Monday, September 23, 2013

"He couldn't provide any descriptions about his assailants, and it seemed to me that in some way, he didn't want to remember them."

As many readers have probably already seen, a Columbia University professor named Prabhjot Singh was attacked by a large group of men on bicycles a couple of days ago in New York City (at the edge of Central Park -- 110th Street and Lenox Ave.). The incident is being investigated as a hate crime. You can read Simran Jeet Singh's account of the incident at the Huffington Post here. There is also a video interview with Prabhjot Singh at NBC New York here (including brief footage of his broken jaw).

A friend who is a journalist wrote me asking for a brief comment. Here's the statement I sent him. 

I don't know Prabhjot Singh personally, though we have many mutual friends and this incident has been saddening and disturbing for many of us.

Most Sikhs in the U.S. know that they are potentially subject to verbal abuse and hostility at virtually any time, though especially in large crowds. We also know that supposedly cosmopolitan cities like New York and San Francisco are actually not any better or worse than small towns when it comes to encountering mean-spirited people and thug-like behavior. What is admittedly a surprise is when that kind of name-calling turns into something else, as seems to be what happened here.

As always, with incidents of Muslim-bashing / Sikh-bashing, it seems important not to dwell on the fact that Sikhs are not Muslims. For one thing, the attackers may not care that much one way or the other. But more importantly, one doesn't want to sanction hateful speech or violence against any vulnerable group based on "correct" identification.

The attackers here appear to be young men in a large crowd thinking they own the city. A lone Sikh with a turban and beard presents a very visible possible target, especially in a relatively quiet place like the edge of Central Park at night. I can't help but suspect that the person they chose to target could just as easily have been a gay person (rightly or wrongly identified), or a woman.

I was especially struck by the following sentence in a post by Prabhjot's friend Simran Jeet Singh, which was published yesterday in the Huffington Post. Simran Jeet wrote, "He couldn't provide any descriptions about his assailants, and it seemed to me that in some way, he didn't want to remember them." This rings true to me. With many crimes of this sort (does it make sense to call it casual racist violence?), it seems the attackers may not know or care that much about the identities of their victims. But it goes both ways: for those of us who may be targeted in such attacks, the particular motivation that drove the attack is, from our perspective, much less important than our overwhelming desire just to be able to walk down the street safely -- and go about our business.

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