This Thursday, First Lady Michelle Obama will be visiting the families of the victims of the shooting at the Gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. Her visit is scheduled almost three weeks after the murders of six innocent congregants at the hands of a white supremacist:
Tejpreet Kaur, a Sikh Coalition community organizer, called the first lady’s visit a “necessary step.” Victims and their families needed to have the events of Aug. 5 and the loss of family members “recognized at this level,” she said.
“I think it’s great the first lady is coming to pay her respects,” Kaur said. “It’s such a large atrocity that happened and I think (visiting with families) is something that needed to be done by either the first lady or the president.”
There is no doubt that this is a significant visit, as neither President Barack Obama nor the Republican candidate for president Mitt Romney have made an effort to visit the site of the attack to date. Since the tragic shooting, the absence of either leading politician has been noted by the Sikh community and others, particularly so because both politicians visited Aurora, Colorado only days after the mass shooting that occurred there in July. A week afterwards, journalist Ghalzana Irshad discussed the Oak Creek attack (in the context of other attacks on places of worship that took place across the country) in the Huffington Post:
A week has gone by since Oak Creek’s shooting, and there has been barely a word from either candidate after their initial statements. To add insult to injury, Michelle visited Aurora just this weekend, while the Oak Creek victims’ blood is still fresh.
On Sunday, Obama was in Chicago while Romney was in his running mate Representative Paul Ryan’s hometown of Janesville, Wisconsin–both cities an equidistant 90 minute drive to Oak Creek. Yet neither politician visited.
Despite many open and public calls to Obama and Romney, it was appearing that the victims in Oak Creek, Wisconsin were being ignored, even when both political leaders were near the area in recent days. Romney’s gaffe after the attack in referring to Sikhs as “sheiks” at a fundraiser only added to the sense that the victims in Oak Creek were not being taken seriously by the country’s leading politicians. When asked by the media whether the President would be making a visit, his spokespeople would only state that nothing was scheduled while expressing sympathy for the victims.
Among the growing calls from the community, the most significant was that from Amardeep Kaleka, son of murdered victim Satwant Singh Kaleka (the founder of the Oak Creek Gurdwara who fought off the attacker, losing his life in the process). Last week, Amardeep Kaleka wondered why there was not an effort by either leader to visit Oak Creek:
“Why wouldn’t they, at some point, make a stand. Make a stand for everybody out there who’s ever been robbed, or gunned down or has faced this hatred,” Mr. Kaleka said.
…“I think a personal visit is absolutely necessary. All politics aside, a personal visit, even with the victims’ families, the temple, the people, for him to take pictures with people who have turbans and beards on does so much for our safety,” said Mr. Kaleka. “Separation is what fuels this hate, or what fuels the violence against other people.”
It is encouraging that the White House is finally making a personal effort to reach out to the victims, but in the delay to do so, it is hard not to allow some cynicism to enter into the perception of the visit. Why did it take so long, and so many calls, for such a visit to be made? Why did it take the open plea by a member of a victim’s family for the White House to give the Oak Creek victims the same dignity as those of other attacks? At a loss for an explanation, Amardeep Kaleka had offered two theories last week:
…Mr. Kaleka believes there’s two main reasons why the Sikh community in Oak Creek hasn’t gotten the same kind of support from the president that the people of Aurora received–the tense political climate in Wisconsin and the fact Sikhs are a religious minority.
And, today, Amardeep Kaleka discusses it further:
No matter what was happening that week, it should have been top priority on any leader’s list to do something to acknowledge and help right this situation. The president should have made phone calls to representatives of the Sikh community. The media should have sent their best and brightest to Wisconsin to dissect the phenomenon of hate murders — to its credit, CNN did. Civil rights leaders would have done well to evaluate the nuances of the massacre, to shed light on their own causes. In turn, they would have gained an ally in the Sikh community.
This is not to undermine the gesture by the First Lady. I can only surmise from my distant vantage point that her visit is certainly welcomed by the Oak Creek community, and indeed, many Sikhs have rightly shown appreciation that Michelle Obama will be visiting the victims. However, as a Sikh American, the implications of how this visit has come to be has left me asking questions about the nature of equality in this country.