When we talk about Asian Americans, we're including a set of the American people whose background represents over half of the world's population and approximately 50 countries. Accordingly, this group contains significant diversity -- but often a sense of shared experience can bring these communities together. California Assemblymember Mariko Yamada was able to relate her experience as a Japanese American to the discrimination faced by Sikh Americans, and champion equal employment opportunity through the introduction of AB 1964, a bill now being considered by the California legislature.
Yamada represents the 8th Assembly District of California, including 10 cities in Solano and Yolo counties. She grew up in the shadow of discrimination -- during the second world war, the US government imprisoned Yamada’s family in the Manzanar War Relocation Center, one of 10 Japanese American internment camps, and forced the family to start their lives over again upon their release. They then relocated to an African American community in the Five Points neighborhood in Denver in the 1960s. According to Yamada, who trained as a social worker, “it was with this prism of racism and poverty that I found my calling to stand up for social justice.”
Yamada saw parallels between the experiences of Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor and the experiences of Arabs, Muslims, Sikhs, and South Asians after 9/11. In both cases, law-abiding individuals from minority communities became targets of violence and discrimination due to their appearance.
Several years ago, one of Yamada’s Sikh friends was surrounded by security guards with guns drawn when he reported for jury duty. Last spring, two elderly Sikh grandfathers in Elk Grove, outside Sacramento, were shot and killed in what is believed to be a hate crime. And late last year, Trilochan Singh Oberoi, a Sikh man from Folsom, settled an employment discrimination lawsuit against the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR). In 2005, the CDCR refused to hire Oberoi as a correctional officer unless he shaved his beard. Despite a ruling by the State Personnel Board that this policy was discriminatory, and despite decisions by the US Army and Federal Protective Service to allow Sikhs to serve, the CDCR refused to hire Oberoi. After years of litigation, the case settled for almost $300,000 -- but the CDCR did not change its discriminatory policy.
The Oberoi case is one of many such cases, according to Amar Shergill of the American Sikh Political Action Committee. “As a Sikh trial attorney, I have personally dealt with cases involving employment discrimination against Sikhs," he said. "These cases involve a horrible social burden but they are made worse by current laws that encourage litigation, burdening our state finances and our court system."
After the Oberoi case, Yamada was motivated to propose a law in the State of California, called the Workplace Religious Freedom Act of 2012, to address the workplace discrimination faced by Sikhs and other religious minorities. The bill number for this legislation, AB 1964, commemorates the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, one of the crowning achievements of the civil rights movement.
Assemblywoman Yamada. Photo by Karaminder Ghuman
According to AB 1964 supporters, the legal standard for religious accommodations under California law has been ambiguously tethered to the weaker federal standard -- a standard that is so low that it allows employers to discriminate with impunity. AB 1964 is designed to eliminate this ambiguity by clarifying that employers can deny a request for religious accommodation only if it imposes a “significant difficulty or expense” on the employer. AB 1964 also clarifies that an employer cannot segregate someone because they happen to wear a religious headcovering, and employees may keep a beard in accordance with their religion. However, religious accommodations would not be required if they interfere with the civil rights of others or prevent religious observers from complying with health or safety requirements. After being passed earlier this summer by the California Assembly with an overwhelming 63 to 6 vote, AB 1964 is now being considered by the California Senate.
The California Sikh community, and in particular, the Sikhs of Sacramento, have worked diligently in support of AB 1964. Some of them have personally experienced workplace discrimination and have rallied around Yamada’s efforts.
"Sikhs in the Sacramento region have a long tradition of supporting political causes and engaging with the community," explained Darshan Mundy, Public Relations Officer for the Sacramento Sikh Temple. "It was these relationships that gave rise to a personal discussion with Assemblymember Mariko Yamada and Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg regarding the issue of employment discrimination against Sikhs. We are thankful that they recognized the importance of the matter and that Assemblymember Yamada agreed to author the bill."
The Sikh Coalition, the largest Sikh civil rights organization in the United States, believes that the grassroots movement in support of AB 1964, driven by the Sikh community, is a source of hope and inspiration. According to Simran Kaur, the group’s Advocacy Manager, “if AB 1964 becomes law, it will prove that minority communities are an integral part of American society, with the power to create positive change for all people through civic engagement and the legislative process.”
Yamada sees the campaign for AB 1964 as an example of Asian Americans building coalitions across diverse communities for the common good. “The collaboration and sense of unity among diverse organizations in support of AB 1964, regardless of race and religion, is inspiring," she said. "What this bill underscores for every community is the importance of civic engagement and coalition building.”
This piece was co-written by Winty Singh, a resident of California and Volunteer Advocate for the Sikh Coalition. He was born in India, raised in Canada, and has lived in the United States for the past several years. Winty spends his spare time writing, playing ice hockey, and entertaining his pet terror Cosmo.
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