The limits of American racism, and the Arab exception.
Summary: The electoral silly season is over and it is time for a serious discussion removed from partisan passions and manipulation. Racism, the 800-pound gorilla in the American living room, has shrunk and is now no bigger than a jackass. In his eloquent endorsement of Barack Obama, another African-American statesman, Colin Powell, took direct aim at racism.
The electoral silly season is over and it is time for a serious discussion removed from partisan passions and manipulation. Racism, the 800-pound gorilla in the American living room, has shrunk and is now no bigger than a jackass. In his eloquent endorsement of Barack Obama, another African-American statesman, Colin Powell, took direct aim at racism and pulled the trigger: "It is permitted to be said such things as, 'Well, you know that Mr. Obama is a Muslim.' Well, the correct answer is, he is not a Muslim, he's a Christian. He's always been a Christian. But the really right answer is, what if he is?" He went on to describe a photo of a Muslim American mother grieving at the tomb of her soldier son at Arlington Cemetery.
Racism has just been wounded and permanently disabled. But racism in other forms is still alive and kicking. Its targets, defenseless against a larger-than-life metaphor, are Muslim and Arab-Americans. One voter famously said of Obama, the African-American candidate, "He is an Arab," while John McCain, the white candidate, reassured her that, "No, he is a decent, family man." Another voter complained, "I don't trust him. He is a Muslim."
The mere association of Obama with a former colleague at the University of Chicago, the Palestinian-American professor ashid Khalidi, a scholar who advocates non-violence and now heads a prestigious center at Columbia University, was cynically raised as a campaign issue.
The name Barack Hussein Obama was enunciated with added emphasis on the middle name by one national commentator after another. The implication was not subtle in the least: He is "the other," not one of us, and we shouldn't trust him.
The president-elect's race could only be raised obliquely in most quarters, because the United States has come a long way. Young people have different sensibilities than many of their parents. It is too embarrassing for most people to attack a candidate using overt racism or anti-Semitism, both of which come with a withering price tag.
But another brand of racism, against a vulnerable minority in the US, and over a billion people across the globe, carries no price tag. I'm speaking about racism against those of Arab or Muslim descent, and Arabs or Muslims in general. In fact, it just might be the statement you want to make to sound patriotic, a true American. This recent silent consent in smearing the names of a multitude based on their ethnicity compels me to raise my voice in defense of the values of fairness and equal opportunity for which America stands.
Four decades ago, I was fortunate to come to this great country with my wife, and the two of us have raised three children. Our household now is filled with grandchildren who claim rich and varied heritage. It is but one of millions of households in the new America that live and breathe universal values of inclusiveness and, simply by existing, serve notice of the poor prognosis for racism in this country.
The threat that terrorists pose to our country is compounded for those of us of Arab and Muslim descent because these thugs have besmirched the reputation of a whole people and their religion, and cast a dark shadow on our community.
We are well aware of the damage that the Jeremiah Wrights of the Arab-American community inflict on us and on the fabric of our nation. By setting themselves as the "damn America" crowd, they squander the moral authority that the targets of racism should have, and they play into the hands of zealots of all types. They diminish the standing and the opportunities for equality and empowerment of the community they profess to represent.
However, the abusive and often nefarious generalizations about all things Arab and Muslim in this country that goes unchecked can only be labeled as racism. This brand of racism is permissible and rarely censured, but it is shameful and must be challenged. Degrading and offensive remarks about Arabs and Muslims should be met with the derision they deserve. All members of groups who have suffered racism and fought to tame the beast of bigotry are called upon to stand up for the rights of its most recent victims.
Our country makes it possible for individuals to earn the highest of achievements based on merit. However, it demands that those groups surmount mighty obstacles to earn their seat at the table. Every time we make room for a new group to be seated, our union edges closer to perfection.
To paraphrase Joseph Campbell, you have to change the metaphor to change reality. Well, the American metaphor has just changed, as has its reality. This election has made future Jewish, Latino, Asian, or Muslim men or women presidents not only thinkable, but just a matter of time.
Ziad Asali is president of the American Task Force on Palestine. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.
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