Michelle Obama’s visit on Thursday to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, could have been just another campaign stop.
And it would have counted as a successful one.
Thousands packed the gymnasium at Bradley Tech High School, as crowds flowed out the door and down the street.
There were chants of “This is what democracy looks like!”
There was thunderous applause when the first lady framed the 2012 race as a test where “in the end, it all comes down to who you are and what you stand for.”
But the political piece of the visit was secondary to what Michelle Obama did after the rally.
She met privately visit with members of the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in Oak Creek, telling them—almost in a whisper—that she had come to “lend whatever support I can” to family members and others who were close to Sikhs who were killed in the August 5 mass shooting at the temple.
The signal that the White House has not and will not forget what happened at the Sikh Temple is important, as are the condolences the first lady shared.
The real significance of the visit was the message—very much welcomed by the Sikh community in Wisconsin and nationally—involved the recognition of the need for a broader dialogue about violence and hate in America.
The White House says that will be a focus of the administration, as it reaches out not just to the Sikh community but to other groups that have experienced attacks based on their religion, race and ethnicity.
This initiative can and should extend beyond kind words. Indeed, as Wisconsin’s first lady, Tonette Walker, who was with Michelle Obama on Thursday noted, “Her willingness to reach out to those in the Sikh community to help them heal will not only help those affected but also help eliminate the ignorance that led up to the horrific event in Oak Creek.”
On the same day that Michelle Obama visited Oak Creek, nineteen US Senators asked the US Department of Justice to begin tracking hate crimes against Sikh-Americans. This is an appropriate request, as evidence suggests that, in addition to the six Sikh worshippers who were killed August 5 by an active white supremacist, thousands of other Sikhs have been the victims of violence since September 11, 2001.
US Senator Dianne Feinstein, D-California, and the eighteen other Democratic and Republican senators who signed the letter wrote: “This tragic shooting is the latest hate crime committed against Sikhs in the United States. Until we have a more comprehensive understanding of the number and type of hate crimes committed against Sikhs, our law enforcement agencies will not be able to allocate the appropriate level of personnel and other resources to prevent and respond to these crimes.”
“Although the limited data available suggests that a disproportionately high rate of violence and other crimes are committed against Sikhs, it is difficult to understand the true scope of the problem because the Department of Justice does not specifically track hate crimes against Sikhs,” added the senators who noted that—because Sikh men often wear turbans and long beards—“Sikhs are particularly susceptible to violence committed because of their Sikh identity, even if the perpetrator does not understand that the victim is a Sikh.”
The letter from the senators echoes a call from the Sikh Coalition and other groups for more scrutiny of hate crimes—not just against Sikhs but against Muslims and others—and for bolder legislative and legal responses to the targeting of religious, ethnic and racial minorities. Notably, two Republican senators—Scott Brown of Massachusetts and Mark Kirk of Illinois—signed the letter, evidencing bipartisan support for efforts to curtail violence.
That’s vital, as debates about expanding the federal response to hate crimes have, at times in the past, become politicized. That cannot be allowed to happen now.
Attorney General Eric Holder, who in a memorial address at the Sikh Temple earlier this month referred to the mass shooting as “an act of terrorism, an act of hatred, a hate crime,” is expected to look favorably on the request from the senators. He should. Expanding the scope of hate-crime monitoring would provide a signal that the administration (and, hopefully, all of official Washington) is offering more than sympathy; it is acting to assure that hate crimes are appropriately monitored and that proper steps are taken to address a crisis of violence.
“We just experienced the worst mass killing of Sikhs in the United States,” explained Rajdeep Singh, director of law and policy for the Sikh Coalition, which is coordinating the effort. “We want to do everything in our power to make sure what happened in Oak Creek never happens to anyone again.”