Two quick reactions to the Oak Creek violence raised the hackles of some of the sharp organizers in the South Asian American community:
* This was an act of senseless violence. “No,” said Rinku Sen, publisher of Colorlines magazines. This is not “senseless,” she noted, but “racist.” This is the fifty-seventh mass shooting in the past thirty years in the United States. Each one is treated as the work of a freak. Patterns are shunned. Structural factors such as the prevalence of guns and the lack of social care for mentally disturbed people should of course be in the frame. But so too should the preponderance of socially acceptable hatred against those seen as outsiders. Intellectually respectable opinions about who is an American (produced, for example, by Sam Huntington, Who Are We? The Challenge to National Identity) comes alongside the politician’s casual racism (Romney’s recent suggestion that the US and the UK are “part of an Anglo-Saxon heritage,” erased in a whip lash the diversity of the United States and Britain). Racist attacks are authorized by a political culture that allows us to think in nativist terms, to bemoan the “browning” of America. By 2034, the Census department estimates, the non-white population of the US is going to be in the majority. With the political class unwilling to reverse the tide of jobless growth and corporate power, the politicians stigmatize the outsider as the problem of poverty and exploitation. This stigmatization, as Moishe Postone argues, obscures “the role played by capitalism in the reproduction of grief.” Far easier to let the Sikhs and the Latinos, the Muslims and the Africans bear the social cost for economic hopelessness and political powerlessness than to target the real problem: the structures that benefit the 1% and allow them to luxuriate in Richistan.
* Sikhs are not Muslims. The second argument, now clichéd, is to make the case that this is violence at the wrong address. Sikhs did nothing wrong, they are peace-loving and so on. It assumes that there are people who did do something wrong, are war-mongering and therefore deserve to be targeted. The liberal gesture of innocence has within it the sharp edge of Islamaphobia. It seems to suggest that Muslims are the ones who should bear this violence, since their ilk did the attacks on 9/11 and they are, all two billion of them, at war with the United States. The attack on Sikhs is not a mistaken attack. Sikhs are not mistaken for Muslims, but seen as part of the community of outsiders who are, as Patrick Buchanan puts it in States of Emergency: The Third World Invasion and Conquest of America, “a fifth column inside the belly of the beast…Should America lose her ethnic-cultural core and become a nation of nations, America will not survive.” Wisconsin’s Governor Scott Walker is not far from all this, being a fan of the Arizona anti-human legislation. The Sikh Coalition, an anti-bias group, is fully aware that this is not simply a situation of mistaken identity. Its 2008 report, Making Our Voices Heard, notes that although it is not the case that Sikhs are members of the Taliban or clones of Bin Laden, it is this recurrent identification that has by now “created an environment in which Sikhs are regularly singled out for abuse and mistreatment by both private and, at times, public actors.” Strikingly, forty-one percent of Sikhs in New York City reported being called derogatory names, half of the Sikh children reported being teased or harassed because of their Sikh identity and one hundred percent of Sikhs report having to endure secondary screenings at some US airports.