MESA, Ariz. -- Sikh entrepreneur Balbir Singh Sodhi was killed at his Arizona gas station four days after the Sept. 11 attacks by a man who declared he was "going to go out and shoot some towel-heads" and mistook him for an Arab Muslim.
Young Sikh Americans still struggle a generation later with the discrimination that 9/11 unleashed against their elders and them, ranging from school bullying and racial profiling to hate crimes -- especially against males, who typically wear beards and turbans to demonstrate their faith.
As the 20th anniversary of Sept. 11 arrives, those younger Sikhs say much more is needed to improve how hate crimes against their community are tracked. The FBI didn't begin tracking hate crimes specifically against Sikhs until 2015, and many local law enforcement agencies fail to record bias attacks comprehensively.
"The onus is on a community organization like ours to identify the problem and then build support" to ensure better reporting, said Satjeet Kaur, executive director of the Sikh Coalition. Formed in the wake of Sept. 11, the largest Sikh advocacy group in the United States documented more than 300 cases of violence and discrimination against Sikh Americans in just the first few months.
Such attacks can be particularly hard on young Sikhs, who face bullying by classmates who try to yank off their turbans or mock them as "Osama's nephew" or "Saddam Hussein." They often struggle with the Sikh philosophy of "chardi kala," which calls for steadfast optimism in the face of oppression.
"The eternal optimism can help us get through it, but sometimes you also have to highlight the harsh realities," said Tejpaul Bainiwal, 25, a doctoral candidate at the University of California, Riverside, who is studying the history of Sikhs who first began arriving in the United States in the late 1800s.
Bainiwal acknowledges he got into plenty of fistfights in high school with other students who tugged at his head covering and taunted him. He said terrified Sikh families debated whether to continue displaying outward signs of faith after the Aug. 5, 2012, massacre at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis., which ultimately killed seven worshippers.
Now, as Americans watch from afar the events unfolding in Afghanistan, Bainiwal reflected on how Sikhs have been mislabeled and mischaracterized through history.
"One hundred years ago we were labeled Hindus, then Saudi Arabians, and when Iran was in the American eye we were called 'the ayatollah.'"
Media images of turbaned and bearded Taliban leaders who recently regained control of Afghanistan with the withdrawal of U.S. troops have made Sikh Americans nervous again as they warn one another about those who incorrectly see their turbans and beards as symbols of extremism. In the Sikh faith, long uncut hair is one of five articles of the faith. Most males and some women traditionally wear head coverings over their long locks.
The FBI listed 67 anti-Sikh crimes in 2020, the highest annual number since the category was created in 2015, said criminologist and civil rights attorney Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino.
Levin told the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs on Aug. 5 that domestic extremism often follows "catalytic events" that provoke fear, such as the coronavirus outbreak, which sparked anti-Asian violence; the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol; and today's anniversary of Sept. 11.
After the 2001 attacks, Balbir Singh Sodhi was among the first of Sikhs, Arab Muslims and others targeted in hate crimes.
Airplane mechanic Frank Roque was convicted of first-degree murder in the Sept. 15, 2001, killing and was sentenced to death before that was commuted to life imprisonment. Roque also was accused of drive-by shootings the same day at an Afghan family's home and a Lebanese man's convenience store, although no one was injured in those attacks.
Rose Kaur Sodhi, Balbir Singh Sodhi's niece, was a second-grader getting ready for a relative's birthday party when her family learned of her uncle's murder.
"We knew something was terribly wrong because my dad came home crying. I had never seen that before," she said of her father and Balbir's brother, Rana Singh Sodhi, who became a well-known figure in the Sikh American community and taught her to share her family's story and advocate for peace.
"That gas station where he was murdered is our ground zero," said activist filmmaker Valarie Kaur, who refers to Balbir Singh Sodhi, a family friend, as "uncle." Local and national dignitaries have been invited to remember Sodhi at a memorial there Wednesday.