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Arab Americans must do more to fight racism against African Americans

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By Ray Hanania

If September 11th did anything to me as an Arab American, it helped me better understand the experiences of African Americans and other people of color in this country.

Despite the overwhelming bigotry that they face in this country, African Americans have spoken out forcefully against bias against themselves and also against bigotry directed against others including Arab Americans.

For the first time in my life, I think I might know what it really means to be African American in this country and face discrimination, to have someone look at you and hate you just because of the way you look.

As an Arab American, I easily blend into White society. So much so I have been misled to believe that I was an equal. I've always been conscious of issues of racism against others, I’m proud that my daughter is sensitive to African American culture, but always felt that the disease of bigotry based on race was not a threat.

Obviously, I and many other Arab Americans are wrong. And in a way, I want to express my gratitude to African Americans who have been victimized by many including some in the Arab world.

Certainly, Arab Americans need to do a better job of helping the people of the Arab and Muslim worlds better recognize that African Americans have been our staunchest civil rights supporters as our own rights have eroded under a new and dangerous form of patriotism sweeping across our nation.

The Patriotism Laws are not patriotic at all, and only institutional practices that have been time tested and proven to be ineffective. Basing a policy of national security on race is as wrong as one used to fight crime.

Today's patriotism is one based on hatred against rather than in national pride. Pride based on separation of people based on race or religion is not patriotism at all, and is reminiscent of the foundations that gave rise to Nazism during the 1930s in Germany.

African American leaders have been the most outspoken critics of the anti-Arab wave sweeping across this country.

They are among the few who have stood up and recognized that there is a difference between how we are being treated and the highly charged, emotional debate on the Middle East conflict.

They also recognize that the aggressive war being urged on us by President Bush is a war of racial inequity here as much as it is based on injustice. Without a draft, children of White families are not forced by economic needs driven by a legacy of cultural racism to enlist in the military.

The popular support for the war against Iraq might not be so strong if these families felt that their children faced participation in that war, too.

Today's bigots are not as blatant in their hatred as they were in the 50s and 60s. And it wasn't just in the South. It takes place everyday in the streets of nearly very American city.

Emmett Till, the 15 year old boy who was viciously butchered to death died not in the cotton fields of Mississippi, but on the streets of Chicago in 1955, when I was only two years old.

That I never heard of Emmett Till until recent years and the sad passing of his mother this year is a greater tragedy that speaks volumes to how American racism has transformed from the obvious to the subtle.
Racism in America is cultural, often not conspiratorial.

People smile to your face and hate you behind your back as a personal means of defending themselves from civil rights punishments.

That kind of bigotry makes racism difficult to prove and underscores why we must be vigilant about preserving civil rights protections such as affirmative action, quotas to assist people of color, and anti-racism laws that have teeth.

Rather than weakening these laws, as we are now seeing our government do, we should be strengthening them to make the fight against racism more successful.

Racism is a disease that while it has made Arab Americans today's victims alongside of African Americans, it is color blind. Civil rights laws are as much a counterbalance to bigotry against Arabs and Blacks as a longterm protection for others including many European White ethnics who find themselves on the wrong side of the laws.

One day, these laws might be used to protect them, as I now realize that the civil rights consciousness can be used to protect Arab Americans in this country.

I apologize on behalf of many Arab Americans who have taken this issue for granted over the years, believing that somehow we are exempt from America's cultural bigotry. It's not that we did not sympathize.

Growing up, my parents were always proud of African Americans who overcame bigotry to rise in this society. Even as a Christian family, my family was always proud of the struggle that faced the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X.
But being proud of them is not enough. We must become activists in the fight to protect civil rights.

We have not been active enough. We have not policed our own communities to insure that we do not fall victim to the cultural racism in which we live.

Arab American owned stores in African American communities must become more sensitive to community needs. We must police them and weed out those that abuse African Americans, rather than stand in defense of the practices of poor businessmen who happen to be of our race.

(Ray Hanania is a Middle East Affairs columnist for Creators Syndicate and a Palestinian American author and writer based in Chicago. He can be reached at www.hanania.com.)

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