Fashionable racism

BY AMER G. ZAHR
The Progressive Pen
Published March 28, 2001

Almost every minority group in this country goes through a period in which it is fashionably discriminated against before there emerges any type of popular backlash. In the recent box-office flop, "Rules of Engagement," Yemenis are, as The Los Angeles Times wrote, "serving as convenient and clichd villains." No attempt was made to humanize the Yemeni citizenry, as they were run of the mill villains, ready to be herded up. "The Siege," a Denzel Washington feature (it is disappointing that someone who has stood up for so much in the Black community would be so insensitive as to star in such a movie), opens with a Muslim cleric praying out loud in Arabic while "terrorists" are carrying out a bombing attack. The implications are clear. Muslim = Arab = savage = terrorist = hate. We need to have a discourse about this type of racism among all members of the American community.

Paul Wong
The Progressive Pen

Many times in our American history, we have found that racism against certain groups has stemmed from American foreign policy. The post-WWII situation of the Japanese-Americans is probably the one instance that most parallels the current situation of Arab-Americans. Surely, Japanese-Americans would not have been hauled off into concentration camps had not we been at war with Japan. And perhaps we would not be witnessing such discrimination against Arab-Americans if our country did not have such a dubious relationship with the Arab people. There is no doubt a relationship between our government"s foreign policy and the characterization of certain groups in our mass media. Undoubtedly there is a clear correlation between our sanction policies concerning Iraq (which, incidentally, kill 5,000 children under the age of 5 a month, according to the U.N.) and the demonization of the Iraqi citizenry.

In many ways, our mass media indirectly justifies our foreign policy. Racial attitudes propagated by our politicians and confirmed by our media made it possible for our government to order over 120,000 Japanese-Americans into internment camps in 1942. It is important to note that German and Italian-Americans were not put in camps, mainly because they had assimilated for the most part, and ordering their internment would most probably have been politically impossible.

Similarly, "anti-terrorism" laws passed in 1995 by then-President Clinton, measures that allow for defendants to be detained with secret evidence if they are under suspicion of being involved with a "terrorist" group (a term only defined by the State Department and not reviewable by a judge or anyone else), have resulted in 23 of the 25 defendants held under the law being Arab and/or Muslim. Only an environment of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiment propagated in the mass media could justify such actions. The parallel with Japanese internment camps is clear.

More stories need to be told. There was the recent news story of Hillary Clinton returning a $50,000 campaign donation given to her by the American Muslim Alliance because her political opponents, Rick Lazio included, called it "blood money." Imagine the uproar that would ensue had she returned money to a Russian-American group amid criticism of her being sympathetic to Communism. Clearly, there would have been some sort of discourse, and news agencies would have probably had a field day. In the case of the AMA, however, news agencies treated it as almost a non-story. Hillary"s returning the money was simply widely accepted, and no discussion ever ensued. This should be no surprise, but it should nauseate you quite thoroughly.

This all stems from representation in our mass media. Remember Jafar, the big bad wicked vizier in "Aladdin"? Compare him with Aladdin, our hero. Aladdin speaks with no accent in the film, while Jafar speaks in an Arab accent. Aladdin"s skin color is fair, almost "American." On the other hand, our villain"s skin color is much darker, much more "mysterious." Well, we don"t have any historical evidence that in medieval Arabia anyone spoke English in an American suburban accent. Clearly, Disney made a conscious decision to make their hero look and sound like "us" and their villain to sound and look like "them."

Similarly, Chinese-Americans (another group not so favored by American foreign policy) are most times depicted as owners of dry cleaning establishments who rant and rave and yell and shout. Incidentally, according to our 1990 Census, both Chinese-Americans and Arab-Americans had higher rates of high school graduation than the population at large. Still, however, we see no Arab-American or Chinese-American protagonists in our television media and there don"t appear to be any on the horizon. There is no Chinese "Friends." That"s too bad. I"d watch it.

So we come back to the main problem: This type of prejudice is universally accepted. It"s fashionable. But it is still racism. Many don"t think twice before engaging in it. And unfortunately the stories are rarely told. Has it ever happened to me? Yes. Very recently, in fact. But I"ve run out of space to tell my story.

Amer G. Zahr"s column runs every other Wednesday. Give him feedback at www.michigandaily.com/forum or via e-mail at zahrag@umich.edu.