Crime & Justice

Long before they were 'apparent Muslims,' Sikhs were targeted in US

Darsh Singh, the first Sikh-American to play basketball in the NCAA, became the subject of an <a href=Islamophobic meme earlier this year." title="Darsh Singh, the first Sikh-American to play basketball in the NCAA, became the subject of an Islamophobic meme earlier this year." role="img" aria-label="Darsh Singh, the first Sikh-American to play basketball in the NCAA, became the subject of an Islamophobic meme earlier this year." data-assethost="" data-ah-videoid="" style="background-image:url(https://a.scpr.org/i/ddc199ad26f877e96dbec6cec7c4d769/116581-full.jpg);" />
Darsh Singh, the first Sikh-American to play basketball in the NCAA, became the subject of an Islamophobic meme earlier this year.
LM Otero/AP

Early one morning last weekend, Amrik Singh Bal, 68, was standing along a stretch of highway in Fresno, Calif., waiting for a ride to work. Two white men pulled up beside him, hurling obscenities out their window.

The Fresno Bee reports that Bal, who is Sikh, has a white beard and was wearing a blue turban, tried crossing the street to get away when the men in the truck pulled a U-turn and drove into him, knocking him to the ground. They got out, launched punches into Bal's face and body, then sped off into the morning fog.

Bal is one of dozens of Sikh-Americans attacked in recent years. Some scholars estimate there are about a hundred thousand Sikhs in the U.S. and 25 million worldwide. They have roots in the Punjab region of South Asia and practice a monotheistic religion based on the 15-century teachings of an Indian guru. The Sikh Coalition, a nonprofit legal group, has analyzed more than 140 actual or suspected hate crimes against Sikhs in the U.S. between 2001 and 2012. The group says that this past month alone, it's received a surge of calls from Sikhs seeking legal help — three times as many in the same time last year.

The Washington Post's Peter Holley details a long string of attacks following 9/11 when Sikhs in America were attacked because their assailants mistook them for Muslims: the shootings at the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis., the beating of Inderjit Singh Mukker in a Chicago suburb after he was called "bin Laden," the shooting of a Sikh store clerk in Grand Rapids, Mich., after he was accused of being a terrorist.

But while Sikh-Americans have come under increased scrutiny in recent years due to the misconception that they follow Islam, the history of Sikhs in America coming under attack begins long before the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The first documented attack on Sikhs in the U.S. took place on Sept. 4, 1907, in Bellingham, Wash., a coastal city less than two hours north of Seattle. Three decades before, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 banned Chinese citizens from coming to the U.S., and tension between whites and various other immigrant groups was mounting. ("Have We a Dusky Peril?" wondered the Puget Sound American the year before the Bellingham attack.)

Just after midnight on Sept. 4, a mob of men descended upon the city's "Hindoo" immigrants, as some newspapers broadly referred to South Asians. (Newspapers of the day weren't particularly great at parsing minority identities or ethnicity.) "Religious Sikh men, who wore the dastar, a turban head covering that is a symbol of the Sikh faith, were especially targeted," Erika Lee writes in her book The Making of Asian America.

Most of the immigrants were Sikh men between ages 20 and 40 originally from Punjab. They had come to the States by way of Vancouver, B.C., traveling on British steam boats to Washington state to find work at lumber mills.

The mob — some newspapers at the time reported nearly 500 people — broke into the boarding houses where Sikh workers were staying, pulling them from their beds and into the streets to beat them. Some of the Sikh men were robbed of gold and clothing, worth as much as $4,000 per man. The throng was made of white union men who worked in the lumber and milling industries, and claimed the Sikhs were taking their jobs.

The mob's message was clear: Get out of town.

Bellingham's leaders and police stepped in and had the Sikh men corralled in a jail under city hall for the night — for their own safety, it was said. No witnesses came forward, and no one was ever charged. At the time of the beatings, there were reportedly nine police present, according to a new documentary produced by a Sikh temple near Bellingham titled We Are Not Strangers.

The Seattle Morning Times argued the incident was "not a question of race, but of wages" and like many newspapers in that time, commiserated with the union members:

"When men who require meat to eat and real beds to sleep in are ousted from their employment to make room for vegetarians who can find the bliss of sleep in some filthy corner, it is rather difficult to say at what limit indignation ceases to be righteous."

And so, fearing for their lives, hundreds of Sikhs fled Bellingham. Many went on train south to Seattle and Oakland, some north to Vancouver, B.C., where similar riots awaited them.

In fact, just three days after the Bellingham incident, Lee writes in her book, "Vancouver was ripped apart by a related anti-Asian riot that swept through the Chinese and Japanese quarters and left destruction in its wake." In Seattle, a week after Bellingham, a wire report headlined "Hindus Attempt to Slaughter Swedes" tells the story of a bizarre bar fight between "20 Swedes and a hundred 'Hindus'" who were "recently from Bellingham." Mid-fight, the Swedes, joined by a policeman and a one-legged man, barricaded themselves in a saloon until the so-called Hindus fled.

News reports following these attacks elsewhere in the country were often gleeful. "Every Hindu mill employee in the city has quit work, and nothing will persuade them to remain," a wire service reported. "They are fleeing to more congenial pastures of the North like flocks of sheep."

Decades later, those "congenial pastures" remain elusive for Sikh-Americans. From unnamed Sikhs who suffered attacks on "Hindoos," to Inderjit Singh Mukker or Prakash Singh or Amrik Singh Bal, all attacked in recent years for being "Muslim," the justifications may have changed, but the violence is much the same.

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