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ROBERT PRICE: Sikhs have no 'box' to check except, now, on their November ballots



Manpreet Kaur is proud to be an “other” from Bakersfield. Like many second- and third-generation U.S. Sikhs, however, she’d like to see that ethnic classification — which is really no classification at all — go away.

Last week, she took a small but not insignificant step in that direction.

Kaur, a 29-year-old Bakersfield native, announced plans to run for the Bakersfield City Council’s Ward 7 seat, occupied since December 2014 by Chris Parlier, who will not seek reelection. If elected to represent south Bakersfield, Kaur would be the first Punjabi Sikh to serve on the council, and one of a relative few such municipal leaders in a state that is home to fully half the 500,000 Sikhs living in the U.S.

If more people like Kaur step up, the U.S. census, which relegates Punjabi Sikhs to either “Asian” or “other,” may eventually be compelled to pay more attention to their growing political and cultural presence.

Kaur’s candidacy is a breakthrough not lost on the Sikh girls and women of Bakersfield who know of her community service goals.

“Already I’m receiving so many messages from young women that I’ve worked with, some of them who are in college now, some of them working, some of them still in high school,” said Kaur, who helped launch the Bakersfield chapter of the Jakara Movement, which was closely involved in the city’s creation of a redrawn Ward 7 that unifies local Sikhs in a more concentrated voting bloc. “It makes me so happy to read their posts and see the videos that they’re sending. They were — we were waiting for this moment.”

The 2011 Ridgeview High School graduate brought home a double master’s degree from the LaFollette School of Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in May, not expecting to have the opportunity to serve her hometown in elective office quite so soon. But then, Wednesday night, Parlier, who has battled Lyme disease, somewhat unexpectedly announced he would step away. It’s no stretch to say he has been beloved by his constituent Sikhs.

“Chris is our hero — absolutely, he is,” said Raji Brar, a prominent local businesswoman and leader in the Sikh community. “Nobody will ever forget what Chris has done for our community. He shows up. He’s embraced us and we’ve embraced him.”

When the city’s redistricting obligations presented Sikhs with the opportunity to flex political muscle commensurate with their growing presence in Bakersfield, Parlier carried their banner and supported a map that concentrated Sikh influence in Ward 7.

Kaur, who has no declared opposition at this early stage, is certain to benefit.

She brings more than just appropriate DNA and an understanding of cultural nuances of the Sikh community. Kaur’s work at UW-Madison prepares her, she believes, to build on Parlier’s work, bettering Ward 7 and the city overall.

“Everyone in my (academic) cohort at Wisconsin knows about Bakersfield because I talked about it all the time, used it as an example in so many of our projects,” she said. “Students from Minnesota, from the Midwest, from the East Coast, they know about the Central Valley because I’ve talked about it.”

And they know about Kaur’s interest in promoting quality-of-life amenities like parks and other public spaces. They know how she feels about tree canopies and protected bike lanes that promote fitness and safety.

Brar, for one, is just happy to see homegrown talent like Kaur come back home.

“Imagine the talent pool of young people that feel like they aren’t able to fulfill their passions in their hometown,” she said. “But when they see somebody from their community taking that bold, brave step to do something out of the norm and stay here, well, then that just stops a chain reaction. The floodgates open up and that talent stays local. That’s all we want — to be able to keep our communities thriving.”

Kaur is not the only local Sikh woman seeking elective office this fall. Dr. Jasmeet Bains, a Delano native, is running for the 35th Assembly District seat that Democrat Rudy Salas will vacate to challenge Rep. David Valadao, the Republican from Hanford. Bains is facing Kern County Supervisor Leticia Perez, who took 53.4 percent of the vote in the June 7 primary to Bains’ 46.6 percent. Both candidates advance.

Like Kaur, Bains had no model in the Sikh community when it came to running for elective office.

“I never envisioned it for myself because I never saw someone like me out there in the political world,” Bains said. “My whole hope is to create a pathway for our youth, to inspire more and more people to come out and want to do this. Now we’ve got Manpreet jumping up, which is phenomenal. I am so proud of her for doing this.”

If it does something for Sikhs’ broader identity, so much the better. “Proud to be an ‘other’ from Bakersfield” doesn’t ring with the poetic authenticity of a certain country music legend’s often-referenced Okie anthem. U.S. Sikhs, whose first immigration wave from northern India came in 1903-08, must choose between “Asian alone” and “some other race alone” on census forms. Sikhs have about as much in common with Japanese as Fillipinos do with Kazakhstanis but, theoretically, they must all check one of those boxes.

Which makes Kaur’s just-announced entry into the race for the Bakersfield City Council so noteworthy. There may not yet be a “Sikh” box to check on the census forms, but come November there will be a box to check next to a Sikh woman’s name on city election ballots.

Robert Price is a journalist for KGET-TV. His column appears here on Sundays; the views expressed are his own. Reach him at [email protected] or via Twitter: @stubblebuzz.



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