Magazine article Colorlines Magazine

The War on Terror Fuels Racial Bullying: Community Advocates Demand Policy Changes as Sikh Kids Face More Violence

Magazine article Colorlines Magazine

The War on Terror Fuels Racial Bullying: Community Advocates Demand Policy Changes as Sikh Kids Face More Violence

Article excerpt

ADJUSTING TO HIGH SCHOOL always takes time, especially when you're the new kid on the block. But for Jagmohan Singh Premi, a practicing Sikh with quiet, almond-shaped eyes, school only became scarier and more dangerous the more time he spent there. The teenager endured daily epithets--"terrorist" and "bin Laden" were most common--and taunts about his turban and beard during his freshman year at Richmond Hill High School in Flushing, Queens. He had just emigrated to the United States from India the year before.


As required by his faith, Premi kept his uncut hair bundled in a small turban, called a patka, which students would tear off his head. Despite repeated appeals by Premi to school administrators for intervention, the main perpetrator continued to torment him. Last June, the perpetrator not only tried to pull Premi's patka off but also punched Premi in the eye with keys gripped between his knuckles in the middle of class. Premi suffered a swollen and bloodied eye.

When Sikh community advocates demanded to speak with administrators, they were met with indifference.

"The assistant principal didn't get that pulling off his turban would be a violation of his Sikh identity," said Sonny Singh, an organizer with the Sikh Coalition, a national advocacy group. It wasn't untill someone said that would be the equivalent of attempting to remove a Jewish boy's yarmulke that she got it."

Premi's family didn't face racism only on school grounds. His father worked for National Wholesale Liquidators, a New York company recently found guilty of religious and sexual harassment of its Sikh employees. The company has since filed for bankruptcy, and Premi's father has lost his job. "If it's not the father facing it, it's the child," said Amardeep Singh, executive director of the Sikh Coalition.

The physical assault last June was the last straw for Premi, whose family pulled him out of the school, but it was no surprise for the Sikh community in the Richmond Hill community in Flushing, where the majority of Sikh students report being targeted for racial bullying at school. In 2008, a spate of incidents aimed at Sikh students across the city made headlines after they turned violent.

Sixty-five percent of Sikh students in Queens, New York, experience some kind of racial intimidation or bullying, ranging from verbal assaults to physical violence, according to a study released by the Sikh Coalition in 2007. Others though think the rates are even higher.

"I would venture to say the real number is close to a hundred percent," said Steve Wessler, the executive director of the Center for the Prevention of Hate Violence, a group that develops curriculum and conducts trainings to combat prejudice. Wessler added that his group has seen racial harassment increasingly turn into hate crimes in schools over the last decade because enduring racist attitudes are being compounded by anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim bias in the country. "When it seems no one else takes it seriously, it becomes normalized," he said. "Being called a terrorist becomes background noise."

Sonny Singh pointed to pervasive racism and xenophobia, encouraged by U.S. policies of detention and deportation and the War on Terror abroad, as the fuel for the racial bullying in schools. "Over the summer, when Barack Obama was called Muslim, John McCain said, 'No, he's not an Arab. He's a good man," recalled Singh. "Islamaphobia is spiraling out of control."

Sikhs, a religious group originally from Punjab, India, whose communities number 30,000 in Richmond Hill and 25,000 in New Jersey, have been caught in the crossfire of hate along with Muslims and Arabs. …

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