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date: 22 June 2018

Race and Religion in U.S. Public Life

Summary and Keywords

Religion is front and center in the early 21st century. The United States not only has experienced an explosion of religious diversity on its own shores in the past five decades, but also is functioning in a world where the 20th century’s duel of political theories has given way to political and social movements driven by or making use of expressly religious identities and themes. All the while, the United States is trying the perfect the experiment in religious pluralism started by the framers of the US Constitution more than two centuries ago. Today, most people would say we have “freedom of religion,” guaranteed by the First Amendment. In reality, religious freedom and religious pluralism are something we have been struggling with since the inception of this country for a variety of reasons, including the presence of white and Christian normativity that is enshrined in our laws and policies and extends religious liberties haltingly, belatedly, and incompletely. The experiences of three immigrant cohorts that are both racial and religious minorities in the United States (South Asian American Muslims, Sikhs, and Hindus) illustrate the dynamic nature of religion in public life, and the unfulfilled promise of complete equality. By illustrating the complexities of how racial status and religious background have impacted the perception and reception of these immigrant communities, it offers untold stories and discusses the lessons they offer for those who aspire to a genuinely equal and pluralistic America.

Keywords: immigration, religion, race, Sikh, Muslim, Hindu, South Asian American, religion and race, racialization of religion

It is a fascinating time to be examining the crossroads of race and religion in the story of American public life. The Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 launched a transformative half century in American demographic history, in which the nation’s racial, ethnic, and religious diversity increased dramatically. For decades before the 1965 reforms, immigration was, for the most part, only possible from the predominantly Protestant regions of northern and western Europe. Today, as post-1965 immigration flows continue and a diverse second and third generation descended from the early post-1965 immigrants emerges, many more Americans are realizing that the explosion of religious and racial diversity since 1965 is the nation’s “new normal”—not a temporary change, but a transformation whose impacts will be profound and permanent.

Post-1965 America is simultaneously more racially diverse and more religiously diverse than ever before. What is more, many new American religious minorities—such as followers of Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, Sikhism, Zoroastrianism, and other traditions—trace their heritage to Asia, Africa, and the Arab world. In other words, they are simultaneously racial minorities and religious minorities in a country that remains majority white and majority Christian. (Of course, there are also many racial minorities who identify as Christian, as there are some non-Christian religious minorities who identify as white.)

To understand and contextualize the characteristics and experiences of these communities requires us to understand not only race and religion but also the intersectionality of the two. Discussing the public role of religion, and the public discussion of religious and cultural pluralism, requires us also to have conversations about race. Likewise, to understand the experiences of certain contemporary racial minorities, our analysis must also consider their status as religious minorities. Understanding religious pluralism is not just about faith and doctrine but also about race, ethnicity, and culture.

The histories and experiences of South Asian American Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs, who together make up the lion’s share of the contemporary South Asian American population, can illuminate the complex relationship among race, religion, and other factors. With millions of new immigrants who trace their family histories to South Asia, directly or via interim destinations like the United Kingdom or Africa, US religious and cultural pluralism is undergoing tectonic shifts.1 In a country defined by race, and one that has freedom of religion enshrined in the Bill of Rights, the experiences of this population present an opportunity to think about race beyond the black/white binary, and to explore what “freedom of religion” means—and, perhaps, does not mean—in 21st-century America. By focusing on the interaction of three religious groups, Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs, with the wider milieu in areas of public policy—serving in uniform, navigating schools and education, and constructing houses of worship—I hope to illustrate how the very public role of religion in America also has a racial dimension.


Today the United States’ South Asian American population comprises over 3.4 million people, including those who identify with only one race and those identifying with more than one race.2 Indian Americans make up the largest segment of the South Asian American community, making up over 80 percent of the total population, followed by Americans of Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Nepali, Sri Lankan, Bhutanese, and Maldivian backgrounds. It is estimated that at least 66,000 Indo-Caribbeans—immigrants from the former British colonies in the Caribbean whose racial identities may also incorporate African, Hispanic, native, or white legacies in addition to South Asian—live in the United States.3 By population, South Asian Americans constitute the second largest group of Asian Americans, behind only Chinese Americans.

These ethnic and national-origin data are available to us thanks to the decennial US Census. What is not so readily available, however, is similarly comprehensive information on the religious identities of the 3.4 million South Asian Americans (or of any other group). Therefore, it is virtually impossible to know with certainty how many South Asian American Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, or others are in the United States today. Regrettably, although the law expressly permits the Census Bureau to collect data on religious affiliation, the Census Bureau declines to do so on the basis of a law that prohibits “mandatory” questions about religion.

For want of census data, we may turn to non-governmental organizations that collect data on religion. However, these data-collection methods are often directed through houses of worship or the regularized congregational practice typical of the Abrahamic faiths. The surveys will therefore, by design, undercount groups like Hindus and Sikhs. This is true even if the surveys effectively reach the growing number of “congregations” now developing across the United States, because there are still a large number of American Hindus, Sikhs, and others who cannot or do not participate in an organized community of co-religionists.

Despite these challenges, by relying on a range of estimates from a variety of sources, we may estimate that there are between 1 million and 1.3 million Hindus in the United States. Of the United States’ 5.5 to 6 million Muslims, approximately 25 percent, or 1.2 million to 1.5 million, are South Asian. And there are between 250,000 and 500,000 South Asian American Sikhs.4

South Asian Americans’ Racial Status

While this essay is focused on Hinduism, Islam, and Sikhism in public life, the examples presented are relevant to the followers of the faiths who are racial minorities in the United States, particularly South Asian Americans. A fundamental characteristic of the US racial system has been the division of people into a dichotomous scheme of white and nonwhite based loosely on skin color. Within that scheme, South Asian Americans, in particular, have been and continue to be racially ambiguous: not “white” by virtue of their brown skin, but also neither “black” (African, or “negroid” in 19th-century scientific racist parlance) nor “yellow” (East Asian, or “mongoloid”). Due to the ambiguity and fluidity of South Asians’ racial status, at various times in American history, South Asians have found themselves on both sides of the social and legal divide between “white” and “non-white.”

At all times, however, South Asians have been racialized in the context of the social, political, and economic forces of the moment. The racialization process, which Omi and Winant call “racial formation,” involves extending a racial meaning to a previously unclassified group.5 Just how South Asian Americans are racialized, however, is dependent on various social and historical circumstances. Whereas slavery and Jim Crow shaped the racialization of African Americans in the United States, immigration and naturalization policy have shaped the racialization of South Asians.6 For example, in the early 20th century, there was much debate about whether Indians in America should be granted naturalized citizenship. While some had successfully naturalized, in 1923 everything changed. In the case of United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind (261 US 204), the US Supreme Court ruled that Indians were aliens ineligible for citizenship because they were not Caucasian.7 Thind, an Indian Sikh who wore a turban and served in the US Army during World War I, was denied citizenship. A confluence of factors, including appearance, religion, cultural context, and the nativist sentiment in the United States, resulted in this decision. As a result of this decision in US v. Bhagat Singh Thind (1923), all Indians were stripped of their citizenship. By denying citizenship to Thind and his fellow Indians, the United States by extension denied them the resulting rights, including the opportunity to own land in many parts of the country.8 This remained the state of US law until 1952, when the McLaren Walter Act lifted the racial restrictions for citizenship.9

The Racialization of Religion

We must also incorporate religious identity into the above discussion about South Asian Americans’ racial status. Race and religion co-inhabit the social space in which South Asian American Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs may face discrimination, marginalization, and even violence. While race and religion are two independent concepts, they also intersect and interact in complex ways that affect the racial marking of religious identities. When religion is racialized, a particular set of phenotypical features, understood in a specific social and historical context, comes to be associated in the popular mind with a given religion and/or with other social traits.10 Racial meaning is extended to a religious identity.11 In the United States, the normative power of whiteness and Christianity, separately and in tandem, creates and abets societal structures that impact how religion and race (again, separately and in tandem) are conceptualized, regarded, and imbued with inherent advantages or disadvantages.

The racialization of religion involves processes and multiple outcomes that have concrete and highly salient impacts on the lives of South Asian American individuals and communities.12 While Hinduism, Sikhism, and Islam are three different belief systems, they share some of the major outcomes of racialization: they are often rendered theologically, morally, and socially illegitimate. By a process of double stigmatization, the racialization of religion reinforces and exacerbates the religious marginalization and devaluation of the minority religious groups associated with these peoples.13

Put more simply, when religion is racialized, race becomes a “marker” for religion. In the wider milieu, the association between the race and the religion often evolves into a conflation of the two. South Asian Americans with fair to medium shades of brown skin are presumed to be a certain faith because of that brown skin. The assumption is often based in the sociohistorical moment. In our current sociopolitical climate and historical moment, the most conspicuous example of how South Asian American religions are racialized is the association between brown skin and Islam. Far before President Trump’s Executive Order titled “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States” to the events of September 11th, 2001, actually since the oil shock of 1973 and the Iran Hostage Crisis of 1979, and into Gulf War I, the United States has been confronting “enemies” whose ideology is expressed and explained by reference to their interpretations of Islam. Stereotypes perpetuated by the government and media paint Islam and Muslim as intrinsically—perhaps even organically—violent and evil in American public opinion.14 This ideology becomes racialized via its association with Islam: “Arab” and “Muslim” are used interchangeably, and the politics and tactics of terrorists are described as “Islamic” by the popular media and political leaders. Particularly within the echo chamber of ill-informed political leaders, an unenlightened news media, and the caricatured villains that are filmmakers’ stock-in-trade, it is a small step to the notion of all brown-skinned Muslims as the enemy.15

At other points in American history, the religions of South Asian Americans have been racialized not primarily through the contemporary lens of Islam-as-enemy, but through the association of the South Asian phenotype with the image of savage, uncivilized, exotic, and inferior peoples. In the future, different stereotypes or misconceptions about South Asian American faiths and cultures, fed by then-current events and popular media, may lead to the development of still other racializations of South Asian religions and culture.

Christian Normativity’s Effects on the American Sociopolitical Context

Even in those moments when the United States has strived for cultural and religious pluralism, we must not fall into the easy trap of believing America’s most famous founding myth: that this is a place of “equality” for all religions, founded by people who learned the lessons of their own oppression in old Europe. On the contrary, the Puritans and other early-arriving groups sought not freedom for all but freedom for themselves. Successive waves of “undesirable” religious others—from German Anabaptists to southern European Catholics to Orthodox Slavs, Jews, and others—have found American hospitality to be limited and grudging at best, hostile and violent at worst. While the First Amendment prescribes freedom of religion, through our history, laws at all levels of government have helped to establish and maintain a Christian norm. Christian normativity positions Christian, and particularly Protestant, beliefs and traditions as normal—and thus, by extension, as true and worthy and universal. The political power of the norm empowers lawmakers (including legislators, executives, and judges) to embed Protestant values, principles, symbols, and assumptions in our laws and public policies. The cultural power of the norm is that the way religion is understood, taught, and practiced by Christians is the normal state of affairs. Other faiths’ beliefs and practices are, by extension, different and implicitly lesser—not normal but abnormal, deviant, even illegitimate. This tension is inherent in pluralism in America, and while the tension is recognized, the roots of it are often overlooked.

For decades, sociologist who study religion have used the term “civil religion” to describe this Christian normativity. I reject this term because it impliedly accepts, rather than challenges, how Christian normativity undergirds US laws and culture. Like the norm itself, it treats the norm as simply “how it is,” which can both blind us to where it came from and imply the futility of attempting to change it. It also denies or obscures the Christian origin of allegedly “secular” American phenomena. Often contemporary seasonal celebrations and decorations are understood as having nothing to do with religion per se. The rationale for this position relies upon the premise that images and activities not arising from Christian scripture or doctrine—such as the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus, Christmas trees, garlands, wreaths, the colors red and green, and songs like “Here Comes Peter Cottontail,” or “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer”—are therefore, somehow, no longer Christian in origin or meaning. Rather, it is argued, these images and activities are merely “seasonal” and, as such, are part of “American culture.” On the contrary, such images and activities have clearly religious meanings, symbolisms, and antecedents that—however American Christians may deny or dismiss them—are self-evident to non-Christians. Far from being “secular,” these images and ideas reproduce and reinforce an underlying Christian normativity that privileges Christianity above other faiths and traditions.16

When Christian dominance is maintained so subtly, through the power of cultural norms and the influence of nominally secular or majoritarian phenomena, privilege is neither analyzed, nor scrutinized, nor confronted. Dominance is perceived as unremarkable or “normal,” and those who would pose a challenge to those in the dominant position may be seen as “subversive”—or even “anti-Christian.” In order to critically discuss religious pluralism, it is necessary to see and understand the full impact of Christian normativity—specifically, white Christian normativity (because in the United States there is also a white normativity that functions in a similar manner)—on US society. With privilege comes a blindness to reality: for those whose identities are consonant with the national norm, everything is seen in meritocratic terms, and advantages and disadvantages are considered the product of individual meritocratic ideologies. Once accomplishments are seen as reached based on merit, it legitimates the “color-blind” or “religion-blind” processes that are in fact neither of those things. White advantage and Christian advantage are systematically reproduced by ignoring racial and religious realities.

Christian normativity impacts the development of other religions in the United States. One manifestation of Christian normativity is the discrimination, alienation, and marginalization that Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh faith communities experience. This religious oppression manifests in a diminishment of rights and opportunities for minority religious communities and their individual members, including in some of the ways described below.

The Public Presence of Hinduism, Islam, and Sikhism

In the United States, religion has often been a vehicle for immigrant community formation. Immigrant communities—in this case, South Asian Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs—create religious institutions that frequently become the primary ethnic and community centers for immigrants: spaces in which they may not only engage in religious practice but also reproduce (and convey to their second-generation children) other elements of the origin-country culture such as cuisine, language, and cultural festivals. These houses of worship and centers are part of the religious landscape of America, and one of the most visible ways to document the increasing religious diversity in the United States today.17

In recent decades, established South Asian American ethnoreligious communities have expanded their activities from reproducing the religions from South Asia through worship and temple-centered community activities—the long-standing practices for which many such temple communities were created by the immigrant generation—to modes of civic engagement. Particularly since September 11, 2001, South Asian American Hindu, Sikh, and Muslim communities have developed a civic and political focus for dealing with identity issues in practicing multiculturalism.18 This is a public transformation of what had earlier been more private faiths. Many have begun to extend and express and enthusiastic welcome to non–South Asians, including local government officials and journalists, to attend meals, worship, or special programs. Some have begun participating in “interfaith” social-service networks that in earlier decades might have comprised only Christian and Jewish congregations. Others have worked to protect their First Amendment rights of free exercise through advocacy and even litigation.

So while we may see minarets in suburban New Jersey, Georgia’s twenty-plus Hindu temples, or California’s Gurdwaras as evidence a new American religious “pluralism,” the story of how those sites came to be—and how so many others did not—is also a story of how religion and race remain a barrier to equal opportunity even in the 21st century. Often the apparatus of government is often used to limit or outright prevent them from proceeding. The hurdles and arguments put forth by the opponents of the construction of these sacred sites are often no more than thinly veiled, xenophobic opposition to members of a racialized minority, non-Christian religious group entering their community in sizable numbers.

The hateful rhetoric that characterized the 2016 presidential race and particularly since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Muslim Americans, and those mistaken for them, such as Sikhs, Hindus, and other South Asians and dark-skinned people, have been the target of hate crimes. For the past fifteen years plus, Turban-wearing Sikh men, in particular, have been attacked and harassed, and had their turbans torn off. They and Arab and South Asian Muslims and those who look Arab have been relegated to the rear seats of planes—or prevented from boarding altogether. Suspicion follows these people through their daily lives.19

Even when a Hindu priest was invited to offer a prayer to a joint session of Congress in 2007—a “good news” moment, if you will—the congressional gallery erupted with loud protests and attempts by Christians to shout down the priest as he prayed. One of the reasons for this sort of incident, which one can imagine as easily at a city-council meeting somewhere, is that US national identity is often wrapped around a religious identity, so that non-Christians are seen as other, foreign, not belonging, which results in xenophobic discourse. In such cases, one can peel back the grievances and recriminations to find the core of competing religious identities within different understandings of US nationalism and patriotism.

This xenophobic discourse often manifests in vandalism against houses of worship and violence toward non-Christian believers. In diverse areas, such as northern Virginia, between July and October of 2014, there were seventeen incidents of anti-Hindu vandalism. In most instances, words like “No Hindus” was found on buildings and also on the local walking trail on benches and exercise stations.20 Mosques and Gurdwaras have also been vandalized in communities across the United States, and in fact the 2016 season of presidential politics saw a rise in anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant hate crimes that reversed several years of decline. In a much more extreme example, the massacre of worshippers in 2013 at the Gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, left six worshippers dead and four others wounded; the attack brought national attention to the issue of hate crimes against observers of a variety of South Asian religions.

The Public Role of Islam—Building and the Opposition of Mosques

The First Amendment, which applies equally to states and localities through the Fourteenth Amendment, prohibits the government from making any law “respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” In effect, these words are intended to guarantee that the government will stay out of religion, neither interfering with people’s worship or religious practices nor endorsing or favoring one religion over any other. While the First Amendment means to limit government entanglement with or restriction of religion, the most influential set of policies shaping the religious practices of US religious minorities are not expressly theological at all: it is the laws, regulations, and standards that determine how religion can be expressed and practiced outside the home.

Constructing mosques is a way for Muslims to stake a claim on “Americanness.” The presence of buildings makes these religions visible to the larger mainstream population and represents a validation of the community itself. However, far too often, American Muslim communities have faced opposition when attempting to construct a house of worship. The construction of the Park 51 community center in 2010, better known as the “Ground Zero Mosque,” is perhaps one of the most well-known controversies for building a house of worship. However, in small and large towns across the county, city councils and neighborhood groups have used zoning and other regulations to prevent or hinder Muslim communities from constructing mosques.21 Even in areas where the land is zoned for a house of worship, local officials or activists have been known to offer a litany of reasons why a mosque just does not belong—such as the fear of the mosque causing a “traffic nightmare.” Of course, the “traffic nightmare” is often political speak for the concerns the local communities have: large groups of people of color moving in, congregating visibly, speaking other languages, and so forth. This, the opponents fear and sometimes threaten, could lead to the decrease of property values. Hometown nostalgia—the desire to want one’s hometown or neighborhood to remain as it has always been—plays a role. So does more virulent forms of prejudice. In some cases, the true colors of local officials are revealed in city-council and zoning meetings. For example,

  • In Murfreesboro, Tennessee, in 2009, the local Islamic organization purchased vacant land next to a newly constructed Baptist Church and announced its intention to build a mosque there. One opponent, then a Republican candidate for the US Congress, called the proposed mosque “an Islamic training center,” “designed to fracture the moral and political foundation of Middle Tennessee,” and televangelist Pat Robertson attempted to stir up fear by stating that the presence of the mosque would bring thousands of Muslims into the rural area and they would take over the community and local government. Opponents used litigation to delay the project, arguing that religious land-use zoning regulations should not be available to the mosque “because these are the same people who flew jets into the World Trade Center on 9/11.”22

  • In Basking Ridge, New Jersey, a Muslim community was forced to file suit in 2016, after more than five years of delays in the construction of a proposed mosque. Despite having a former mayor among their leadership, the New York Times noted, the Islamic Center of Basking Ridge faced “39 public hearings, and nearly four years of demands by town officials and planning board members for one change after another. Each solution proposed or agreed to by the Islamic Society led to objections on other grounds.” Among the mosque’s most vociferous critics in town are individuals associated with anti-Islamic groups and websites.23

  • In Wayne, New Jersey, a proposed Albanian mosque was labeled a “public nuisance,” and the township seized the site as “open space” rather than allow construction to proceed. Sometimes the religious minorities win in the end, as they did in litigation against Wayne Township. But knowing they are unwelcome, some give up or go elsewhere, to the detriment of their members. The Wayne group, despite prevailing in federal court, took a settlement payment from the town and built their mosque in an office park miles farther away from where most congregants live.24

In all these cases, the racial and religious prejudice of the opponents is obvious. At the same time, they are able to use other issues and mechanisms of government—zoning regulations, traffic concerns, parking and noise ordinances, and the like—as “neutral” pretexts for their discrimination. The result: constitutional rights of affected communities are disregarded. Instead, these nonprofit congregations face mounting costs for architects, surveyors, traffic engineers, and lawyers. Despite “freedom of religion,” it literally costs these Americans more to be Muslim than it would cost them to be Christian.

As these examples illustrate, race and religion share a history, function, and impact across American social history, and remain intertwined in the public sphere. In recent years, religion has become a particularly powerful method of classifying the “enemy” or “other” in national life, impacting primarily non-Christian people of color who are Muslim or look like they could be. Muslims have become among the most demonized members of the American population, as the political acts a miniscule handful of their co-religionists, mostly abroad, shape their image in the American and global popular mind. Islam has repeatedly been characterized in an inaccurate, misleading, and blatantly racist fashion in the media and public discourse, their property and religious sites have been vandalized, and their bodies have been targeted for hate crimes in alarming numbers. Current trends, including federal policies implemented in the early days of President Donald J. Trump’s administration, indicate that anti-Muslim prejudice—and the misuse of governmental power in service to that prejudice—remains a characteristic of American sociopolitical discourse.

Sikh Americans

Those aspects of US minority religions that are incongruent with mainstream, Christian norms are misunderstood and result in people not being able to practice their religions fully and freely. The struggles that Sikh Americans face illustrate the situation of religious practices that are not congruent with some Christian norms. Sikhs are targets for discrimination, in part, because of the highly visible nature of an element of their religious practice: the prohibition on cutting one’s hair (including facial hair) and the obligation to wear a turban. Sikhs have faced discrimination since they first immigrated to America in the early 20th century. The discrimination against Sikhs has escalated since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, apparently because Sikhs may be mistaken for Muslim terrorists, given the media’s frequent depiction of terrorists as bearded and turbaned men. (The turban and long beard worn by Osama Bin Laden, a Saudi national and Sunni Muslim, was not a representation of Sikhism.) This has led to an inordinate number of hate crimes and verbal and physical attacks against Sikhs, including the murder of several. In addition to having to deal with harassment, violence, denial of entry into public places, and profiling, Sikhs also face discrimination in the workplace.

In the workplace, employees whose religious identities and practices affect their appearance are especially harmed because grooming and dress policies are often based on mainstream cultural (read: white, Christian) norms. These norms are often inconsistent with the grooming and dress requirements of many minority religions, such as for Jewish, Sikh, and Muslim men. Many Sikh men encounter this challenge because their religion prohibits them from shaving their beards and cutting their hair, and requires that they wear turbans—all practices that can be banned or restricted by employers’ grooming policies.

Along with violence and discrimination, Sikh have faced employment discrimination. While Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act makes religious discrimination illegal in all aspects of employment, including hiring and firing, many American Sikhs have found that to keep their jobs they had to compromise their religious beliefs in order to comply with their employers’ grooming policies, which reflect American cultural norms. Whether it is restaurants, food production and other manufacturing fields, police departments, or the US military, Sikhs have been forced to choose between employment and faithful religious observation. Restaurants have denied jobs to Sikhs and defended their positions by stating that long hair or facial hair presents health-and-safety concerns. Sometimes restaurants can point to state or local regulations regarding hair or headgear in food-preparation jobs. But just as often, restaurants just want a “uniform look” to convey a particular “image”—and a Sikh’s appearance does not fit with the restaurant’s image.25

Sikhs pursuing public-service careers have had to fight their way into such positions if they wanted to observe religious tenets at the same time. Sikhs have not been allowed to keep their turbans and beards and serve in police forces across the nation. For example, in early 2002 a Sikh American completed training and was inducted into the New York City Police Department (NYPD) and then terminated for his refusal to remove his turban. The officer was ultimately reinstated with the provision that he could wear his turban.26 The Metropolitan Police Department of Washington, DC, became the first major force in the country to enact such a policy in 2012. But only a few other cities have followed since 2012. In fact, only about six of the thousands of state and local police forces across the country have explicit accommodations to allow Sikhs to serve with a turban and beard, according to SALDEF. At the NYPD, a new police commissioner finally instituted a policy, in December 2016, that would allow beards that extend up to one-half inch from the face. The officers may also wear uniform blue turbans, with the NYPD’s standard hat shield affixed, in place of the traditional police cap.

As for the US military, Sikhs serving in the Army were allowed to wear turbans and keep their unshorn hair until a policy change in 1981. But since 1981, stricter grooming regulations required recruits to request religious accommodations on an individual basis. Prior to this year, only three Sikhs had been successful. In recent years, however, the Defense Department has issued standards that the individual services may interpret broadly and implement on their own, with no service bound by a decision made by another. On a case-by-case basis, the Army had provided religious accommodation in the form of temporary appearance waivers to Sikh men to wear neatly groomed unshorn beards and hair under a turban while serving in uniform. Those waivers were granted only after the soldiers filed lawsuits seeking their uniform exemptions.27

After years of advocacy, in January 2017 the Army has granted accommodations that makes it easier for Sikhs to uphold the tenets of their faith while serving the in the Army. This new policy allows them to serve with their beards and turbans intact. The new rules promise that the religious accommodations will last throughout a soldier’s career and can only be denied or rescinded by the secretary of the Army or his designee. The new policy requires a soldier wishing to observe Sikhism to request leave to do so, which preserves the risk of individual discrimination or inconsistent practice in various units of the Army or branches of the armed services overall. Now religious accommodations are to be granted to any soldier seeking to wear a religiously mandated beard and turban while in uniform. The new policy will be added to Army regulations.

Hindu Americans

The issue of religion and public schools is a contested topic and often raises great debate in terms of educational policy and the implications on the larger society. The consternation about religion in the public schools often arises because of erroneous information and a lack of understanding of our country’s history as well as the First Amendment to the US Constitution. School houses are one of the pivotal public spaces in the United States and have often been the site, literally or metaphorically, where religion and national identity are contested. Just as Catholics stood up starting in the late 1800s to the strong influence of Protestant scripture and practice in public schools, in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, American Hindus have raised their voices on Hinduism’s portrayal in educational materials.

In the American Hindu community, advocacy has often involved issues of representation. A variety of Hindus and Hindu communities have become involved in a very “American” issue—the field of public education. Since 2005, sixth- and seventh-grade social-studies textbooks selected by the California State Board of Education have became a topic of debate because of how they represent Hinduism. For example, multiple Hindu groups became involved in a controversy over language in California textbooks. The textbooks, used for sixth- and seventh-grade social studies, portrayed ancient India and Hinduism in ways that many believed inaccurately described and negatively characterized Hinduism. When adherents who were not scholars of Hinduism learned of the textbooks’ contents, there was an uproar. Through community networks and the internet, groups formed to protest the selection and content of the texts, and these organizations eventually filed a lawsuit over the issue. In the most recent round of changes and adoptions in 2016, as the debate raged, a group of non-Hindu scholars of Hinduism charged the Hindu activists with “whitewashing” Hinduism by protesting, for example, the textbook’s discussion of caste.28

In many ways—some of them, like sexual health and American economic history, even more broadly debated than the Hindus’ concerns described here—textbooks have come to exist at the crossroads of curriculum and public policy. Effective textbooks should provide students with historical and philosophical perspective on the subject at hand, establishing connections and tensions with other disciplines and domains of the culture, including religion. It is beyond the scope of this essay to get into the details of the debate, but it is fascinating that in the 21st century schools remain an essential piece of the public debate on religion, and that the Hindu communities have taken on one of the longest fights.

The textbook debate illustrates complexities within the South Asian American Hindu community, as well as the potential for friction with scholars in religious studies—most of them white and non-Hindu—who research and write about Hindus and Hinduism. When the California textbook issue arose in 2006, members of Indian American Hindu communities, mostly “lay people” who were neither Hindu clergy nor scholars, have been advocating for more positive and affirming portrayals of Hindu deities and beliefs in the textbooks. Through community organizing and on the internet, Hindu groups protested the selection and content of the texts, and eventually filed a lawsuit over the issue. As the debate continued, academics of a group of scholars on Hinduism—a predominantly white group who are not themselves Hindus—accused the Hindu American advocates of “whitewashing” Hinduism. As the public debate and lawsuits wore on, other scholars—this time scholars of South Asian descent, most of whom are neither scholars of Hinduism nor professors of education—accused the community organizers of pushing a “Hindutva” or politically right-wing Hindu ideology.

The California textbook issue illustrates the growing activism of Hindu Americans and also highlights how the issue of representation—specifically, who speaks for Hinduism in America—is particularly salient for a community that can feel misunderstood and is still learning how to speak for itself on the wider public stage. At the same time, it also shows how complex the public debate can become where a community includes people with various political and cultural perspectives on the issue.

Conclusion and Future Trends

As scholars and citizens, there are three lessons we may learn from the examples: first, for post-1965 immigrant communities whose second and third generations are now growing and thriving, houses of worship are important visual representations of the presence of these populations. To have one’s own spiritual and cultural home feels tremendously important. Opposition to the construction of such houses of worship thus cuts to the heart of one’s sense of belonging in what is supposed to be a culturally and religiously pluralistic democracy. Likewise, the visibility of observing one’s faith in the form of attire and personal appearance is essential to religious self-expression and should not be restricted by rules and standards that apply Christian normativity without a rational basis and without considering alternatives that would better protect all workers’ rights. And third, the representation of one’s religious community—who speaks for it, and how it is characterized in official contexts like school textbooks—reflects not just social and political influence but also a perception of belonging. All three of these phenomena are a reminder that, in spite of the First Amendment’s laudable principles and the myth of “religious freedom,” the normalcy that Christians enjoy without even knowing it still remains beyond the reach of South Asian American Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs.

To be allies to these communities, we must hone our own abilities to recognize and resist the racial dimensions of religious oppression, and counteract any idea or image that conflates being racially different with being religiously suspicious. We must also learn to recognize pretext, and oppose the misuse of laws, governmental processes, and prudential standards to achieve religious or racial oppression.

Advocacy and interfaith engagement must pursue the goal of genuine pluralism in US society, with a clear social justice approach: recognizing the unequal treatment of religion, as well as the as the unequal treatment of specific religions in society. This approach acknowledges the presence of a Christian norm within the United States and the religious consensus around monotheism (or theism itself) that ignores or trivializes the concerns of citizens from marginalized faith communities as well as nonbelief convictions. It calls attention to the calendar of observed or ignored religious holidays, to the food served in public cafeterias, and to restrictions on head coverings or beards. It recognizes how these facets of the culture in schools and other public spaces will advantage Christians and disadvantage members of other religious or nonbelief groups. It endorses an approach to the study of religions that explores how religion intersects with race, class, gender, socioeconomic class, and sexual orientation, to affect the human experience.

A social-justice approach also examines contradictions in US history, between aspirations to religious pluralism undermined by recurrent instances of Christian hegemony, not for the purpose of laying blame but for the purpose for fully understanding the legacies that we have inherited and can either perpetuate or bend toward justice. Educators, professors, public servants, and governmental agencies will benefit by learning and applying the social-justice approach in their interpersonal interactions, their public service, their classroom pedagogy and management, and their public policies, so as to recognize and avoid perpetuating Christian privilege and so as to acknowledge and include all persons regardless of religious or nonreligious identification.

For American pluralism—racial and religious—to be meaningful, all must have the equal opportunity not only to believe and to pray but also to build a place to do so together, in a community where they can express themselves by their appearance and feel that they are being heard and portrayed fairly in the public square and public school.

Further Reading

Adams, Maurianne, and Khyati Y. Joshi. “Religious Oppression.” In Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice: A Sourcebook. Edited by Maurianne Adams, Lee A. Bell, Diane Goodman, and Khyati Y. Joshi. New York: Routledge, 2016.Find this resource:

Alsultany, Evelyn. “The Prime Time Plight of the Arab Muslim American after 9/11.” In Race and Arab Americans Before and After 9/11: From Invisible Citizens to Visible Subjects. Edited by Amaney A. Jamal and Nadine Christine Naber, 204–228. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2008.Find this resource:

Blumenfeld, Warren J., Khyati Y. Joshi, and Ellen Fairchild, eds. Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States. Amsterdam: Amsterdam Sense Publishers, 2008.Find this resource:

Blumenfeld, W. J., K. Y. Joshi, and E. Fairchild. “Introduction.” In Introduction to Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the Us. Edited by W. J. Blumenfeld, K. Y. Joshi, and E. Fairchild, vii–xix. Amsterdam: Sense Publishers, 2009.Find this resource:

Darragh, Tim “Fighting for Faith: Who Has Final Say When Towns Deny Places of Worship.”

Dhillon, Kiran Preet. “Covering Turbans and Beards: Title Vii’s Role in Legitimizing Religious Discrimination against Sikhs.” Southern California Interdisciplinary Law Journal 21 (2011): 215.Find this resource:

Dwyer, Jim. “Muslims Sue over Denial of Bid to Build Mosque in New Jersey Suburb.” New York Times, March 11, 2016, A22.Find this resource:

Eck, Diana. A New Religious America: How a Christian Country Has Now Become the World’s Most Religiously Diverse Nation. San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2002.Find this resource:

Esposito, John L., and Ibrahim Kalin. Islamophobia: The Challenge of Pluralism in the 21st Century. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.Find this resource:

Gibson, Caitllyn. “Anti-Hindu Vandalism Sparks Strong Community Response.” The Washington Post, 2014.Find this resource:

Gohil, Neha Singh, and Dawinder S. Sidhu. “The Sikh Turban: Post-911 Challenges to This Article of Faith.” Rutgers Journal of Law and Religion 9 (2007): 1.Find this resource:

Goldschmidt, Henry, and Elizabeth A. McAlister. Race, Nation, and Religion in the Americas. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.Find this resource:

Haddad, Yvonne Yazbeck. “At Home in the Hijra: South Asian Muslims in the United States.” In The South Asian Religious Diaspora in Britain, Canada, and the United States. Edited by Harold Coward, John Hinnells, and Raymond Bradbury Williams, 239–259. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2000.Find this resource:

Hafiz, Sameera, and Suman Raghunathan. “Under Suspicion, under Attack: Xenophobic Political Rhetoric and Hate Violence against South Asian, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Middle Eastern, and Arab Communities in the United States.” Washington, DC: South Asian American Leading Together, 2014.Find this resource:

Haney-López, Ian. White by Law: The Legal Construction of Race. 2nd ed. Critical America. New York: New York University Press, 2006.Find this resource:

Hoeffel, Elizabeth M., et al. “The Asian Population.” Edited by U.S. Census Bureau, 15–16. Washington, DC, March 2012.Find this resource:

Jamal, Amaney A., and Nadine Christine Naber. Race and Arab Americans before and after 9/11: From Invisible Citizens to Visible Subjects. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2008.Find this resource:

Joshi, Khyati Y. “The Racialization of Religion in the United States.” Equity and Excellence in Education 39, no. 3 (2006): 211–226.Find this resource:

Kauffman, Elizabeth “In Murfreesboro, Tenn.: Church ‘Yes,’ Mosque ‘No’.”

Koshy, Susan. “Morphing Race into Ethnicity: Asian Americans and Critical Transformations of Whiteness.” Boundary 2 28, no. 1 (2001): 153–194.Find this resource:

Kurien, Prema “Becoming American by Becoming Hindu: Indian Americans Take Their Place at the Multicultural Table.” In Gatherings in Diaspora: Religious Communities and the New Immigration. Edited by R. Stephen Warner and Judith G. Wittner. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998.Find this resource:

Kurien, Prema. A Place at the Multicultural Table: The Development of an American Hinduism. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2007.Find this resource:

Lee, Erika. The Making of Asian America: A History. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2015.Find this resource:

Lopez, Ian Haney. White by Law: The Legal Construction of Race. New York: New York University Press, 2006.Find this resource:

Medina, Jennifer. “Debate Erupts in California over Curriculum on India’s History.”

Myers, Meghann. “New Army Policy Oks Soldiers to Wear Hijabs, Turbans and Religious Beards.” Army Times (2017).Find this resource:

Omi, Michael, and Howard Winant. Racial Formation in the United States. New York: Routledge, 2014.Find this resource:

Rana, Junaid. Terrifying Muslims: Race and Labor in The South Asian Diaspora. London: Duke University Press, 2011.Find this resource:

SAALT, and Asian American Federation. “A Demographic Snapshot of South Asians in the United States.”

Singh, Jaideep. “A New American Apartheid: Racialized, Religious Minorities in the Post-9/11 Era.” Sikh Formations 9, no. 2 (2013): 115–144.Find this resource:

Snow, Jennifer. “The Civilization of White Men: The Race of the Hindu in United States V. Bhagat Singh Thind.” In Race, Nation, and Religion in the Americas. Edited by Henry Goldschmidt and Elizabeth McAlister, 259–281. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.Find this resource:


(1.) Throughout this work I use the term South Asian American whenever it is accurate to do so. When relevant, I use ethnic or religion specific terms for accuracy; this avoids overrepresenting a situation—for example, if it happens to concern Indian American Hindus—by saying “South Asian.” Nor do I wish or intend to overlook any group.

(2.) Elizabeth M. Hoeffel, Sonya Rastogi, Myoung Ouk Kim, and Hasan Shahid, “The Asian Population: 2010 Census Briefs”, ed. U.S. Census Bureau (Washington DC, March 2012), 15–16.

(3.) SAALT and Asian American Federation, “A Demographic Snapshot of South Asians in the United States.”

(4.) Maurianne Adams and Khyati Y. Joshi, “Religious Oppression,” in Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice: A Sourcebook, eds. Adams Maurianne et al. (New York: Routledge, 2016).

(5.) Michael Omi and Howard Winant, Racial Formation in the United States (New York: Routledge, 2014).

(6.) Susan Koshy, “Morphing Race into Ethnicity: Asian Americans and Critical Transformations of Whiteness,” Boundary 2 28, no. 1 (2001).

(7.) Ian Haney Lopez, White by Law: The Legal Construction of Race (New York: New York University Press, 2006).

(8.) Lopez, White by Law.

(9.) Erika Lee, The Making of Asian America: A History (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2015).

(10.) Khyati Y. Joshi, “The Racialization of Religion in the United States,” Equity and Excellence in Education 39, no. 3 (2006): 221–226.

(11.) Joshi, “The Racialization of Religion”; and Omi and Winant, Racial Formation.

(12.) Joshi, “The Racialization of Religion.”

(13.) Henry Goldschmidt and Elizabeth A. McAlister, Race, Nation, and Religion in the Americas (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

(14.) Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad, “At Home in the Hijra: South Asian Muslims in the United States,” in The South Asian Religious Diaspora in Britain, Canada, and the United States, eds. Harold Coward, John Hinnells, and Raymond Bradbury Williams (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2000); Amaney A. Jamal and Nadine Christine Naber, Race and Arab Americans before and after 9/11: From Invisible Citizens to Visible Subjects (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2008); and Junaid Rana, Terrifying Muslims: Race and Labor in The South Asian Diaspora (London: Duke University Press 2011).

(15.) Evelyn Alsultany, “The Prime Time Plight of the Arab Muslim American after 9/11,” in Race and Arab Americans Before and After 9/11: From Invisible Citizens to Visible Subjects (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2008), 204–228.

(16.) Warren J. Blumenfeld, Khyati Y. Joshi, and Ellen Fairchild, “Introduction,” in Introduction to Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the Us, eds. Warren J. Blumenfeld, Khyati Y. Joshi, and Ellen Fairchild (Amsterdam: Sense Publishers, 2009).

(17.) Diana Eck, A New Religious America: How a Christian Country Has Now Become the World’s Most Religiously Diverse Nation (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2002).

(18.) Prema Kurien, “Becoming American by Becoming Hindu: Indian Americans Take Their Place at the Multicultural Table,” in Gatherings in Diaspora: Religious Communities and the New Immigration, eds. R. Stephen Warner and Judith G. Wittner (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998); and Prema Kurien, A Place at the Multicultural Table: The Development of an American Hinduism (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2007).

(19.) Sameera Hafiz and Suman Raghunathan, “Under Suspicion, under Attack: Xenophobic Political Rhetoric and Hate Violence against South Asian, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Middle Eastern, and Arab Communities in the United States” (Washington, DC: South Asian American Leading Together, 2014). Jaideep Singh, “A New American Apartheid: Racialized, Religious Minorities in the Post-9/11 Era,” Sikh Formations, no. 9, no. 2 (2013): 115–144.

(20.) Caitllyn Gibson, “Anti-Hindu Vandalism Sparks Strong Community Response,” The Washington Post 2014.

(21.) Singh, “A New American Apartheid”; and John L. Esposito and Ibrahim Kalin, Islamophobia: The Challenge of Pluralism in the 21st Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

(23.) Jim Dwyer, “Muslims Sue over Denial of Bid to Build Mosque in New Jersey Suburb,” New York Times, March 11, 2016, A22.

(25.) Kiran Preet Dhillon, “Covering Turbans and Beards: Title Vii’s Role in Legitimizing Religious Discrimination against Sikhs,” Southern California Interdiscplinary Law Journal 21 (2011): 213–251.

(26.) Neha Singh Gohil and Dawinder S Sidhu, “The Sikh Turban: Post-911 Challenges to This Article of Faith,” Rutgers Journal of Law and Religion 9 (2007).