May 7, 2004

California Legislators Examine Civil Rights Abuses Since September 11

By Shelana deSilva,
Racewire

Dalvir Sangha is a Sikh postal worker in Sacramento, California. In the atmosphere following the September 11 terror attacks he often felt nervous passing a particular house along his normal route. He had clearly heard someone threatening to shoot him. Then on July 19, 2002 the threat was made real.

Sangha was shot in the temple with a pellet gun, in what he believes to be a racially motivated hate crime. “We are Sikh people. We are good,” he said. Sangha still suffers from nightmares after the incident, and may have permanent nerve damage.

The perpetrator of the crime, Matthew John Burdick, 32, is now serving time in jail, but not on hate crime related charges. “He will be out in time, and his life will carry on. But I have health problems that will last for the rest of my life. I am the one who loses in this situation,” said Sangha.

Dalvir Sangha’s story and others like it were presented to a panel of California State Legislators on April 29 as part of a hearing sponsored by the Assembly Select Committee on Hate Crimes. Cosponsored by the Black, Latino and Asian Pacific Islander Legislative Caucuses and the Applied Research Center of Oakland, California, the hearing was convened to address the increased hate incidents and fear in communities of color post-September 11.

“There are many infringements on civil liberties and civil rights today, beyond hate crimes,” says State Assembly Member Judy Chu, Chair of both the Select Committee on Hate Crimes. “Policies like the CLEAR Act and the PATRIOT Act have sent a chilling message to communities that they do not have rights, and these policies have sent a message to others that it’s okay to discriminate-in communities, in the workplace, and in schools.”

Many of those who testified at the State hearings believe that the sweeping policy changes as part of the War on Terrorism have compromised the civil rights and security of California residents. Proposed budget cuts disparately affect services for immigrants and proposed legislation such as the proposed CLEAR Act, requiring local law enforcement to act as immigration enforcers, creates a feeling of jeopardy among communities of color. The PATRIOT Act is the federal law that gives unprecedented powers to the police and Federal authorities and has received criticism from civil liberties groups.

Nationally, incidents of employer discrimination against immigrants have skyrocketed since September 11, with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reporting a 219 percent increase. Although the California Department of Justice reported a significant increase in racial and ethnically motivated hate crimes in 2001, California still has no coordinated plan to prevent increased incidences of hate and racial profiling in the event of another attack or emergency.

Tammy Johnson of the Applied Research Center argues that it is the responsibility of the California State government to protect civil liberties in the era of national security concerns. “We know that when there is a real or perceived threat to U.S. national security we have a direct increase in incidents of hate crime and discrimination,” said Johnson. “California must prepare for that eventuality.”

Immigrant rights advocates argue that hate crimes aren’t the only problem communities of color face post-September 11. According to Robin Toma, Executive Director of the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission testified that there was “an increase in over 1200 percent in hate crimes against middle east-erners and Muslims during 2001 as a result of 9/11.” Toma said that members of other racial groups were targeted as well due to “hysteria and ignorance.”

Arabs and Muslims are not the only victims of increased racial incidents. African Americans remain the victim of the most hate crimes in the state. According to Bertha Gaffney Gorman, Legislative Advocate for California State NAACP, “2002 hate crime data shows that Blacks in California are still disproportionately targeted-29 percent of hate crimes while representing only 12 percent of the population.”

Johnson noted that while the state and federal governments have publicly said they condemn hate crimes, they have yet to make a firm policy commitment to end racial profiling and discrimination. “We need the State to send a clear message that all Californians have equal rights and protections.” Johnson and others proposed various policy solutions to the trend of racial incidents. One proposal would have the State match its response to the national color-coded security alert system with increasing protection of communities that are targeted in hate crimes.

Assembly Member Chu said, “We must protect California residents, not only from potential acts of terror, but from the loss of civil rights.”

Shelana deSilva is a Research Associate for the Applied Research Center’s Justice is the Unifying Message Program (JUMP).

Return to the Frontpage