Black, Arab Relations in Detroit since 9/11


In Detroit, which boasts a heavy concentration of both groups, the decade since Sept. 11, 2001 has been a time for healing and understanding.


Dawud Walid, an African-American who heads Michigan’s Council on Islamic Relations (CAIR), says his most frequent contact with Middle Eastern-Americans is at mosques.

By Eddie B. Allen Jr., News in Black Correspondent

Story Created: Sep 16, 2011 at 8:49 AM PDT

Story Updated: Sep 16, 2011 at 8:49 AM PDT

While New Yorkers began the week looking back on a day that paralyzed their city and shocked the nation 10 years ago on Sept. 11, one Midwestern community was also reflecting.

Metropolitan Detroit, home to nearly half a million people of Middle Eastern descent and about twice as many Blacks, is unique to the nation in its high concentration of the two ethnic groups. Reports of anti-Muslim sentiment and racial profiling toward Middle Easterners have grown since the 9/11 attacks, which were immediately linked to so-called radical Islamic beliefs.

But in Michigan, Black leaders, and their counterparts of Middle Eastern descent, say there have been positive bonds forged between their cultures.

“Arab Americans, Muslim Americans, and black Americans and African Americans are in the same boat,” says Imad Hamad, national advisor and regional director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) in metro Detroit. “Naturally, we are in the same boat; this is the makeup and the nature of the challenges that face both our African American brothers and sisters and us.

“I recall that, after the national tragedy of Sept. 11, our brothers and sisters in the NAACP used to cheer us up by making the joke: ‘Welcome to the hot seat.’ Ten years later, we still feel it. We still deal with it. We still have a long way before we switch the seat, and we don’t wish it on anyone, but God knows who’s next.”

While Hamad says the ADC and other faith-based and community groups in both cultures have made stronger ties in the past 10 years, tension between blacks and Middle Easterners in Detroit pre-dates Sept. 11. In 1999, a major protest targeted the gas station where a black customer was beaten to death by staff from Yemen after an argument. On the flip side, initiatives like the ADC’s upcoming, annual “Judge’s Night,” which has saluted black court administrators like Damon Keith, and the Martin Luther King Scholarship for high school students have promoted good will between the races.

“It goes without saying that we, as a civil rights organization, see Martin Luther King as a hero and that we follow his example,” adds Hamad.

Despite striking historical similarities, such as Detroit as a mid-20th century destination for Blacks seeking work during the Great Migration and Middle Eastern immigrants alike, Dawud Walid says there is still a disconnect on the personal level. A Black Detroiter, Walid says that as executive director of Michigan’s Council on Islamic Relations (CAIR), his most frequent contact with Middle Eastern-Americans is at mosques.

“I believe that there are better relations between some of the Arab-American leaders with some of the African-American leaders, post-9-11, however, I don’t think much has changed on the ground between blacks and Arabs as a whole,” adds Walid.

Still, Walid says much of the polarity has to do with economic, rather than social issues — such as the safety and education factors that cause families to flee the city into suburbs: Less financially able black residents tend to stay put.

On the positive side, CAIR’s civil rights complaints have seldom resulted from Detroiters of color.

“It’s an overall increase that Muslim Americans have faced since 9-11, but the vast majority (of offenders) are White Americans, not Black,” says Walid.

Both Walid and Hamad caution that ignorance and the fight to eliminate it must be part of the dialogue between Blacks, Middle Easterners and all Americans – especially concerning confusion about the religion most linked to Sept. 11.

“Every Muslim is not an Arab and every Arab is not a Muslim,” says Hamad.

Walid adds that a large segment of Detroit’s Middle Eastern descendants are Chaldean Christians.

“First, we have to keep in mind that discrimination and racism, bigotry, all of these ill symptoms of our social fabric in mankind, are universal,” says Hamad, “and they are not American-made products. It’s part of every society, including the United States of America. I truly believe that, as long as mankind exists, discrimination will exist.

“It’s our common duty, our common responsibility to fight against it. A discrimination against one is a discrimination against all, a respect for one is a respect for all. It’s our common humanity that counts as experience.”

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