I’ve been really swamped at church, which is why I haven’t written anything for a couple of weeks. Well, actually, more as I posted a sermon last time.
I’ve been wanting to write something about the shooting at the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, WI a couple of weeks ago. I preached about it on August 12. On August 8, I went to the Sikh temple in Niskayuna, NY, just a little west of Albany. The congregation had a service of remembrance for the community in Oak Creek. The violence was brought even closer to home when the president of the Sikh temple in East Greenbush, NY (just east of Albany) came to talk about the shooting as he had relatives who were shot.
It’s been a couple of weeks. Yet, we haven’t heard much since the shooting. Whereas the newspapers had stuff about Aurora for days, Oak Creek quickly faded into the background. The New Yorker published a piece written by Naunihal Singh, a professor at Notre Dame, who is a Sikh. He observed a noticeable difference in the public reaction to the two shootings. He commented that only one network sent an anchor to cover it and neither candidate suspended campaigning in Wisconsin. The President didn’t even stop there. Rep. Ryan represents that district and although he attended a service, he didn’t make any remarks at the service or publicly (to my knowledge).
Although both horribly tragic, I felt more pained by the Oak Creek shooting than I did with Aurora. Maybe because it happened in a house of worship and not a theater? Maybe it seemed so senseless in the wake of Aurora. Still, why such limited coverage?
The Sikh community in Niskayuna was very grateful for the outpouring from the surrounding community. I was not the only Christian clergy to attend the two-hour service (90% conducted in a language I didn’t know). Their representative to Congress, Paul Tonko, came and addressed the congregation. I met a Jewish woman who came. Most of those who attended the service were not Sikhs. The temple’s president expressed gratitude that the President ordered flags to fly at half-staff (although I didn’t read or hear about it).
That the Sikhs have a history of being persecuted makes the silence a different type of persecution – as though they don’t count as much as young suburban, predominately white people. As I recall, a lot of the victims in Aurora were profiled. I doubt we know much about the victims in Oak Creek.
As a person of color I can’t help thinking the coverage’s difference is subtle racism. Sikhs are not “American” enough. They’re a little exotic. The mainstream can’t quite identify with them, so their lives don’t make good copy
This difference in coverage, however, is more common than we might acknowledge. Stuff that happens in communities that are not predominately white or communities that are predominately poor somehow doesn’t make the news. Yet, a similar incident in a white community or one that is more economically stable grabs the media’s attention.
Even the economic news. I remember at the start of the recession in 2008 saying in one of my public prayers that we pray for those for whom the recession has been a part of their daily lives even during times of prosperity. It’s news when the mainstream is negatively effected; its not as newsworthy for people at the margins.
Despite what some may believe, racism in America still exists. Sometimes it is overt, such as in the biography of the Oak Creek shooter or of people who cannot bring themselves to vote for Obama because he’s black. More often, though, it’s subtle, like this one.
It is worse this way. The media can’t say they ignored the shooting. They dutifully reported it, but they didn’t establish a context or create a wellspring of sympathy. Even the local paper in Pittsfield, the Berkshire Eagle, did not publish a joint statement signed by over three dozen clergy and laity deploring the shooting.
As a pastor, this shooting was more difficult for me than Colorado. Shooting people in a house of worship is heart-wrenching. Killing in a house of worship is a huge violation of a sacred trust and an expectation of safety from acts of violence. I expected more coverage, at least to the extent of the shooting in Colorado.
More coverage would had signaled to the Sikh community that they are part of American society and culture and that their losses mean a lot to us. Had coverage been like that of Aurora, the signal to the nation would have been that Sikhs are as mainstream as the people in Aurora. That signal would have been a reminder that this nation is comprised of whites and people of color and immigrants from around the globe.
We probably don’t realize how media coverage re-enforces perceptions and images. This re-enforcement goes beyond the Sikh community. This re-enforcement becomes part of the mirror with which we look at ourselves. When our mirror places more attention upon those who are traditionally in the mainstream than those who traditionally are at the margins, we won’t see the struggles or the injustices that are an almost everyday occurrence in many communities throughout this nation. It makes real peace and justice work that will bring about God’s kingdom on earth even harder.