Howard University

Jasbir Bawa: The Jurist; Special Commencement 2012 Issue


I Am Trayvon Martin Too:

Fighting Against Racial Profiling of Communities of Color

By Jasbir (Jesse) Bawa, Legal Writing Instructor
Howard University School of Law

One day this past semester, I brought my hoodie to school. I told one of my students that I did that because I am Trayvon Martin too. He looked at me like I was crazy. And rather than simply explain my thought process to just him, I thought it prudent to explain it to our wider community.

In case we haven’t met, I am someone readily identifiable as “foreign” or “other.” I am clearly not black or white. My ancestry is Indian and I was born and raised in Canada. Because I am not African American, I often get asked by prospective employers why I chose to attend Howard University School of Law (HUSL). My rationale is simple: no matter where I am, I will always be an “other” and an outsider that doesn’t quite fit in. I chose Howard because the historical civil rights legacy of legends like Thurgood Marshall and Charles Hamilton Houston, among many others, spoke to my idealistic notion that I could help make the world a better place for everybody. There is no better place to learn to be a social engineer.

I attended this law school long ago enough that many things have changed but recently enough that 9-11 was fresh and new in my classmates’ and my social consciousness. I remember trying to convince my fellow classmates during a presentation in Advanced Evidence that the racial profiling of any community is wrong. I was shocked by how vehemently most of them disagreed with me. This was a time where my particular community was a walking target. The Sikhs, a tiny religious minority out of India whose adherents grow their hair and wear turbans as an article of faith, were being mistaken for the enemy–those that attacked this nation. Hate crimes against my community were rampant and Muslims and anyone perceived as or mistaken for Muslim, including my own Sikh community, was now the object of outright hatred. We were so caught off guard. I had been detained and searched at airports more times than I care to count. My elderly mother was strip searched at the airport because of her ethnic dress, which she still describes as the most humiliating experience of her life. And my dear husband, a tall Sikh man with a turban and a beard, was viewed with such public suspicion that I truly feared for his personal safety. Verbal abuse from strangers was commonplace, as we walked through the mall or other public places. And yet in this very law school, where discrimination was battled and justice triumphed over injustice in the quest for civil rights, I was being told by my peers that my civil rights weren’t the same as their civil rights. My civil rights were not as important because profiling me and those like me was in the interests of national security. My community and I were suspicious and that was justified. Despite this incident, years later, I came back to Howard to teach Legal Writing. As part of the faculty, I watched with pride as the Howard University School of Law community reacted with outrage to the Trayvon Martin tragedy. Are my students suspicious because they are predominantly black and wear hoodies? Certainly not.

On March 24, 2012, in California, Shaima Alawadia, a 32-year-old American mother of five children ranging in ages from 8 to 17, was beaten to death with a tire iron simply because she wore a Muslim head-covering (hijab) and was of Iraqi descent. The note next to her body told the family to “go back to where they came from” and called them “terrorists.” Just as frightening are the comments posted online about any article referencing Shaima’s death. Over a decade after 9-11, there is still a very strong public animus against Muslims even though the truth is that all Muslims are not terrorists.

September 11, 2001, is a defining moment for every American. For Sikh Americans, it marks the day that we became walking targets for hate. And we continue to do so to this day. In March 2011, two elderly Sikh men, a 78-year-old father Gurmej Atwal and his 67-year-old friend Surinder Singh were shot and killed while taking their daily afternoon stroll in their neighborhood in Elk Grove, California. In March of this year, National Public Radio reported the case of a Sikh family in Leesburg, Virginia that in a span of nine years had their home vandalized with graffiti, and recently received their third death threat despite moving to another state. This most recent letter was addressed to “The Turban Family.” The letter accuses the parents, grandparents, and children of being members of the Taliban. The letter reads, in part: “We ask you to leave the country as soon as possible, otherwise one of our people is going to shoot you dead.” One of the previous threats: “We will kill you; we will sell your children in Cuba, and tie up your women with your turbans.” These innocent people are not terrorists, but they are being terrorized.

I imagine that members of this Sikh family cannot live their day to day life without a palpable fear that impacts every move and decision they make. This fear is parallel to the struggles of black males and their families who live every day with the fear that they too will be profiled as suspicious simply for being black. I am not saying this is exactly the same, clearly the black community has a long history of maltreatment and racial profiling that stems back to slavery and the Jim Crow era, but there are common elements to the current civil rights of these different communities. The oneness is rooted in the fear of being profiled, the hatred, and the very real potential for violence against them. Every parent of a child of color wonders if their child will be victimized next simply on the basis of appearance. This past year, as part of my support and involvement with a Sikh civil rights group in this area, the Sikh American Legal and Education Fund (SALDEF), I invited some former students and some of my Legal Writing colleagues to their gala event. It was a colliding of my worlds: my personal fight for the civil rights of Sikh-Americans and my separate world teaching at Howard. I wanted to reconcile the two. Our table received a shout out from the prestigious keynote speaker, a HUSL alumnus working at the White House. I beamed with pride as HUSL received recognition from my community and my guests learned about the civil rights of a community of color that they knew little to nothing about. It didn’t stop there—one of the class of 2012 students, Chris Martin, sought to volunteer with SALDEF, providing them with legal research and writing on a civil rights issue. Listening to Chris Martin and Taneka Miller, my former students, speak about what they gained from this experience makes me hopeful.

Increasingly in our nation, ethnicity and race fuel the suspicion that one isn’t really American and does not really belong here. There are numerous victims of racial profiling of various communities of color: the numerous Sikh men wearing turbans and beards beaten or killed for appearing “suspicious.” Despite the truth that every Muslim is not a terrorist, and that every Spanish speaking person with brown skin is not illegally in this country, the wider dragnet allows for public distrust for anyone who might be perceived as a terrorist or an illegal immigrant—the target: brown skin. In Arizona and states like it that are seeking to enforce immigration law on a state level, speaking Spanish and having brown skin can result in detention absent proof of proper documentation proving legal status in this country. This is yet another instance where skin color and ethnicity amount to suspicion.

While hijabs and turbans, as articles of faith, are not synonymous to hoodies, on the morning after Shaima’s death, the authors of the parenting blog, Momstrology, tweeted: “A teen murdered for wearing hooded sweater. An Iraqi woman beaten to death for wearing a head scarf. Our hearts ache for you.” But the real issue is beyond the article of clothing—it is this purported suspicion that race and/or ethnicity create. When we react to other people simply based on our personal biases, we are judging people without knowing who they really are. While some judgment is inherent in personal interactions, such as an employer sizing up a prospective employee, this judgment is particularly insidious when we typecast an entire group of people as “suspicious” based upon fear. “Flying while brown” equals “suspicious,” just as readily as “driving while black.” The purported rationale for the suspicion is arguably different; the brown flier is typecast as a terrorist while the black driver a thief or other criminal. However, the outright result of profiling based upon race is the same. We as a society should not permit people’s fear to fuel notions of which communities of color are suspicious. Fear should not automatically equal suspicion and should never further an act of hatred or violence. This is precisely how hate crimes are born. History should teach us that to classify an entire group of people as suspicious for any reason is wrong. The persecution of Jews during WWII, and the internment of Japanese Americans are examples of the egregious actions that can occur when society permits the singling out of people simply based on what they look like. We must fight to educate people to act and react in celebration of all communities of color, instead of fear and suspicion against them. The reality is that enhancing the civil rights of one community is a step forward for every community.

Through the criminal trial of George Zimmerman, as we continue to act and react to the tragic death of Trayvon Martin and the demonization of black males more broadly, I implore you to remember all those that are profiled because of their race. While justice may be served for the Martin family, the fight must not end. Continue to fight for justice for the Alawadia family, and for the Atwal, and Singh families and all the unnamed souls who are profiled based on their appearance and are targeted or killed because of it. Fight for all of them by declaring all racial profiling wrong and unjust in every situation. Even back in 1967, Dr. King recognized that “returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

In the future, my now four year old son will sport a turban and beard. I wonder if I will have to fear for his safety the way I still fear for my husband. Will you be the social engineers fighting for his rights too? Within his first month of preschool at age three, he learned that he is viewed as “different” and that people don’t understand him and his long hair wrapped in a religious head covering. I will continue to teach him to celebrate differences and fight for justice for everyone fully anticipate challenges in his climb through adolescence as he learns to navigate the judgmental nature of people who don’t know what to make of his appearance and react with suspicion and distrust.

He will be innocent, yet suspicious. And in that sense, he is Trayvon Martin too.

And thus so am I.

updated:May 23, 2012