Balbir Singh Sodhi and his brother Rana Singh Sodhi, both turbaned Sikhs living in Mesa, Arizona, began immediately experiencing harassment the day after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. Friends of their faith called them with similar experiences.
Hoping to curb racism in the area and protect their loved ones, Rana Singh Sodhi said he and his brother swiftly set up meetings with local Sikh leaders. They planned a news conference around Sunday service in hopes of showing others what Sikhs look like and what they stand for.
But days later, Frank Silva Roque, a white aircraft mechanic who said he was going to “shoot some towel-heads” as retaliation for the attacks, mistook Balbir Singh Sodhi to be Muslim and murdered him on Sept. 15, 2001 outside the gas station he ran.
“That person, he killed my brother on Saturday,” Rana Singh Sodhi said. “We don’t even reach Sunday.”
Balbir Singh Sodhi's body was found in the landscaping area where he had just been finalizing plans to plant more flowers in front of his store, his brother said.
Balbir Singh Sodhi became the first documented hate crime casualty of an avalanche of bias incidents targeting South Asian and Muslim communities that followed.
As the nation marks the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks Saturday — just after a chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan and in the shadow of the previous administration’s policies that have been criticized as Islamophobic and racist — many of these communities once again feel their fears around racism and discrimination intensifying.
Experts said that without proper action from the government and media outlets, the U.S. risks slipping into its sometimes-fatal mistakes of its past.
“Every time, my wife asks me and my children to make sure whenever you go, look around and really be careful, especially because people think the Taliban look like us,” Rana Singh Sodhi said. “I don’t know how we can avoid it. … The only thing I look at is if you can educate people enough to be understanding and respect other people, that’s the key point.”
Media outlets at the time of the attacks had a heavy hand in perpetuating bias against Sikhs and other brown communities, the effects of which continue to be felt today, experts said.
According to a 2013 report by the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund, 70 percent of Americans could not identify a Sikh man in a picture as Sikh, and they tended to associate turbans with Osama bin Laden more so than with any other Muslim or Sikh names offered in the survey.
Fresh from witnessing the traumatic attacks in the country, Simran Jeet Singh, a senior fellow for the Sikh Coalition, said Americans had a new sense of who “the enemy” was and a war on terror was subsequently declared. The images that proliferated on screens — especially those of bin Laden, Al Qaeda and the Taliban — reinforced the idea that the enemy is one that has brown skin, beards and religious garb.
“Essentially, what happens in the post-9/11 moment is the emergence of a new de facto racial category that is highly demonized,” Singh said. “And it encapsulates anybody who is perceived to be Muslim. Whether you are or not, doesn’t matter. That’s how racism works.”
In the case of Balbir Singh Sodhi’s murder, there’s evidence that Roque had made comments about inflicting harm on Arabs, Middle Easterners and Iranians and used terms like “towel-head” and “rag-head.”
Later that day, Roque also attempted to shoot an Afghan couple and a Lebanese convenience store clerk, which Singh said reveals Roque had been “conflating the enemy along the lines of nationality, ethnicity, religious appearance” and throwing all these identities into one racialized group.
Though former President George W. Bush has been praised for making open statements against racist attacks after 9/11, experts said it wasn’t enough to just verbally denounce Islamophobia and hatred.
Lakshmi Sridaran, executive director of South Asian Americans Leading Together, said his words meant little without the policies to match.
Sridaran said the government created a climate that allowed for racist attacks, citing the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System, a program for registering noncitizen visa holders that was largely regarded as a Bush-era “Muslim registry.” She also pointed to the USA Patriot Act, which expanded the government’s authority to surveil Americans, and the opening of Guantanamo Bay.
“All of these policies that are being put in place to really institutionalize and entrench the suspicion of all our communities was very much happening at the hands of our government on multiple levels,” Sridaran said.
But Singh said it’s “ahistorical and misguided” to tell the story of hate in America as one that erupted solely after 9/11. Violence and racism against brown communities have existed since they first settled in the U.S. The severity of the mistreatment they faced may never be fully grasped, he said.
Not only did many groups previously lack the infrastructure to advocate for themselves in the way they do now, but they also didn’t yet have the community power to speak up against, or the mechanisms to track, the hate they endured, he said.
The history of being marginalized for a turban is, in part, rooted in power structures, Singh said. It varies for different communities. For people from Central Asia, for example, wearing a turban is a cultural practice, and it can be removed when immigrating to the U.S., if someone chooses. Sikhs must continue to wear the headscarf outside of their homelands to maintain their religious tradition.
“It’s such a visible sign of not being a part of the dominant culture and also not being willing to give in to cultural norms,” Singh said. “The willingness to stand out really ruffles feathers for people who just want homogeneity and normativity and ... why religious markers, in particular, come to be targets of racists and white supremacists.”
Rana Singh Sodhi said he hopes today people will remember his brother, “a victim of our own terrorism,” how he does. He brought up the meeting with Sikh leaders, one of the final things his brother was involved in before his death, explaining that all those decades ago, Balbir Singh Sodhi had already been committed to spreading awareness. Rana Singh Sodhi said he will continue that work.
“I feel like he gave me the mission,” he said.