ProPublica, the investigative journalism powerhouse, doesn’t have a religion reporter even though it has a raft of other specialties ranging from civil rights, the military and health care to consumer finance, tech and education.
Why this newsroom doesn't cover the motivating force behind how billions of people live their lives is a puzzle but recently the organization did come out with a piece about religion.
Called “Sikhs in America: A History of Hate,” it chronicles how a blameless religious minority has been mistaken for Muslims for years and often murdered in cold blood because of that misperception. Remember, it was not a Muslim but a Sikh: Balbir Singh Sodhi, who was murdered at a gas station in Arizona right after 9/11.
The lengthy first-person feature begins with an incident that took place not far from where I live.
The 1907 episode in a seaside timber town in Washington came to be known as the Bellingham Riots. Really, though, there were no riots. There was a pogrom.
At the time, the U.S. was suffering through deep economic distress, a panic-filled recession that had begun the year before. Angry anti-immigrant sentiment was ascendant. And hundreds of Sikh men who had traveled from India to Bellingham to toil in the lumber mills paid the price.
Some 500 white men, many of them members of the local Asiatic Exclusion League, descended on the Sikhs and other South Asians, routing them from the bunkhouses where they roomed and chasing them into the streets. Within hours, the entire Sikh population of Bellingham had fled, frantically piling onto trains and boats in search of some sort of refuge. Many had been physically battered.
I knew nothing about this incident until I visited Washington state this spring and met with members of the Sikh community there. For them, it was easy to draw at least some parallels between that century-old ugliness and recent events. Immigrants were again being demonized. Lost jobs were fueling white working-class despair and resentment. Hate crimes were reported to be up. Yelling, “Get out of my country!” a gunman had shot two Indian software engineers in an Applebee’s restaurant in Kansas. Closer to home, in Kent, a suburb of Seattle, a man had shot a Sikh in an apparent hate crime.
After giving a brief history of the religion, whose adherents in India have often been massacred either by Hindus or Muslims or a combination thereof, reporter A.C. Thompson returns to present-day America.
There are an estimated 500,000 Sikhs living in the U.S., many in New York and California. In recent years, Yuba City, California, a small city in the middle of the Sacramento Valley, has become a major hub for Sikhs -- Yuba City’s annual Nagar Kirtan parade, a key holy event, draws as many as 150,000 people from around the world.
In the U.S., Sikhs are a frequent target for xenophobes and haters. They are often immigrants or the children of immigrants. They tend to have brown skin. And their garb and personal grooming practices set them apart. Following the directives of the gurus, observant male Sikhs do not cut their hair — ever — and many keep their locks covered by a turban whenever they leave the house. They also typically refrain from shaving, often growing robust beards.
Initially, the look was intended to distinguish Sikhs from the adherents of other religions. But in America, the bulk of the populace knows little to nothing about Sikhism, so they see a person with a turban and assume he’s a Hindu or a Muslim.
The piece goes on to interview three Sikhs and do a profile of a man who killed six Sikhs in Wisconsin in August 2012.
I was aware of some crimes against Sikhs but I had no idea there were that many nor how serious they were. (Not until 2015 did the FBI start tracking hate crimes against Sikhs.) Many of the beaten-up victims, targeted because of their turbans, were in hospitals for months. Their financial losses were staggering.
After some female passengers screamed at a Sikh taxi driver,
Mukker was still feeling dejected over the incident. He seemed tired. Tired of people calling him towel head or diaper head or terrorist. He was tired of people telling him he wasn’t an American, even though he’s a U.S. citizen and has lived in Illinois for more than half his life.
He said he’d decided to take a different approach to his job. Mukker told me he would drive like “a dead person.” By that he meant he wouldn’t chat with his passengers or get upset when they verbally abused him. From now on he’d smother all of his emotions, make himself as cold as a corpse.
Because insults and slurs can’t hurt the already dead.
What’s so heartbreaking about this article is how the hate isn’t going anywhere soon. And how after tons of publicity about how Sikhs belong to a completely different faith than Muslims, most Americans still don't get it and don’t care.
What’s curious is how little has been written in the media about crimes against Sikhs compared with articles about incidents against Muslims and Jews. This particular article was done by a criminal justice reporter with ProPublica’s “Documenting Hate” project, which reports on extremists, and those victimized by them.
Would that ProPublica would do more investigative articles on religion; articles that most other publications lack the staff, the will or the money to pursue. And may other media take a second look at Sikhs in their coverage areas. I’m willing to bet there’s a lot more stories like this out there.