A couple months ago, I got an email from Supreet.
Supreet is in the 11th grade. He shops at Wal-Mart and plays basketball. His father came to this country from India and both are Sikhs, followers of a centuries-old faith founded in the Punjab region. Supreet wanted to tell me what it is like being a Sikh in America.
He wrote about how, after 9/11, his father became “perhaps the most hated man in our small town.” He wrote about how his dad had to stop wearing the turban Sikh men use to cover their “kesh,” the hair their faith forbids them to cut. He wrote about bullying and depression suffered by young Sikhs. He wrote about black boys who taunted him as “Osama’s son.” He wrote about Wade Michael Page, who in 2012, shot 10 people, killing six, at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, likely thinking it was a mosque. He wrote about how President Obama canceled a visit to a Sikh holy site in 2010, which some people thought was because male visitors are required to cover their heads and Obama didn’t want anyone calling him a Muslim.
“But Sikhs are NOT Muslims,” wrote Supreet. “Why do we keep getting labeled as Muslims?”
It is a plaintive question with which the new Miss America would doubtless sympathize. Nina Davuluri of New York state won the crown last week, becoming the first Indian American to do so. Her triumph was marred by an eruption of — pardon the tautology — ignorant bigotry on social media.
“Audrey Graham” tweeted, “Miss America is a terrorist. Whatever. It’s fine.”
“Luke Brasili” tweeted, “9/11 was four days ago and she gets miss America?”
“De La Rutherford” tweeted, “Congratulations, Al-Qaeda. Our Miss America is one of you.”
And you are almost — almost — less appalled by the bigotry than by the slack-jawed, knuckle-dragging, dull-eyed ignorance of people so stupefyingly uninformed that they can’t even hate straight. Miss America’s parents are Hindus. Hindus are not Muslims, either. Not that hating them would be acceptable even if they were. And not that the distinction will matter to the folks quoted above. All dark-skinned people with exotic names or unfamiliar customs are Muslim terrorists to that bunch of nuclear physicists.
There was more. “Jessica Ayres” offered this self-negating bon mot when Davuluri won: “I swear I’m not racist but this is America.” Then there was “Jonah Carlin,” who tweeted images of blond, blue-eyed Miss Kansas, Theresa Vail, dubbing her “a real Miss America.”
And so it goes.
Some of us are not beauty pageant fans. Indeed, some of us find them archaic outposts of retrograde sexism. But surely all of us can agree that if we are going to have such pageants, they should not be stained by xenophobic prejudice.
Nina Davuluri deserves better. So does Supreet. Their families, after all, chose this country. Consider what that means: to give up everything you have always known and of all the other options available, decide that this is where you want to be. Presumably, one factor in that choice was America’s promise: here you are equal, here you are free, here you may rise to whatever height aspiration and hard work will take you.
So the treatment they have received is not just ugly, but embarrassing, and not just embarrassing but promise-breaking. Jonah Carlin and others like him need to read the writing on the demographic wall. What was exotic and unfamiliar yesterday is shopping at Wal-Mart and shooting hoops today. Change is coming; that fact is non-negotiable. But our success or lack thereof in incorporating that change will determine what America is 50 years from now.
Step one: decide if we are serious in what we claim ourselves to be. In other words, we can either keep America’s promise or else, stop making it.
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 3511 N.W. 91 Avenue, Doral, Fla. 33172. Readers may write to him via email at lpittsmiamiherald.com.