On September 8, Sikh-American Inderjit Singh Mukker was driving down a Darien, Illinois, street when a 17-year-old driver allegedly boxed him in, got out of his car and beat the 53-year-old while yelling racial slurs. The teen, who has not been named in media because he is a minor, has been charged in juvenile court with felony aggravated battery and committing a hate crime. In this exclusive essay, Mukker’s sister Harvind Kaur argues that xenophobic American “public moralists” have sent a clear message to young people that it’s OK to commit racist violence.

Inderjit Singh Mukker is my brother. Let me tell you a bit about him. He is 53 and was born in Punjab. But the bulk of his adult life has been in the Chicagoland area. He came to America because he wanted the opportunity to succeed in a country that is less corrupt and fairer. Ever since he came here, he has worked hard, including his job now as a taxicab driver. He never thought of himself as anything but American. Yes, he remained connected to his Sikh community and faith. He kept his turban and beard even though finding jobs was hard. His children are as American as they get. His daughter followed her mother’s footsteps and is finishing up her nursing degree. His son attends University of Illinois at Chicago.

There was nothing unusual about Tuesday, September 8, 2015. Inderjit was running late for work. It was a sunny, breezy afternoon and he was in his neighborhood of Darien. All changed for him that day when a young man decided to yell racial slurs while driving alongside him. Eventually, the young man, who we later learned is 17, blocked my brother in, got out of his car, reached into Inderjit’s driver’s side window and beat him senselessly.

No doubt to most of us of color or who wear turbans that this was a hate crime. Since I saw Inderjit in the hospital on Tuesday night, all I have been thinking about is what made this young person so hateful. What made him think that someone who is not Caucasian is not American? This is a pivotal question for Americans to ponder deeply. It is so important given all of the recent incidents of hate. I also think it is important given incidents of aggression by police and the average man against those who have been labeled “other.”

Is this hate nature or nurture?

I do not absolve the attacker for his physical violence. However, I do wonder what made this young man think that it was OK to use words that in themselves are harmful. Who is truly responsible for making this teen feel that he could say, “Go back to your country, Bin Laden”? 

Can I pin this on his parents? I think that is the easiest answer. “He must have learned this at home,” is what most people say. But are we sure? Is there no one else who plays a role in influencing our children?

Sitting in that hospital next to my brother, an image that was widely broadcast on national television came into my mind. It was of a South Carolina Republican representative heckling our president as he addressed Congress about health reform. Why? Because he is African-American?

And what about those so-called leaders who questioned the president’s Americanness because his name is Barack Hussein Obama and he had a Kenyan father? Aren’t they part of this dialogue? When will we hold them accountable for the hate they inject into the minds of our young?

I am also looking closely at the current presidential candidates who talk about immigration in terms of, “Go back to your country. We don’t want you here.” Or even worse, have a Latino reporter physically removed from a press conference and then yell, “Go back to Univision!” Why wouldn’t the 17-year-old who has been charged for beating my brother feel that he had the same right to call someone Osama Bin Laden?

It is so very unfortunate that the loud voices in our public sphere are so disrespectful and encouraging of intolerance. When are we going to hold these public moralists accountable for charging the atmosphere with hate? This country may have thought that racism and hate was gone because of the Civil Rights movement. It is not. The dialogue has been craftily changed, but the outcome is the same.

In this very important historic moment, we are looking at a country that will either move forward and continue to be a beacon of hope for people like Inderjit, or we will dive further into an abyss where the public moralists continue to reap the gains of hate. For politicians, it’s a tried-and-true strategy of pitting poor blacks against poor whites. For businesses, especially the highly-lucrative prison business, it means keeping poor people of color and immigrants in detention regardless of the moral cost because the net gain is in hundreds of millions.

So while I consider that the 17-year-old accused of beating my brother is going to be charged with a hate crime, I ponder who else needs to be put on the line.

All the people I know from different spheres of life and backgrounds are proud to be American, even when horrific things like this happen. I know that in the Sikh community, we take pride in both aspects of our lives. We value the American experience, education and opportunity, and we will work with the nation to make sure it exists for all. And we value our ability to practice our faith openly.

Let’s work together to start a dialogue. It is not an easy dialogue and it means we will have to learn to respect each other’s differences. But the dialogue must stay in the spotlight.

To my Sikh community, I implore you to stand up against this type of hatred within the wider American fabric. Be involved because this is your country and everyone’s safety is as important as your own. To those who moralize and speak in the public sphere, remember that your rhetoric can be as harmful as physical violence.

Sometimes, there is absolutely no meaning to things that happen; there is irony. A friend of mine reminded me of a Bob Dylan song called “Only a Pawn In Their Game.” It is a response to the killing of Medgar Evers. The sentiments from 1963 are still relevant today. I share part two verses with you below.

…A South politician preaches to the poor white man/ “You got more than the blacks, don’t complain./ You’re better than them, you been born with white skin,” they explain./ And the Negro’s name/ Is used it is plain/ For the politician’s gain./ As he rises to fame/ And the poor white remains/ On the caboose of the train/ But it ain’t him to blame./ He’s only a pawn in their game.

The deputy sheriffs, the soldiers, the governors get paid./ And the marshals and cops get the same./ But the poor white man’s used in the hands of them all like a tool./ He’s taught in his school/ From the start by the rule/ That the laws are with him/ To protect his white skin/ To keep up his hate./ So he never thinks straight/ ’Bout the shape that he’s in./ But it ain’t him to blame./ He’s only a pawn in their game. …

Harvind Kaur is based in Chicago and works in business development.