Safe Communities Start With Each of Us

A friend posted this on her Facebook feed last week: "This warning is to everyone but more specifically my hijab/niqab-wearing sisters -- please be careful, don't stand too close to the train tracks, we need to be on high alert."

Her warning was related to the gruesome death of a 46-year-old Indian-Hindu man who was shoved onto the path of an oncoming train at a subway stop in New York City at the end of 2012. According to authorities, the woman held in custody for pushing Sunando Sen said: "I pushed a Muslim off the train tracks because I hate Hindus and Muslims ever since 2001 when they put down the twin towers..."

My friend's response is one that many of us who are South Asian, Arab American, Muslim or Sikh can understand. We say "Be safe" to each other, with the silent understanding that those words, when spoken to our Sikh brother, our Muslim sister, our brown-skinned father, carry the weight of over a decade of profiling, hate crimes, deportations, and school bullying. "Be safe," we say, because it is possible that you will get harassed or hurt out there.

The warnings are for good reason. The FBI reports that hate crimes against Muslims in the U.S. rose 50 percent in 2010. The year 2012 saw even more incidents of backlash against our community members. Just a few weeks ago, a man entered a mosque in Fremont and shouted that he would shoot worshippers there. In August, six Sikhs were shot and killed at a gurudwara in the nation's heartland, in a tragedy that the U.S. Department of Justice called a hate crime.

In our country, we have a tendency to condemn racist sentiment and actions, but then often leave it to others to confront it -- usually, the racial or ethnic group that is at the receiving end. But all the organizing and advocacy within the so-called post-9/11 affected communities can only go so far in changing the climate in our country. Rather, all Americans must see hate violence as part of a history, past and present, of racism and xenophobia in our country, and make it clear that we cannot and should not tolerate in any shape or form.

We must see the connections between the ongoing harassment of African-Americans on our streets and the profiling of Arab-Americans at our airports. We must see the link between the mistreatment of undocumented Mexican immigrants and the detentions of hundreds of thousands of people from South Asian and Middle Eastern countries. We must see the connection between the violence that is sadly becoming commonplace -- from Newtown to Aurora to Oak Creek -- and call for an end to all of it.

There are examples of this already in our midst: Japanese and Muslim students in Los Angeles learn about the similarities of their histories by visiting internment camps; online portals such as enable friends to share the commonalities that bring them together; elected leaders at local and national levels introduce legislation and hold hearings to preserve civil rights; and community members such as those in Oak Creek, Wisc., who continue to support the gurudwara in the wake of the tragedy there nearly six months ago.

All of us deserve to feel safe and welcome in our schools, neighborhoods, subways and places of worship. As the new year opens, let us ask what each of us can do to create these communities so that the words "Be safe" need not be uttered with worry and fear any longer.

Deepa Iyer is the Executive Director of South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT).