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Portrait of a Community: First Ever Survey of Sikh Americans Provides a Demographic Snapshot

Portrait of a Community: First Ever Survey of Sikh Americans Provides a Demographic Snapshot

Alpana Varma
  • The survey seeks to find and identify the needs of the community and their thoughts on current issues ahead of the elections.

The Sikh American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (SALDEF) has released “2020 National Sikh American Survey,” the first ever survey on Sikh Americans last week, to make up for the lack of information about this community and make policy recommendations for their integration and recognition.

Practicing Sikhism, one of the seven major religions of India, Sikhs were among the first groups of Indian immigrants to arrive on U.S. soil in the late 19th or early 20th centuries, brought here often as part of the British Army and hired as temporary agricultural or lumbering labor. Today the number of Sikhs residing in the U.S. is estimated at 700,000 and they generally have high education and income levels, making valuable contributions to the economy. 

Yet they face discrimination and violent attacks which have grown manifold since the September 11 attacks of 2001. The religious requirement of keeping long hair rolled up in a turban by male members, has made them targets of hate crimes from those who think they resemble Islamic terrorists.

SALDEF, is a civil rights advocacy and education organization with a mission to empower Sikh Americans by “building dialogue, deepening understanding, promoting civic and political participation and upholding social justice and religious freedom for all Americans.” The organization’s mission statement adds, “We envision a United States where Sikh Americans are respected and recognized as a vibrant and integral part of the fabric of this nation.”

On the occasion of the release of the survey findings, SALDEF Board Chairman Kavneet Singh said, “A first of its kind, the Americans survey endeavors to tell the Sikh story and provide a demographic snapshot. With the 2020 elections around the corner, we felt it was critical for us to find and identify the needs of the community and their thoughts on current issues.”

The survey was open to all Sikhs 13 years of age and older, currently living in the United States. It was programmed on Survey Monkey and open for 27 days. The final sample had 1,861 responses. 

The highest concentration of the Sikh population is in the western states, followed by northeast, the south and Midwest.

American Sikhs maintain their connections to their religion and culture by living in proximity to and regularly worshiping at a Gurudwara or Sikh temple. Proficiency in speaking, reading and writing Punjabi are considered important for Sikhs. 

The survey found that 74 per cent of adults in the community had a Bachelor, Masters, Professional or Doctorate degree. About 63 per cent were homeowners and 26 per cent were business owners.

American Sikhs maintain their connections to their religion and culture by living in proximity to and regularly worshiping at a Gurudwara or Sikh temple. Proficiency in speaking, reading and writing Punjabi are considered important for Sikhs. The survey respondents reported that they had to frequently explain different aspects of their religion to other people.

About 93 per cent of all adult respondents said they were eligible to vote and of them 89 per cent had voted in the 2016 elections and 96 per cent plan to vote in 2020.

When asked to define their political views, 40 per cent said they were moderate and 52 per cent said they were very liberal and 9 per cent said they were conservative. 

Regarding political parties, 62 per cent identified as Democrats, 15 per cent as Independents and 7 percent as Republicans.

On the 17 policy issues that the survey respondents were asked to rank in levels of importance, religious freedom, racial justice and healthcare were at the top. Climate change, gun control and wealth inequality were considered next in importance. Gender equality, employment and domestic violence policy are other issues considered important. Abortion and LGBTQ rights are considered less important.

In terms of political engagement, it was found that the members actively engaged in issues they cared about. About 77 per cent had signed online petitions, 61 per cent donated money to a campaign or a cause and 57 per cent posted on online social media about an issue.

Whether the local, state or federal officials paid heed to their concerns and needs, 41 per cent said No and only 6 per cent said that they were always heard.

On use and perception of news, 81 per cent said they relied on a website to get news, followed by television and social media and 40 per cent felt the news organizations were highly inaccurate in their portrayal of Sikhs, while 56 per cent felt the portrayal was fairly accurate.

On comfort with accessing help, respondents said they were most comfortable discussing race relations and gender roles in the community but least comfortable discussing mental health issues or reporting harassment or abuse they had experienced.

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While 53 per cent reported feeling safe practicing their religion, 15 per cent said they felt safe only sometimes. Most of them reported feeling safe attending the Gurudwara. At least 58 per cent indicated they had been bullied or harassed and this was more common in the western states than in the Midwest.

 Among those wearing turbans, 63 per cent indicated they had experienced discrimination. Those living in the South experienced the highest rates of discrimination for wearing a turban.

The survey findings concluded with recommendations to redress the grievances of the Sikh community and help eliminate discrimination.

Promoting awareness through school curriculum, publicly engaging with and learning from Sikh community and improving their ability to report bullying and harassment is one important suggestion.

Also that national political campaigns should understand and address Sikhs’ policy needs. Further, journalists and media professionals should educate themselves on biases against Sikhs.

Sikh organizations are urged to reach out to Sikhs living in the South and areas where discrimination levels are high and offer them the necessary support. They should also make news available in Punjabi language. 

It is clear that more than relying on the government to help fight discrimination, the Sikh community would do better to build its own network of support and empower its members especially those living in areas of lower tolerance and lower concentration of Sikh population. 


Alpana Varma worked as a Research Assistant at the Delhi University and then as a journalist for over 10 years for several leading national dailies. After leaving India for Europe, she has been working as a teacher, translator and freelance writer and editor. She lived in Mexico briefly where she worked in intercultural communications. Currently she is based in Miami. 

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