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Thursday, April 10, 2008

Through film, discussion, let's unlearn prejudice

Three days after the 2001 terrorist attacks, a gas station owner stepped outside his Mesa, Ariz., shop and was shot to death.

The victim was an Indian Sikh. The shooting was in retaliation against Osama bin Laden. But the only thing Balbir Singh Sodhi had in common with bin Laden was that he wore a beard and turban.

They were from different countries and religions and spoke different languages. Sodhi was a law-abiding small-business owner who believed in the promise of America, its entrepreneurial spirit and its freedoms.

Last Sunday, Des Moines Area Community College's Diversity Commission organized a screening of a new documentary, "A Dream in Doubt," about Sodhi's death and its aftermath, through the lens of his brother, Rana Sodhi. As family members struggled to cope with their grief, they and other Sikhs continued to be targeted by threats and sometimes violent attacks. Within the year, another Sodhi brother was shot to death while driving a cab in San Francisco, though the county attorney didn't call that a hate crime. Rana Sodhi himself made repeated, terrified middle-of-the-night calls to police when someone was at his door.

On the 5th anniversary of 9/11, according to the film, the U.S. Department of Justice reported it had investigated over 750 related hate crimes. That same year, the Discrimination and National Security Initiative at Harvard University said 83 percent of Sikhs surveyed had experienced a hate incident or knew someone who had. A recent Bureau of Justice Statistics report said the actual number of hate crimes is probably more than 15 times what's reported to the Justice Department.

Mob justice can happen anywhere. In a tragic irony, the film tells of how five Sodhi brothers emigrated to the United States after a period of persecution and violence against Sikhs in mid-1980s India. That followed the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by two Sikh bodyguards. Now in America, Sikhs were having to wear American-flag lapel pins and carry cards explaining their religion to stay safe.

The film has its hopeful parts. The Sikhs finds support when the local Anti-Defamation League organizes a march against discrimination, and the county attorney speaks passionately at an anniversary observance of Sodhi's death.

The shooter is convicted of first-degree murder, though his sentence is later reduced from death to life without parole because of questions about his mental stability.

But instead of mental illness, could it be cultural sickness fueled by prejudice and ignorance? Certainly not every member of a hate group such as the Ku Klux Klan is ill. Prejudice has to be learned. The good news is that it can also be unlearned, and more organizations are taking on that job. By showing and discussing the film, DMACC's Diversity Commission helped stimulate dialogue. And by having such committees in the first place, organizations enable constructive self-criticism and outreach.

On Saturday, I attended a daylong workshop on multiculturalism at the First United Church of Christ in Sioux City. More than 120 people left committed to continuing to promote understanding.

In a memorable moment, the film demonstrates that prejudice is not an instinctive response. The camera captures the Sodhis taking their son, who wears a head covering, into elementary school for the first time. As they enter the classroom, there's tension over how the children might respond. But after the parents explain their religion (a forward-looking principal planned that), the students have only childlike curiosity. One asks if the family celebrates Halloween. The film ends, poignantly, with the parents taking their kids trick or treating.

What can you do? Walter Reed Jr., director of the Iowa Department of Human Rights, recommends "honest conversations" on race, discrimination and diversity. His office has helpful resources. as does Tolerance.org. "A Dream in Doubt" will be broadcast on IPTV May 25 at 11 p.m. That could be a teachable moment, one to gather, watch and talk. [Link]

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The Discrimination & National Security Initiative (DNSI) is a research entity that examines the mistreatment of minority communities during times of military action or national crisis.

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