Can America Ever Move Past Racism?

Can America Ever Move Past Racism?

The mere fact that this question has been asked since the election of President Barack Obama speaks to the changing role of race in our society. Although no one could reasonably deny the sociopolitical reality of race in America today, it is widely accepted as a socially constructed (rather than a biological) category and an increasingly enigmatic one at that. Since the 1980s, mixed-race Americans as well as Americans of Middle Eastern, North African, South Asian and Caribbean ancestry have challenged what historian David Hollinger called the government’s “ethno-racial pentagon” of African American, Euro-American, Asian American, Native American and Latino. The 2010 census sought to catch up with the reality of American demographics by allowing individuals to identify their “first race or origin” or to self-identify with a race or origin beyond the crude ethno-racial pentagon of black, white, yellow, red and brown.

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Trayvon Martin Rally, New York City July 20, 2013. Angela Meadows/flikr

How far the Census Bureau needs to evolve to catch up demographically with America would be comical were these categories not operative in public policies, institutions and debates dealing with issues of social justice. In the 1980s, I attended a high school in East Los Angeles where half the teachers were white, but whites were a miniscule minority in the student body and entirely absent from the administration. My closest friends were Pakistani American, Filipino American, Chicano and Vietnamese American. I remember crushes involving African-American girls, Chicanas and Euro-Americans. Attending an advanced American History class with this cohort, we had very little patience for debates about the nature of American national identity that manifested itself in the form of an English-only movement that sought to limit bilingual education for immigrant children. What was much more instructive were our debates between Loyalists and Patriots or whether W.E.B. Dubois or Booker T. Washington held a better solution to America’s “race problem.” We role-played as industrialists and union organizers and debated women’s suffrage. My experience as an Angelino may have differed widely from the experiences of Americans in more homogenous regions of the United States, but it was by no means unique. Eboo Patel, a Muslim interfaith activist, notes the stark contrast between the stilted adult conversations about racial and religious diversity and the reality of his high-school lunch table in the 1980s, which included “a Cuban Jew, a Nigerian Evangelical, and an Indian Hindu.”

The fact that we could today ask whether a post-racist America can exist is in large part the result of Americans of varying backgrounds coming of age and learning what it means to be American alongside one another. America for us was not a given but a fraught, incomplete experiment. It was fraught because our diversity reminded us that none of us, not even my white “minority” classmates, truly belonged; it was incomplete because, even though we all believed in the ideal of “equality and justice for all,” we did not see it in our neighborhoods nor in the debates of the adults and the media, which tackled complicated questions of social equity through racist images of “the welfare queen” and “the freeloading immigrant.” We teach our children how they ought to see America, forgetting that, for better or worse, they experience it as it is.

The tragedy of racism in America

In his monumental 19th-century exploration of Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville recounts meeting a white Southerner who fathered children with one of his slaves. His offspring were legally his slaves as soon as they entered the world, and he was unable to set them free because of the color of their skin. As he neared the end of his life, “he imagined his sons dragged from market to market, exchanging a stranger’s rod for a father’s authority.” In seeing the Southern slave owner delirious and “prey to the agony of despair,” Tocqueville tells us he “understood how nature can revenge the wounds made by the laws. … They first violated every right of humanity by their treatment of the Negro and then taught him the value and inviolability of those rights.”

The betrayal of America’s founding ideals by its racist laws and institution is one of the tragedies of American history. Tocqueville personalized this tragedy through the white Southerner whose desires and parental instincts were betrayed by laws that assured his social status and wealth, but we could see this tragedy writ large in American history. Racial slavery, as a mode of production, allowed white America to advance economically during the colonial era, but it also condemned America by binding white Americans’ economic interests to the institutionalization of racism. We still feel these tragic effects when we debate whether a post-racist America is possible, even though the American colonialists declared their independence based on the principle of equality, and even though civil rights legislation has outlawed racial discrimination in employment, housing, education and elections. Our challenge has not been to imagine a post-racist America but to realize it in a society in which social, political and economic interests have long been closely tied to race.

The history of Muslims in America in the early 20th century shows how closely progress and race were tied together. Early immigrants from the Middle East and South Asia found their citizenship status challenged because the Naturalization Act of 1790 granted citizenship only “to aliens being free white persons.” Later, Congress extended citizenship “to aliens of African nativity and to persons of African descent.” Uncertainties regarding the racial status of “Turks,” “Indians,” and “Syrians” — categories applied to immigrants from West and South Asia at the turn of the 20th century — resulted in challenges to their citizenship. They responded, in part, by allying with people of color. Bengali Muslims settled in black neighborhoods in New Orleans and married Puerto Ricans in Harlem. Punjabi Muslims settled down with Mexicans in Central California, and Ahmadi and Sudanese Muslim missionaries proselytized among African Americans throughout the Midwest and Northeast. At the national level, however, American Muslims responded — not by challenging the racist underpinning of exclusionary citizenship and immigration laws nor by pointing to their accomplishments and contributions as American citizens — but by relying on contemporary ethnological classifications of race to argue that they should be considered “white.”

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A 17 year old African American civil rights activist is attacked by police dogs during a demonstration in Birmingham Alabama, May 3, 1963. Bill Hudson.AP Photo.

The ties between social and economic interests and race were also significant in how minorities weathered the Great Depression. As Nathan Glazer and Daniel Patrick Moynihan argued in their seminal study of ethnic and racial minorities in New York, Beyond the Melting Pot, immigrants, many of whom had become owners of small businesses in the city, developed a network of patronage based on ethnicity. “The Chinese restaurant uses Chinese laundries, gets its provisions from Chinese food suppliers, provides orders for Chinese noodle makers. The Jewish store owner gives a break to his relative who is trying to work up a living as a salesman.” Since the jobs provided through these networks came with meager pay, this system of ethnic patronage provided ethnic businesses with an inexpensive labor pool that helped them make it through the Great Depression.

It could be argued that groups that formed during the Great Depression, such as the Moorish Science Temple and the Nation of Islam, similarly sought to use Islamic symbols and practices as a means of establishing a distinctive ethnic identity among African-American migrants to northern metropolises. Their business ventures as well as their message of economic self-reliance (“buy black”) were intended to provide a means for African Americans to weather the Great Depression. And they were, for the most part, successful. University of Michigan sociologist Erdmann Beynon, who wrote the first academic study of the Nation of Islam, reported in 1938 that at the time of their first encounter with the teachings of the Nation of Islam, nearly all its members were “recipients of public welfare, unemployed, and living in the most deteriorated areas of Negro settlement in Detroit, [but at] the present time [August 1937], there is no known case of unemployment among these people.” Some of their employment was no doubt the result of post-Depression hiring, but because of their new religion, members of the Nation of Islam saw themselves as socially different from other black Americans in a way that gave them an economic advantage. They reported that they “secured work much more easily than have other Negroes. They offered thanks to Allah for this evidence of his favor.” And, Beynon observed that “their claim appears to be justified. … Through the Nation of Islam they have gained a new status and a new confidence in themselves.”

Racial self-identification and solidarity have thus played a significant role in how Americans of all races have negotiated their social, political, economic and civic lives since colonial times. The tragic consequence of this has been that the management of competing social, political and economic interests has also been dependent on race and has taken such nefarious forms as slavery, segregation, nativism and institutionalized discrimination. Fear and violence were instrumental in maintaining these racist policies and institutions, and as such, they also shaped racial experiences in America. As James Baldwin wrote regarding the Nation of Islam’s theology in 1962, “one did not need to prove to a Harlem audience that all white men are devils. They were merely glad to have, at last, divine corroboration of their experience.”

Pluralism as a contentious ideal

To recognize that race, state violence, social identity and political and economic interests have been intertwined in American history is to acknowledge that pluralism is a contentious ideal. No articulation of national purpose nor idealization of an American national identity today can capture the multitude ways in which Americans have experienced and envisioned what it means to be American. We have different national memories based on our racial and ethnic backgrounds. No celebration of American ideals nor of American civic life could get us beyond the legacy of racist policies and practices. To overlook this enduring legacy is to deny the roles that racial minorities have played in shaping America. To see America solely through its racist legacy, however, also runs the risk of trivializing the ideal of equality in shaping American society and politics. “[T]here are to-day no truer exponents of the pure human spirit of the Declaration of Independence than American Negroes; … we black men seem the sole oasis of simple faith and reverence in a dusty desert of dollars and smartness,” W.E.B. Dubois wrote in The Souls of Black Folk (1903). Indeed, many racial minorities have condemned the American government and society for racism by holding them accountable to the founding ideals of equality. Even when Malcolm X declared, “American democracy is hypocrisy,” he did so by pointing out that America cannot rightfully self-identify as a democracy when freedom, justice and equality are denied to black Americans. He asked audiences: “If democracy means freedom, then why don’t we have freedom? If democracy means justice, then why don’t we have justice? If democracy means equality, then why don’t we have equality?”

The problem we face today as we strive to get beyond racism in America is that while we know that the ideal of equality has been experienced varyingly by Americans of different backgrounds, we cannot abandon it as part of our national memory nor do we have any national narratives of America that envision equality as a contentious problem from which a pluralistic society could emerge. We continue to have before us two primary paths of inclusion into a mainstream American society. One requires the performance of loyalty to the United States and its founding documents, requiring minority communities to read themselves into a triumphalist sacred history of America as a union of diverse peoples with “equality and justice for all.” The other participates in American society by holding it accountable, not by its own founding principles, which have been tainted by the violence of racism, but through ethical judgment of its history, policies and institutions.

It should be noted that it was not until the late 1960s that one could participate in American society by holding it accountable for racial discrimination. Prior to the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act, state laws impeded the equal participation of racial minorities in many parts of America. As such, racial minorities had no reason to celebrate the state as they found their footing in America. The state was often their problem even if it, as Tocqueville observed, touted the inviolability of equality for American democracy. In a telling example, President Franklin D. Roosevelt announced the establishment of the predominantly Japanese-American 442nd combat team during World War II by asserting that “no loyal citizen of the United States should be denied the democratic right to exercise the responsibilities of citizenship, regardless of his ancestry. The principle on which this country was founded and by which it has always been governed is that Americanism is a matter of the mind and heart; Americanism is not, and never was, a matter of race or ancestry. A good American is one who is loyal to his country and our creed of liberty and democracy.” Ironically, the 442nd combat team was a segregated unit in a segregated army, and many Japanese-Americans continued to remain in internment camps and were denied voting rights because naturalized citizenship remained restricted to whites and people of African ancestry.

Pluralism and equality have been contentious ideals throughout American history but public discourse on American national identity has rarely acknowledged them as such.

Pluralist contentions among American Muslims

At the turn of the 20th century, W.E.B. Dubois identified “How does it feel to be a problem?” as the question that captured America’s outlook on its black citizens. “A century later,” Moustafa Bayoumi, conflating Arab and Muslim identities, writes in his book titled after Dubois’ question, “Arabs and Muslim Americans are the new ‘problem’ of American society. … [S]ince the terrorist attacks of September 11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Arabs and Muslims … now hold the dubious distinction of being the first new communities of suspicion after the hard-won victories of the civil-rights era.” What Bayoumi does not point out is that American Muslims are also the first racially diverse religious minority whose inclusion has become a problem for American society. Historically, the inclusion of white religious minorities had been facilitated by the First Amendment, which prohibited the state from establishing a religion in the country and guaranteed individuals and groups the right to free exercise of religion. This allowed religious outgroups to organize and establish themselves long before they came under national scrutiny. When they became a source of national concern — as the Catholics did in the middle of the 19th century, or the Jews in the early 20th century, and the Muslims at the turn of the 21st century — they had the financial and human resources to fight back and defend their right to practice their religion by appealing to the U.S. Constitution and defining the scope of America anew by calling Americans back to the founding principles. Racial minorities, as I stated above, could not appeal to the state or celebrate American laws to earn their inclusion; rather they had to fight for their rights by overcoming racist laws and structures. As such, racial and religious minorities have had different national memories, which in turn affected the ways they integrated into American society and politics. Religious modes of integration allow for the celebration of America and its freedoms while racial modes of integration make a claim on the state and seek protection from it to overcome the legacy of racism.

Black Muslims march around Rockefeller Center in NY in 1963 in a protest against conditions for African Americans in the state.  APPhoto.

Black Muslims march around Rockefeller Center in NY in 1963 in a protest against conditions for African Americans in the state. APPhoto.

Given the racial diversity of American Muslims, it is not surprising that these differing modes of integration manifest themselves in American Muslim politics along racial lines. The differing visions of America as a bastion of religious freedom and as a polity with a dark history of racial inequality could be seen in a recent debate between two American Muslim intellectuals — Vincent Cornell and Sherman Jackson. Cornell accuses Jackson of ignoring the universality of American political values, which granted religious freedoms to all Americans, thus paving the way for the inclusion of Muslims in contemporary America. He writes that Jackson purports a “soft version of Shari‘a fundamentalism” when he states, “It is emphatically not my aim to vindicate the Constitution by conferring upon it the status of law (or even a source of law) that is binding on the Muslim moral/religious conscience on a par with shari‘ah (the Sacred Law of Islam).” In contrast with Jackson, Cornell aligns himself with Muslim leaders such as Feisel Abdul Rauf, author of What’s Right with Islam is What’s Right with America (2005) and founder of the Cordoba Initiative, who seek to use public reason to attain an “overlapping consensus” of political rights and religious values. According to this view, “the United States is a polity whose ethics emanate from universal moral principles that are grounded in the three Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.” Envisioning an explicit overlap between the U.S. Constitution and Islamic values, Cornell travels the well-trodden path of social and political integration through religion in American history.

9/11 Ground Zero mosque protest. September 11, 2010. Dan Nguyen/Flikr

9/11 Ground Zero mosque protest. September 11, 2010. Dan Nguyen/Flikr

Jackson, however, critiques what he perceives as Cornell’s desire to “apotheosize the American nation-state” through an “appeal to a would-be panacean liberalism, the poverty of whose freedom, equality and tolerance is painfully demonstrated and repeatedly confirmed.” He reminds Cornell and other white Americans that the same Constitution that promised religious freedom also condemned black Americans to slavery. He pointedly asks, “If Cornell wants to make the substance of the Constitution … binding on my moral/religious conscience as an expression of some sort of ultimate truth, I should like to ask when the Constitution acquired this proud preeminence: When it declared me three-fifths of a human? When it was constitutionally legal for him to enslave me? … Of course, all of this ultimately changed. And this is precisely my point: what changed was the substance, which everybody recognized as not transcendent but changeable.” Jackson does not disregard the binding nature of the Constitution, but rather than celebrating it as Cornell and Abdul Rauf would suggest, he calls for an acceptance of its legal provisions that guarantee freedom of religion in exchange for the protection of civil rights. In other words, he accepts the legal authority of the Constitution while relying on Islam to hold it ethically accountable to a higher source of moral reasoning.

Democratic anxieties

Within the Cornell-Jackson debate lies a significant clue to the underlying anxieties surrounding American Muslims. The question is not whether American Muslims can be loyal citizens — they have been for decades — but how loyalty to American democracy ought to be constituted. This is an old question. At one level, the question has been asked in seemingly neutral ways in terms of who could be trusted to act democratically. Can Catholics and Muslims be trusted to hold elected office? Could blacks and women be trusted with the vote? How about the poor or the convict? But when we examine of whom these questions have always been asked, we see they have always been asked of non-white, non-male, non-Protestant groups. In other words, they have always been asked of groups without access to the spheres in which legal and political decisions are made in America. As that sphere has expanded through the struggles of women and minorities, America has been forced closer toward its political ideals of equality in spite of its democratic anxieties.

Today, we continue to see American anxieties about the fragility of democracy — a political institution that has to be protected against itself — playing out in relation to American Muslims. Widespread fears about shariah law belie anxieties about Muslim citizens undermining American democratic structures. Discussions of whether Islam and democracy are compatible — as though any religion in the world is inherently compatible with democracy — similarly demonstrate anxieties about democratic choice. Can Muslims be trusted with political choices in a democracy? These fears reveal a deep mistrust in American democratic processes and institutions at one level and anxieties about the loss of cultural and political hegemony among white Protestants at another. That settling these anxieties is the work of the post-9/11 generation is evident in the election of the first Muslim congressmen, Keith Ellison and André Carson in 2006 and 2008 respectively, and the election of an African-American president who, though unequivocally Christian, was born to a secular Muslim father who named him Barack Hussein Obama. These elections signal that most Americans wish to reinforce their belief in the transformative power of democracy that allows for the inclusion of people of different racial and religious backgrounds in American society, even as they remain so suspicious of Islam and Muslims that they are not greatly troubled by increased government surveillance nor by the erosion of due process (recall the assassination of the militant American Muslim leader Anwar al-Awlaki). Although I focus here on race, anxieties about who can be considered an equal citizen and can participate in democracy are also anxieties about gender and class. It is hard to realize a post-racist America if we continue to indulge these democratic anxieties and treat American democracy as a system that has the seed of its own undoing embedded within it.

Vigil held for the brutal Sikh Temple Shooting in Wisconsin where six people were fatally shot on August 20th, 2012.  Light Brigading/Flikr

Vigil held for the brutal Sikh Temple Shooting in Wisconsin where six people were fatally shot on August 20th, 2012. Light Brigading/Flikr

American Muslims to the rescue?

If American Muslims represent the new “race problem” in American society, they are also looked to for the solution. As a racially diverse religious minority whose history in the United States dates back to the colonial era, inclusion of American Muslims in the mainstream American identity could mark a new beginning in the contentious history of pluralism in America. The centrality of the ummah in Islam, which idealizes a universal community founded on faith rather than national or ethnic identity, further makes American Muslims ideal for embodying a post-racist American identity. We could see attempts at constructing this American identity, at home and abroad, in the most recent version of the Department of State’s representation of American Muslims’ lives in a booklet titled American Muslims. As evidenced by the following citations, this publication depicts America through the eyes of select Muslim citizens to demonstrate for American Muslims how they ought to participate in American democracy and to reinforce, for all Americans, the promise of democratic values and processes.

– “When American Muslims work to improve their country by helping it grow to include all of its members, they are strengthening a time-tested American tradition, a custom of choosing participation over prejudice. … It was this tradition that so many ethnic groups called on to gain acceptance in America’s mainstream.”

– “Like the rest of the nation, we were horrified and outraged by the loss of innocent life [after the attacks of 9/11]. We were also scared, not knowing how we, as Muslims would be perceived and treated by our new neighbors. … Instead of encountering hostility from the wider community, we found that half of the people at the mosque that day were Americans of other faiths who had come to express support and solidarity. This story is a testimony to the courage and compassion of ordinary Americans who chose pluralism over prejudice.”

– “While stories of how disparate peoples become Americans are not always free of conflict and tragedy, the ongoing narrative of America is the continuous unfolding of unity through diversity.”

– “Like other Americans, U.S. Muslims welcome some of their government’s policies and disagree with others, domestically and internationally. And like other Americans, Muslim Americans express their approval and dissent by writing opinion editorials in newspapers, appearing in news programs and speaking publically in universities and think tanks. They join organizations that work for change, and start new ones. Despite some challenges, Muslim Americans largely believe in America’s promise of justice and equality. Most say they trust the fairness of elections and have confidence in the judicial system. Most U.S. Muslims also say they identify strongly with both their country and their faith, and like other Americans, see no contradiction between these identities.”

– “My experience has shown that the Muslim community has an extraordinary amount to offer when it comes to building communities that better exemplify America’s higher and still not fully realized ideals.”

– “Today American Muslims are among the most educated, entrepreneurial and hardworking faith communities in the U.S. They are more likely than the average American to have an advanced degree and to be business owners. American Muslims are on average younger than any other faith group, with an average age of just 35 years old as compared to 54 or older in other communities. This means that they are more likely to be employed and contributing to the growth of America’s economy as workers and job creators.”

What is missing from such celebrations of America and American Muslims are memories of the struggles of American Muslims as slaves, as immigrants of color with limited rights, as subjects of racial prejudice, as a community that also has internal class and racial conflicts. It remains to be seen whether the success of American Muslims, as a racially diverse religious minority that has come under suspicion in the 21st century, can overcome memories of violent racial conflicts and struggles. But what is clear — and the State Department seems to agree with me — is that no vision of a post-racist America is possible without active participation, for we are at a moment in U.S. history where Muslims stand at a unique position as a racially diverse religious minority to embody not only the ummah but also the ideals of American democracy.

First Boston, then New York … now Los Angeles

We all know the narrative of America that pivots around Boston. It begins with the Pilgrims crossing the Atlantic in search of religious freedom. They worked to build “a city upon a hill” to serve as a “beacon to the world.” As they progressed, they saw divine providence at work and moved west to cover the middle rim of the continent in what they perceived as their “manifest destiny.” Beginning in the mid-20th century, when Catholic and Jewish Americans from Eastern and Southern Europe came to write histories of the U.S., this narrative started to seem foreign, and they began to look into the history of immigration and ethnic relations. Their efforts shifted the municipal pivot of America’s narrative to New York. Ellis Island, the “melting pot,” “nation of immigrants” became central to the narrative of America. This does not mean that Boston or other parts of the nation were not affected by immigration and ethnic diversity. New York simply marked the social and demographic shifts taking place in American history in general.

Growing up in Los Angeles in the 1980s, I lamented its lack of character. The world associated it with Hollywood and Disneyland, but those of us who lived there knew that there was much more to its multibillion-dollar economy than movies and shallow entertainment. Wealthy, expansive and diverse, to me Los Angeles was a bunch of towns looking for a city. Driving on its asphalt arteries, I would go through Irangeles, Little Tokyo, Chinatown and Olvera Street, where the Mexican roots of the City of Angeles has been memorialized. This sort of diverse coexistence is not unique to Los Angeles, but Los Angeles is remarkable for being a major metropolis that came of age in the dawn of new civil rights and immigration laws that prohibited discriminatory practices based on race. While migrants from other parts of the United States had long populated Los Angeles, since the mid-1960s, it has become a magnet for immigrants from all corners of the world, and the percentage of its white population has gradually diminished. As such, the city has historically been at the forefront of the demographic changes we are beginning to see in the United States as a whole. There is, however, no distinct narrative of America that pivots around Los Angeles, showing how people of varying backgrounds have learned to be American in relation to one another in one of the most economically and culturally vibrant cities in the nation. Do not get me wrong; Los Angeles is no model city. The 1992 riots are a stark reminder of how diversity and vibrancy require careful management, and how class differences haunt America even as we beat back institutional racism.

Nonetheless, my encounters with “diversity” since I left Los Angeles for graduate school often leaves me nostalgic for the messy diversity of my East Los Angeles high school, where we took differences for granted as a fact of life. Recently, I saw a version of myself that I did not recognize projected on a screen on a diversity chart at one of our college faculty meetings as a statistically “underrepresented white minority.” Was I prized or a problem? Racial, ethnic and religious diversity is increasingly becoming a fact of life in America as a whole. While we strive for national consensus around American values and identity — e pluribus unum — we manage and negotiate diversity in our civic lives on a daily basis. We live with diversity while we ponder how we ought to deal with diversity. If a new shift in America’s national narrative occurs, pivoting on Los Angeles and its contentious pluralism, it will remind us that integration occurs through our encounters and exchanges with one another. It took me a long time to appreciate Los Angeles as “a fragmented city.” If people of all races are to have equal access to civic rights and privileges in America, we should expect fragmentation in our civic spaces, and we should encourage denizens of the city to not only learn from but also take pride in their diverse encounters and relations. As the Quran aptly states: “O people, We have created you from male and female, and appointed you races and tribes that you may know one another. Verily, the noblest of you before God is the most godwary of you.”

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