As protests erupt across the U.S. in reaction to the non-indictments of two White male police officers who killed two unarmed Black men, a discussion on the state of race relations in this country has also taken hold – particularly between the Arab American and African American communities. Parts of this conversation have been healthy, some ill-informed, but all of it has been necessary.
Unfortunately, recent events reflect that there is still a significant portion of people of our communities who don’t understand that our lived experiences with discrimination, racism, prejudice are more similar than they are different.
The U.S. has always been a land of dichotomy. On one hand, it’s been a land of hope for immigrants who seek the “American Dream” of economic prosperity, quality education and religious freedom.
On the other, the American Dream has been imperfect and used as a sword to perpetuate atrocities against communities of color – 95 percent of Native Americans were murdered and their land stolen, more than three centuries of chattel slavery of Africans, a significant percentage of those enslaved being Muslims, Jim Crow Era segregation, Japanese internment camps, extrajudicial killing, deportation and targeting and the list goes on and on.
As groups of people immigrate here, many fail to see past the promise of a better life to the structural racism in which the U.S. was established upon and that persists in every facet of government. This is a legacy that shamefully continues to marginalize communities of color through economic and educational disenfranchisement and a broken justice system that makes interactions with law enforcement and our judicial system a matter of life and death.
Make no mistake, these are systems designed to marginalize certain groups, while providing unencumbered de facto privilege to all of those who are outside of those groups.
Arabs and Muslims are no strangers to the consequences built on a broken system. They know all too well about the pernicious oppression which causes abject poverty and educational inequities. They know all too well about the unfairness of militarized police tactics and lopsided court proceedings. Arabs and Muslims have lived these realities in the U.S. and abroad and spoke out in mass protests that were heard across the globe.
When the Arab Spring launched from Tunisia, then Egypt and beyond, there was much compassion shown for people in the streets who protested against economic turmoil, joblessness and heavy handed police tactics, even as protests turned violent. However, many people in the Arab American community utterly fail to have similar empathy for African Americans who have resorted to similar protests due to centuries of these conditions – instead focusing on the small amount of violence, looting and arson to justify the police actions.
When the Occupy Wall Street movement, which was predominately White, took place proclaiming inspiration from the Arab Spring, many in our communities felt pride and similarly praised the 99 percent, even when those protests turned violent and disruptive. The same individuals now criticize #HandsUpDontShoot and #ICantBreathe protests and shake their heads at the desperation being expressed in the communities under siege.
This is the very definition of cognitive dissonance– the discomfort we feel when we hold contradictory beliefs and therefore begin to distance ourselves from the very ideas and people that cause this discomfort.
It could be argued that the discomfort being experienced and expressed in the Arab American community has been influenced by the notion of white supremacy, which also leads to implicit racism. While it is common among us to view Arabs abroad as suppressed people struggling for dignity and White Americans exercising their right to protest, we do not extend those liberties in viewing the African American struggle.
This is evident from social media posts that we both have read to Thanksgiving dinner conversations that have been relayed to us in which community leaders and members identify with the broken system as opposed to the victims of that system and place blame for the heavy handed policing of African American community squarely on the community itself.
We’ve even seen some in the community shamefully regurgitate the bigotry and hatred of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim zealots calling Black people “thugs,” “lazy” and behaving like “animals.” By repeating these tired tropes, the Arab American community is not only saying that these protesters are powerless, but as a community, they are saying that they are not worthy of power, or even hope.
This could be a watershed moment for the Arab American community – approach this moral crisis thoughtfully and directly or continue in the same manner tacitly approving the very system that is used to keep Arab Americans without power.
On Thursday, Dec. 18, we will both be part of a #TakeOnHate discussion at the Arab American National Museum entitled “REAL TALK: Where’s the Solidarity? From Ferguson to Dearborn.” The purpose of this town hall will be to have a frank discussion about Arab and Black relations, which will hopefully grow into a formal solidarity movement.
Before the two communities can work together in the face of systemic discrimination, there has to be time for honest conversations and healing. After all, neither community can make the progress that is needed to build political power without empathy and solidarity. Justice is about more than just us. γ
-Rana Elmir is the deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan (ACLU-MI). Dawud Walid is the executive director of Council of American Islamic Relations in Michigan (CAIR-MI).