But despite the presence of grief and raw emotions, one of the most controversial issues of the hearing was seemingly the most mundane: the importance of a check-box. This significant detail was raised by Hapreet Singh Saini, 18, as he addressed Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), who chaired the hearing for the Senate Judiciary subcommittee.
Saini, who lost his mother, Paramjit Kaur, just forty-five days prior after a white supremacist walked into the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin and shot her while she was praying, delivered a moving and often tearful testimony about the importance of data representation.
“Senators, I came here today to ask the government to give my mother the dignity of being a statistic,” he said. “My mother and those shot that day will not even count on a federal form. We cannot solve a problem we refuse to recognize.”
Watch Saini’s powerful testimony below:
Saini’s request sounds simple, but is rooted in a troublesome reality: The FBI and the Department of Justice currently do not have a “check box” for Sikh Americans, meaning they don’t track hate crimes specifically perpetrated against Sikhs. They instead list attacks on Sikh Americans in the same category as Muslim, Arab, and South Asian Americans, meaning crimes committed against these groups are statistically – and therefore, often perceived to be – indistinguishable.
Indeed, Sikhs, which number anywhere from 200,000 to 700,000 in the US, have been the victim of increased violence since September 11th, 2001, in part because their tradition of wearing turbans is sometimes mistaken for Muslim dress. A bi-partisan letter sent last month to Attorney General Eric Holder from 19 senators underscored the importance of collecting data specifically committed against Sikhs, saying it was important because it can “identify specific trends and help federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies properly allocate resources”
By way of example, at the hearing Durbin highlighted the coordinated efforts of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Jewish community to protect Jewish synagogues, community centers, and schools, which are subject to a disproportionate number of hate crimes every year. Durbin offered these efforts as a possible model for the Sikh community, noting how the DHS works closely with the Secure Community Network, a non-profit organization which functions as the “central address to serve and advise the American Jewish community concerning matters of communal safety, security and preparedness,” to increase security awareness and more effectively protect the Jewish community. In fact, Durbin explained that “this year Jewish organizations received almost ten million dollars in funding” from the DHS Non-Profit Security Grant to secure the community’s infrastructure.
By contrast, Sikhs have been asking for a Sikh-specific hate crime statistic for more than two years.