In spite of the media’s obsession about the case, I had not followed closely the trial of George Zimmerman, a Florida man of mixed ethnic heritage charged with second degree murder in the shooting death of unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, an African American, in February, 2012. I was repulsed from the sensationalizing of this tragedy by the media for ratings, with the hours of talk by dozens of legal experts for its own sake, and particularly avoiding very salient discussions about racial implications. I wasn’t interested in being fed soundbite fodder that took the place of meaningful discussion and questioning of larger societal issues. What I would have liked to see — in-depth journalism and actual holding to account about the circumstances and implications of the case — was largely absent, in my view.
Still, last Saturday night, when the jury in the Zimmerman trial announced that they had reached a verdict, I was glued to my television. I wanted to see what consequence would befall a man who profiled, stalked, and then murdered an innocent, young black man who was minding his own business on a dark, rainy night. The reason for my more-than-passing investment in the outcome of this trial was that the murder of Trayvon Martin rang familiar to the murders and attacks on Sikh Americans that have occurred in this country over the past decade and beyond.
While those who are more versed in the legal system contend that the jury made the correct decision given the law, I was disappointed as many were about the outcome. I found it incredulous that a man who killed an innocent person based on no other reason besides being present, can walk out of the courtroom a free man with nary a legal consequence. Clearly, the legal standard failed what most of us would consider true justice.
It is not a unique circumstance. Too many times in this country, innocent people of color are racially profiled and are assaulted verbally, physically, and fatally. This is not news to the Middle Eastern, South Asian or the Sikh community (or other any community of color), who often face accusations of terrorist ties because of perpetuated stereotypes about skin color, place of origin and/or religious articles of faith such as uncut hair and the Sikh turban. We often term these attacks as “backlash” crimes in the context of 9/11, but it is clear, as in the death of Trayvon Martin, that there is an undercurrent of something else. The backlash, as it were, is more an open surge of something already present. Indeed, since our arrival as a community over one hundred years ago, Sikh Americans have both enjoyed opportunity but also been the victims of hate crimes in this country — as early as the Bellingham Riots in 1907 in Washington State to the beating of an elderly Sikh man in Fresno, California, only months ago. Besides hate crimes, we are victims of perpetuated bias by media portrayals about the brown South Asian, and by systemic profiling actions by our institutions.
During the investigation and trial that let to Zimmerman’s acquittal, we also saw a backlash directed towards the murdered victim, a phenomenon that itself is not uncommon. Many portrayed Trayvon Martin as someone less than innocent — that somehow, he deserved this fate. He did not. And, much like with him, the same phenomenon has occurred with Sikh American victims of discrimination and hate crime. One only needs to look at the mass murder of six Sikhs in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, almost one year ago, when the media was more obsessed about seeking explanations about who the Sikhs were and why we look the way we do, rather than rigorously investigate the attacker and the system that produced him (and others like him). As much as George Zimmerman walked out of his courtroom as a free man, white supremacy, too, was allowed to walk free after Oak Creek, as well. There has been little discussion in these cases about the circumstances that have led these men to commit acts of violence or murder innocent people simply based on racial prejudice, and for that, we must continue to hold the system to account.
While the intent is obviously touching, it has become cliche to show solidarity using “We are [victim]” statements. Certainly, Sikh Americans are not Trayvon Martin, and most of us are not African Americans. We certainly do not share the same history, and we benefit from a certain level of privilege that an African American might not. But, as with the African American community, we too carry a burden of being racially profiled and constantly seen as a threat or, at the very least, as undesirables. We live with the gnawing fear of harm in being a person of color and being out late at night (as in Florida), or driving a cab (such as in California or Washington State), being elderly and out for a walk (as in California), taking public transit (as in New York), sending our children to school (as in Georgia), or even visiting our own houses of worship (as in Wisconsin and California).
When we realize that our experiences in this country converge with those of other communities, we also realize that, despite differences in how we got here, their experience is also our experience today.