The War on Terror Fuels Racial Bullying

Community advocates demand policy changes as Sikh kids face more violence.

By Julianne Hing Mar 17, 2009

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 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 until 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 neighborhood of south-central Queens, 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. “With Sikhs in particular, we have been racially constructed by mainstream society as Arabs or Muslims,” said Sonny Singh, adding that violence against any community is deplorable.

“If you think of it as interlocking, overlapping Olympic rings, Sikh kids are viewed as immigrants whether they are or not. They are viewed as Muslim or Arab and viewed as terrorists. And they’re kids of color,” said Wessler. “When you put all of those together, it is much, much more than the sum of its parts.”

Premi’s family transferred him to a new school, where he has the support of teachers and administrators who have been attentive to his needs as a new immigrant struggling with English. His parents have since filed a lawsuit against Richmond Hill High School for violating his civil rights and allowing his daily harassment.

For many in the Sikh community, Premi’s story reminded them of what happened in 2007 when 15-year-old Harpal Vacher had his hair cut by a classmate and flushed down the toilet at his Queens high school. And in May of 2008, when Garrett Green set a Sikh schoolmate’s patka on fire during a fire drill at Hightstown High School in New Jersey. When, five days after Premi’s attack 12-year-old Gurprit Kaur had her hair cut off and thrown in the trash by a classmate at PS 219 in Flushing, the community was sparked to protest.

Kaur’s brother Talwinder Singh was often called a “potato head” and a “turbanator.” Classmates would yell that his patka was a bomb and that people should run away from him because he was going to blow up everyone around him. “I like school,” said Talwinder Singh, “but not the kids.”

In July 2008, 200 people marched from two Sikh gurdwaras in Richmond Hill to Richmond Hill High School to demand that the Department of Education take action to end the racial bullying so rampant in New York City schools. “We have no elected officials, no votes. All we have is public embarrassment or lawsuits,” said Amardeep Singh.

By the end of the summer, more than 1,800 signatures were gathered from people demanding transparency, reporting and action from the Department of Education. The agitation and public shaming worked. In September, Mayor Bloomberg and New York Chancellor of Schools Joel Klein announced a resolution to regulate the reporting and response to racial bullying in schools.

According to Sonny Singh, the new regulation will establish a protocol for school officials to track and investigate bias-based bullying on their campuses. Administrators are required to report every incident of bias-based bullying, designate a point person who kids can report incidents to and institute training on anti-bias initiatives.  

But Sonny Singh is hesitant to say that the resolution alone will solve the problems plaguing Sikh kids. “The way the resolution is written right now, a principal could invite his brother or sister to do a training and then check that box off,” Singh said.

Better reporting of incidents, while popular as a policy point, won’t be enough to change the culture of schools and the institutionalized racism that undergirds these schoolyard hate crimes.

Wessler suggests that schools like Richmond Hill High School can affect change by having adults trained in hate crime prevention sit down with students and facilitate face-to-face dialogue for several weeks. “We have seen dramatic evidence that yes, in fact, when people start communicating directly, prejudice goes down,” Wessler said. “Until you empower kids to stand up for other kids across racial, ethnic and religious lines, there’s only so much that administrators can do.”