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International Socialist Review Issue 19, July-August 2001

Combating racism: Only together–with our arms locked

By Rania Masri

Rania Masri, Ph.D., is a member of Al-Awda, the Palestine Right to Return Coalition, and a national board member of Peace Action and the Education for Peace in Iraq Center.

I AM an Arab American.

In the eyes of the U.S. government, the U.S. Census Bureau, I do not exist. In their eyes, I am "white." All Arab Americans, the dark-skinned Arabs from Sudan and the lighter-skinned Arabs from Syria, we are all, officially, white. And, as white, there is no affirmative action, no minority status, for us.

I am an Arab American. And, as such, you are now listening to someone who does not officially exist.

Yet, in all other avenues–in other governmental avenues and in media portrayals–I do exist. And through their portrayals of my life, and through the governmental activities against my people, the racism against us–an entity that is not even officially recognized–is quite clear.

To best combat racism, we must first identify it. And a clear way to identify racism is to compare and evaluate scenarios.

You are all familiar with the "driving while Black" syndrome. Now, there is also the "flying while Arab" syndrome. Those of us who look Arab (a look that encompasses people from the Arab world–Turkey, Iran, the Mediterranean, and Latin and South America) and those of us with Arab-sounding names (which includes anyone with a Muslim sounding name, and thus includes people from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and some famous basketball players here, as well) are given extra-special treatment by U.S. airlines. In a manner quite similar to how African Americans are immediate suspects, Arab Americans have become immediate suspects of terrorism.

And, when it comes to police behavior, we are all too familiar with the discriminatory lenses through which the police enforce their laws. In Chicago, for example, it is common practice for the police to stop African Americans and Latin Americans (regardless of their economic status) and conduct unconstitutional searches and interrogations.

Discriminatory police behavior is also evident with regards to Arab Americans. For example, recently in Boston, the police chose to videotape a pro-Palestinian rally, in sharp contrast to their typical procedures with pro-Israeli rallies. At this rally (on June 10), the Brookline Police arrested Arab American and rally organizer, Amer Jubran, after he was assaulted by a Zionist provocateur. The victim of assault was regarded as the perpetrator.

Amer Jubran has been charged with assault and battery with a dangerous weapon–a shod foot. (A campaign is currently being launched against these frameup charges. For more information on this case, and to support the Amer Jubran Defense Committee, go to www.iacboston.org/amerjubran, or e-mail jubrandefense@yahoo.com.)

This illogical twist is the same that is employed, on a regular and quite consistent basis, by the media–one of the primary vehicles of disseminating racist propaganda. We have seen it so often that, unfortunately, we may have become numb to it. Typically, the victim becomes the aggressor. When that victim is an Arab, and when the Arab victim cannot be made into an aggressor, he or she is simply left out of the story completely.

We have seen this Orwellian twist in the media’s portrayal of the Intifada in occupied Palestine. The killing of Palestinian children by heavily armed Israeli occupying soldiers is presented as "mothers sacrificing their children," and the Israeli soldiers and settlers–who commit the violence–are presented as individuals with loving families. More so when an Israeli commits a massacre (such as when Baruch Goldstein, a New Yorker, killed Palestinians while they were praying), the media takes lengths in discussing how such an individual could be moved to such "insanity," yet when a Palestinian–forced to become a refugee, living in abject poverty, and struggling for his freedom–resists the occupation and the indignities, he is presented as a terrorist!

Actually, Palestinians don’t even have to resist occupation to be labeled as such–they merely have to exist in their own land to be called "Arabs with religiously fueled crazed killer mentalities," as was written by Jackie Gleason and Raoul Felder in a recent Washington Post editorial (June 29).

Racism affects people directly, affects the media’s portrayal of situations, and also affects institutional policies. Recently, one man, Timothy McVeigh, was executed for the bombing of the Oklahoma Federal Building and another four men were convicted of bombing U.S. embassies in Africa. One may look at these men as "terrorists" (although, once the perpetrator of the Oklahoma Federal Building bombing was discovered to be white, a Euro-American, he could no longer be called a terrorist), and one may look at these men as being unrelated; I see these men as all victims of a policy that has been fueled by racism.

The Arab men convicted of the embassy bombings cited the sanctions against the people of Iraq as a primary reason for their anger against the U.S. authorities. The sanctions–this state of siege against millions of innocent people who committed no crime, this policy that has killed more than 500,000 children under the age of five, a price that Madeleine Albright said is "worth it"–would the sanctions have been possible, would these mass murders, this genocide, have been possible had the victims been white? It makes it so much easier that they are Arabs, a people already denigrated in the U.S.

And Timothy McVeigh. We are told that he was angered by the assault against the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, and the Randy Weaver standoff in Ruby Ridge, Idaho. But, McVeigh’s anger was ignited as a Gulf War soldier. McVeigh, a decorated Gulf War veteran, questioned the killing of the war. "I thought...what right did I have to come over to this person’s country and kill him? How did he ever transgress against me?" More so, he wrote to his aunt about the nature of the killing itself. His job, during the 1991 military onslaught, was to bury Iraqi soldiers alive. He told his aunt that, at first, it was rather difficult–but then he became numb, and the killing got easier.

The United States government robbed McVeigh of his humanity. And, in so doing, the government taught him how to emulate them. When asked about the children in the federal building, McVeigh cynically used the term "collateral damage," exactly the words used by the U.S. government to describe the deaths of civilians in the bombing of various countries, whether in Iraq or Panama or Yugoslavia.

The day after the U.S. government killed McVeigh, the Boston Herald ran a banner headline on its front page: "It’s Over!" But it is not over.

Terrorism is the killing of innocent people "to send a message"–those are McVeigh’s words and also the words of government spokespeople whenever U.S. planes bomb a foreign city.

It is not over. So long as the U.S. government continues to disregard the lives of people in its pursuit of greater economic global power, so long as the U.S. media dismisses the deaths of others as "not newsworthy," and so long as too many of us place differing values on human life based on our own prejudices and racism, it won’t be over.

The stories that we see today, the struggles that we live through today, are not new ones. They are, in many ways, the same struggles.

In order to best combat racism, we also need to understand its root. In national ideology, there is always an "us" and a "them," a "self" and an "other." In U.S. national ideology, the other has variously consisted of savage Indians, baby-killing Germans, fiendish Japanese, the Evil Empire of world communism, and, now, the Green Menace of Islam and the terrorist Arabs.

The present-day dehumanization of Arabs has followed the same structure of dehumanization as before: Find an other, strip it of its three-dimensional qualities, present it as irrational and savage, and utilize it to build national unity.

With these means, the consequences are not surprising, and they act to strengthen the cycle: Spread misinformation about a group of people to present them as the other; increase the prejudice about them; enact a policy that affects them and is itself directly supported by the growing racism; and then the policy itself becomes utilized in the misinformation media game.

For example, the prevailing attitude in the U.S., especially among those who depend on the mainstream media for their information, is that Colombians are drug dealers. Therefore, when the U.S. government pushes its "drug war in Colombia," not enough questions are raised, not enough uproar is generated. After all, this is only a war on drugs.

The same is true with Arab Americans. The prevailing attitude about Arabs is that they (we) are terrorists, and that terrorism is increasing worldwide. This perception is then utilized to impose restrictions against Arab Americans, to build up "defensive" mechanisms in the U.S., and to act as a pretext for bombing other countries.

Is the pretext even accurate? This perception propagated by the government itself is not even supported by the U.S. State Department’s own annual reports! According to the State Department, terrorism worldwide is decreasing significantly and consistently, and not increasing. The vast majority of international terrorist incidents are not related to the Middle East, Muslim "extremists," or Arabs. (Eighty percent of attacks against U.S. targets are in Latin America.) And, furthermore, very few Americans are killed by terrorists.

Nevertheless, the perceived threat of terrorism is still utilized to promote anti-Muslim and anti-Arab sentiments and actions. (Naturally, when the facts about terrorism are not presented by the government or the mainstream media, it is expected that the definition of terrorism itself would be overlooked.)

When people feel frightened of another group of people–as they are taught to be–and, simultaneously, when the lives (and deaths) of this other group are ignored, then people are prone to be supportive of destructive policies.

The bombing of a pharmaceutical company in impoverished Sudan was, overall, accepted because it was seen as both a punishment and a deterrent to possible terrorist actions. The lives of the Sudanese, who were directly affected by the loss of vaccines previously produced by the pharmaceutical company, were of no regard. The lack of evidence provided by the Clinton administration was also of no regard. (You don’t even need to prove that an Arab is doing something you don’t like; an accusation will suffice. No evidence necessary.)

When the offender lives here in the U.S., the situation has to change. The U.S. government cannot bomb the city in which a suspected terrorist lives–if he lives in the United States. The government can, however, imprison him without trial and present the "evidence" and charges against him in secret so that not even the defendant and his lawyers can learn of them. Yes, in secret.

Since the 1996 Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, signed by the Clinton administration with bipartisan backing in Congress, the Immigration and Naturalization Service has been allowed to arrest, detain, and deport noncitizens on the basis of evidence the source and substance of which is not revealed to the potential deportees or their lawyers. Noncitizens–in other words, people with only a green card who have the right to work in the U.S. and pay taxes, but apparently not the judicial protection under law.

The vast majority of the accused have been politically active Arabs and Muslims. The evidence itself has typically consisted of hearsay. In all of the cases that have gone before a judge, the government’s argument has apparently consisted of: "Trust us, he’s a bad guy."

According to the ACLU, "Every court to address the constitutional question in the last dozen years has found the use of secret evidence in immigration proceedings against a person admitted to the United States, or seeking admission as a lawful permanent resident, unconstitutional" as a violation of due process. Congressman David Bonior (D-Mich.) calls secret evidence laws "one of the worst laws if not the worst law ever passed in the United States Congress." Bonior is the sponsor of the Secret Evidence Repeal Act (H.R. 1266, currently in the subcommittee on Immigration and Claims with 87 cosponsors).

At least 13 of these cases have been overturned on appeals. One of them, Mazen Al-Najjar–a stateless Palestinian–was released on bail in December 2000, after having spent three and a half years in prison without being charged with a crime. The U.S. government is now seeking to deport him. There remain more than 24 individuals nationwide imprisoned without trial on the basis of "secret evidence."

This unconstitutional and blatantly prejudicial bill was passed during the hysteria that followed the bombing of the Oklahoma Federal Building. Arabs and Muslims were the first to be accused of that crime, and, although they did not commit the crime, the perception that they were capable of such a crime still lingered in the minds of congressional representatives as they voted for this bill.

Once again, we see how cleverly designed misperceptions and racist stereotypes were utilized–and continue to be utilized–to deprive people of their civil rights. Just as an Arab city can be bombed based on unfounded accusations, and an Arab man can be imprisoned without trial, so can an entire generation of Arab children be killed without apology.

In 1996, Madeleine Albright was interviewed by Leslie Stahl on "60 Minutes." Stahl asked her, quite simply, "We have heard that a half a million children have died. I mean that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. Is the price worth it?" In response, Albright said, "We think the price is worth it."

Her punishment for attempting to justify this mass murder? The Clinton administration promoted her from U.S. ambassador to the UN to U.S. secretary of state. Was there media uproar over her statement? None at all. After all, she was only talking about Arabs, those people who commit terrorism and whose leaders are insane. She was only seeking to protect us from the dangers of them.

Does the media even consider the deaths of Arabs? Palestinians are dying every day in their occupied lands by U.S.-supplied Israeli weaponry and U.S.-funded Israeli soldiers. Iraqis are dying by the hundreds every day from the U.S./UN sanctions-war. Their deaths, as many national reporters have told me quite bluntly, are "not newsworthy" and "not interesting." Their deaths (and their lives) rarely, if ever, make the news, so they die in silence.

In similar silence, Mexicans are being killed at the Mexico-California border, the most militarily fortified border in the U.S., where more Mexicans have been killed at the fence than the Germans killed at the Berlin Wall. In similar silence, African Americans are targeted by the police and the "justice" system, and, when they receive death threats–as at Pennsylvania State–they are urged to remain silent. In similar silence, Native Americans and others in New Mexico continue to suffer from the consequences of uranium mining.

No more to this silence.

As Hussein Ibish writes, "Some peoples’ rights are important while others’ are less so, some peoples’ suffering is interesting while others’ is not, and some people are properly the subjects of history while others are its objects."

We say no more. No more to silent deaths. No more to silent lives.

Racism cannot succeed without the misuse of language. Let us start by restoring honesty to our language. Let us be aware of our words in all their aspects. This panel is entitled "Fighting Racism in Bush’s America." But, Bush’s America is no different than Clinton’s America. The worst racist laws against Arabs and Arab Americans were passed under (and by) Clinton. The bombings, the killings, the further deprivation of civil rights–Clinton approved of it all and continued it. And Bush shows no signs of changing that course.

This is neither "Bush’s America" nor "Clinton’s America." Let this be our America!

When we speak of terrorism, let us define it–what is terrorism and what is foreign policy? When we speak of violence, let us understand–what is economic violence and what is military violence and what is resistance to violence? When we speak of peace, let us recognize–what is peace and what is surrender and where is the justice we all seek?

And, when we speak of each other, let us be especially clear. What, pray tell me, is white? What is this skin color of white? Am I white? At what stage does my skin color pass from white to olive? Let us stop with all this rubbish. There can be no white American while the rest of us are hyphenated Americans. The only nonhyphenated Americans are the Native Americans. Everyone else is hyphenated: Euro-American, Anglo-American, Latin-American, Asian-American, African-American, Arab-American….

And, let us change the discourse further. Instead of speaking about who I am not, let me (also) tell you who I am.

I am not a terrorist, a fanatic, a tent dweller, a fundamentalist, a towel-head, a camel jockey (though why should riding a camel be less prestigious than riding a horse?).

I am not a submissive daughter of a wife-beating, sex-driven Sheik, or a member of a harem.

And I am not an exotic woman.

I am from the land of the first alphabet, and the first hospital, and the first pharmacy, and the first university.

I am from the land of prophets, and from the family of Jesus Christ and Mohammad. I am the daughter of Isis, Zenobia, Shehrezade, and Elissar. I am from the peoples who invented the wheel, the 365-day calendar, the 24-hour day, and the color purple. I am from the peoples who invented the oud–the grandfather of all string instruments.

I am the farmer planting olive trees, despite the military occupation of my land. I am the doctor tending children, despite the lack of medicine from sanctions. I am the mother loving her children and teaching them dignity and strength in the midst of war and terror. I am the daughter yearning to protect her mother from sorrow. I am the lover nourished by the sight of my beloved and by the beauty in my land. I am a woman from Arab lands.

And, now, I am also from the community of "Gibran Khalil Gibran" and "Kahlil Gibran." I am from the community that brought us Ralph Nader. I am from the community that locked hands with Puerto Ricans at the Palestinian Right of Return rally, and later locked hands again with Puerto Ricans at the Puerto Rican parade.

I am from the community that will lock hands with other communities, until we are all freed from the chains of racism, deprivation, and oppression.

Only with all our arms locked together in struggle will we be free. Your community and mine. Our community.


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This article is adapted from a speech delivered at the Socialist Summer School in Chicago in June 2001.


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