event with a jakara, a traditional way in which Sikhs announce their presence.

As far as I know, it was also the first-ever jakara to resound in the halls of the White House.

Singh highlighted the historical significance of the briefing, and placed the Sikh efforts for civil rights in the context of other minority communities. He spoke specifically of the long struggle for civil rights endured by African Americans, and my ears perked up as he cited some of my childhood heroes, including Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks.

As he continued to speak, I suddenly realized that we were sitting about a mile from the Lincoln Memorial, the site where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and delivered his now famous speech, "I Have a Dream."

I thought of Dr. King looking over the policy briefing on Sikh civil rights. I imagined him smiling at our efforts to keep his dream alive.

I also thought about how far we've come over the past 50 years.

Education. Voting Rights. Employment Opportunities.

If only all those activists who made countless sacrifices in the movement for civil rights could see us now.

Sometimes I wonder if they ever imagined all the different minority communities that would stand on their shoulders.

I also thought about how far we have to go.

Yes, it's true that African Americans enjoy more civil liberties today than they did 50 years ago. But we can't be ignorant enough to think that we've reached absolute equality in the United States today.

For example, we still have to account for the fact that although African Americans make up less than 14 percent of the American population, African American males make up more than 40 percent of all prison inmates.

And let's not forget the story of Trayvon Martin.

This issue, however, isn't just about race, color, or ethnicity. There are a number of marginalized communities in modern America, and in fact, I can't even pinpoint the criteria we use to mistreat people.

Is it on the basis of nationality as evident in the rampant anti-Mexican discourse? Is it the stigmas that come with sexual orientation, gender identity, or marital status? How about economics and the way in which we deal with our homeless neighbors? Size? Obesity? And how do religious and ethnic identities inform the way we treat or mistreat people who are or look like Muslims?

In many ways, Dr. King's vision is still a dream.

If forced to identify a silver lining, I'd point out that there are a lot of us who share very similar issues. The large number of marginalized communities can learn from and collaborate with one another.

Although it's not much of a silver lining, it at least offers us a chance to push forward.

And this is why the White House Policy Briefing on Sikh civil rights issues was so important. It brought the voice of an important marginalized community to the table.

It provided community leaders an opportunity to represent key issues to members of the administration and ask for their support.

For instance, John DiPaolo, who serves as the Chief of Staff for the Office of Civil Rights in the Department of Education, spoke to the problem of bullying, which is a particularly important issue for Sikh Americans and a challenge shared by children of different backgrounds all throughout the nation.

Gurwinder Singh, a Sikh Coalition Advocate, spoke about his experiences of being bullied in school and provided suggestions for improving the accessibility of government resources to schools, students, and grassroots organizations.

While his suggestions were rooted in his particular experiences as a Sikh American, his efforts will benefit students around the country who are bullied on any basis, including ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, religion, or intelligence.

Other members of the administration addressed hot button issues in the Sikh community, including employment discrimination and racial profiling. All the topics discussed were specific concerns of the Sikh community, and at the same time, carry general relevance for other minority groups in America.

And that's the beauty of it!

Just as we all have benefited from the victories of the African American Civil Rights Movement, future communities will benefit from the progress we make today.

Any victory is a collective victory. Any progress is shared progress.

The White House Policy Briefing on Sikh Civil Rights was a particularly historic event for Sikhs, and it was also a major moment in the long and continuing struggles toward civil rights in America.

As a society, we have to recognize the broader importance of these sorts of moments and celebrate their contributions to our collective journey. They are especially valuable for drawing inspiration as we continue to fight the good fight.

If the trend continues along its current trajectory, fifty years from now new communities will be marginalized and oppressed. We'll have new forms of African Americans, Japanese Americans, and Muslim Americans.

What will we have given them, so that they might stand on our shoulders?

 

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