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Originally published August 20, 2012 at 4:37 PM | Page modified August 20, 2012 at 4:37 PM

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Silence after Sikh shooting is deafening

Do you feel the same devastation and anger you would have felt if the shooting had happened at a church or synagogue?

Times editorial columnist

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The dialogue around this country since six people were shot at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin has been as elementary as a "Sesame Street" episode. People are sad. They are confused.

The coverage reads like a Wikipedia entry -- superficial and banal. They all contain the same boilerplate: The Sikh religion was started around the year 1469. Practicing men wear turbans and do not cut their hair.

Did you need an ABC tutorial on Judaism when a man opened fire at the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle in 2006?

We've got problems if the first reaction to the news of the shooting was, "Who are Sikhs?" The first is that our educational system has not done its job in teaching about Sikhism.

More importantly, it's the wrong question to ask. We have not dissected the victims of the Aurora, Colo., movie theater shooting, and why they like Batman films.

We are focused on the relevant question -- who is the shooter, and what was his motivation. We're breathlessly analyzing the color of his hair. We're asking the hard question: Could law enforcement have done something to prevent the shooting?

There may be no satisfactory answer in Colorado. But bring the same scrutiny to the suspected Sikh temple shooter, Wade Michael Page, and his white-supremacist beliefs. The Southern Poverty Law Center already had been monitoring Page because he was a member of skinhead bands End Apathy and Definite Hate. Was the FBI tracking him as a domestic terrorism suspect? That's the hard question to get answered. The easy -- and irrelevant -- question is: Why do Sikhs wear turbans?

Two weeks after the Sikh shooting, the silence is deafening. Do you feel the same devastation and anger you would have felt if this shooting had happened at church or a synagogue?

Anger over the religious slaughter has been beiged over by our ignorance and inability to empathize.

Everyone goes to the movies, so it is easy to relate to the victims in Colorado. Most people have driven through Seattle's Central Area, so it is easy to relate to Justin Ferrari, the Madrona dad killed by crossfire while driving through the neighborhood in May.

It might be harder to recognize yourself in the faces of Sikh Americans.

In Seattle, many presume that all Indian Americans are engineers working at Microsoft. The perceptions are rooted in the model minority myth, the stereotype that Asian Americans are middle class, college educated, employed -- implying Asian Americans do not face discrimination or other challenges.

"When people say that Asian Americans are the 'model minority,' what they really mean is they think we are white," said Helen Zia, former editor of Ms. magazine, at a UNITY Journalists convention session in Las Vegas, Nev., this month. "Hello -- we are not white."

The Sikh shooting drove that point home.

Hate crimes don't just happen over there, in the Midwest. In 2007, Sikh cabdriver Sukhvir Singh was punched, bitten and called an "Iraqi terrorist" by a passenger he picked up at Husky Stadium.

Some Sikh men turned to driving taxis here because they face employment discrimination, and could not find jobs even though they have graduate degrees, said Jasmit Singh, the co-founder of the national Sikh Coalition who also runs the Sikh Sunday school Khalsa Gurmat in Renton.

Sikh boys are targets of bullying in schools. In a 2010 Sikh Coalition survey in the Bay Area, 74 percent of Sikh boys who wear turbans suffered harassment for their religious identity. "It's no different regardless of geographic location," Jasmit Singh said.

Sikhs are singled out at TSA checkpoints in airports. In the 2010 Bay Area survey, 25 percent of Sikh men who wear turbans believe they were unfairly stopped by a police officer or TSA employee at an airport.

Eight other attacks on Muslim and Sikh houses of worship happened in the last two weeks, according to the Asian American Center for Advancing Justice. A mosque was burned to the ground in Joplin, Mo., during Ramadan.

The question is not: "What's Ramadan?" The question is: What is law enforcement doing to stop this?

Sharon Pian Chan's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her email address is Follow her on Twitter @sharonpianchan

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