Op-Ed printed in The Harlem Times Nov/Dec Issue
White supremacy typically evokes images of Klansmen on night rides setting homes ablaze with burning crosses or white policemen hosing down African American protesters during the civil rights movement. However, white supremacy is also what led a group of black teenagers to violently attack a Sikh man in Harlem this September. Given that the attackers are not white, how then is white supremacy related?
Early reports indicated that a group of 15-20 young boys assaulted Dr. Prabhjot Singh yelling “Terrorist” and “Get Osama,” leaving him with several injuries including a fractured jaw. What Dr. Singh experienced is not an isolated incident. Though violence against Sikhs has increased in the last 10 years and some attribute this to 9/11, it is part of a much more complex narrative that pre-dates 9/11: long-standing histories of oppression and genocide of Sikhs in pre-colonial and post-colonial India as well as systemic racism in the U.S. Media reports of the attack against Dr. Singh have followed an almost prosaic plot, identifying post 9/11 backlash, Islamophobia, racial profiling and misidentification as the usual suspects but failing to address white supremacy as a root cause in both the past and present.
Though police have not yet identified the attackers, accounts from Dr. Singh and eyewitnesses intimate that his aggressors were young black boys. When Melissa Harris-Perry interviewed Dr. Singh, she remarked on her surprise that his assailants represent a group also targeted by racism. However, it is precisely their experience as targets of racism which likely motivated them. Black males continue to be targeted and profiled as dangerous or unsafe or less competent at work and school, as evidenced recently by the NYPD’s use of stop and frisk tactics and the murder of Trayvon Martin. Historically, groups systematically targeted by racism scapegoat other groups that pose real or perceived threats. During the founding years of the United States, divisions between communities began when slavery and colonialism were the reality of white on black relations. Tensions between people of South Asian and African heritage have an equally long history, spanning the 19th century when Indians first immigrated to Africa and the U.S. Lastly, race still defines our society, the way we see ourselves and other groups of people as it has for centuries though now in a more diverse context.
In many ways, what Dr. Singh experienced was similar to the way Irish, Jewish and Japanese immigrants were scapegoated in the 19th and 20th centuries in the U.S. Scapegoating has merely switched races to Muslims and Sikhs in the present-day, driving tensions between communities as it has in the past. Fear-driven, scapegoating involves blame tactics and dynamics of power and privilege that pit one group against another usually because of race, ethnicity or religion. In the case of the Jews and Japanese during WWII, scapegoating led to extreme levels of violence in the form of concentration camps and genocide. If eyewitness accounts are accurate, Dr. Singh was scapegoated in relation to terrorists like Osama bin Laden.
It is also noteworthy that Dr. Singh was attacked in Harlem, a site of intensifying gentrification, poverty, segregated schools and a symbol of racial discrimination – a topic that has received little attention in reports of the incident to date. While today’s demographic shifts have changed in Harlem, the ubiquitous role of white supremacy has not. For example, race has come to define our institutions and color our interactions with different ethno-racial and religious groups. Race continues to divide our schools, housing, neighborhoods, and labor force. Last September, the Civil Rights Project released a report that showed deepening segregation trends in schools making what should be equal opportunity out of poverty an impossibility. One need look no further than the Forbes 400 richest people list or recent reports on the race wealth gap to see white Americans on top. Even though our current president is African American, the majority of political power in our local and state offices lies in the hands of white males.
I have known Dr. Singh and his wife Manmeet Kaur for many years, I attended college with her and now we are part of the same community of Sikhs living in NYC. When I first learned about the assault, I immediately thought of their young 1-year-old son and my heart sank. I also thought of the young black and Latino boys I taught in segregated schools in NYC where I encountered the daily reality of racial segregation in the present day in a very visceral way. Once during a high school history lesson a few years ago, I referred to Malcolm X and was met with a room full of blank stares. That year, I taught in a predominantly black and Latino school to a group of boys who didn’t know the history of centuries of oppression directly related to their own identities. They also knew little about me and were curious about my hair, my nonexistent accent, my skin color and they expressed their curiosity in peculiarly antagonistic ways. It wasn’t unusual for them to yell racial slurs or throw desks across the room in fits of rage.
My former students are certainly not representative of all black and Latino males in NYC public schools, but my experience with them is telling for two reasons. First, it is clear to me they were mimicking what they had learned and seen, very much like the young black boy from Cheshire, Connecticut who marched wearing a white pointed hat and ghostly drape during the early 1990’s when the Ku Klux Klan rallied in his neighborhood on Sundays. Moreover, they were also reacting to racial oppression by targeting others the same way they have been targeted. As a teacher, I found the best way to reach them was through storytelling. A bedtime story about white supremacy seems appropriate now as it was then:
Once upon a time, Patriarch and Patricia had two sons named John White and Tom White. John White, the first son, was smart so his father Patriarch decided to give him all his money and land when he died. He called this primogeniture. John White forced people to labor over the land that was once his father’s and he called them serfs.
On the other hand, Tom White received no inheritance as the second son so he set out to sea to find the riches of the world. Life at sea was very difficult, anger and greed festered inside of him. One day, he found land as beautiful as heaven on earth. Nobody there looked like him or spoke his language. In the name of greed, he called them Nobodies and told them they were not good enough for their land because their skin color was too dark and their language was weird. When they tried to fight back with sticks, he used guns. The Nobodies, left with nothing, took over their neighbor’s land making them feel bad because they looked and acted differently.
More than lack of awareness and education, it was greed justified by race and a worldview in which only haves and have-nots exist that motivated Tom White. Sikhs are committed by their faith to stand up against this very injustice and inequality. It is why Dr. Singh invited his assailants to worship with him, his deep compassion palpable and piercing. The grief and anger of my former students was equally palpable, their profound frustration with trying but failing to succeed in a system based on inequality. Whether education, healthcare or government, our institutions perpetuate inequality and social and cultural norms reinforce them. This is what created ripe conditions for Dr. Singh’s attack. Without multidimensional solutions that address the intersectionality of racism in all of our institutions we will continue to live in a world of haves and have-nots where the cycle of violence spreads from one group to another.
Reposted with permission from The Harlem Times http://theharlemtimes.com/culture/bed-time-story