Arabs and African Americans: A Complicated Relationship
By Ali Harb | Arab American News
DETROIT — Arabs and African Americans appear to have a common struggle against white supremacy.
But when former State Rep. Rashida Tlaib participated in a protest demanding accountability for the fatal shooting of an unarmed black man by a Dearborn police officer in December 2015, she received disparaging messages from prominent members in the Arab American community.
“Why are you there? Why are you against Chief (Ronald) Haddad? This makes the Arabs look bad. You guys shouldn’t be there. This isn’t your issue,” Tlaib said she was told.
Tlaib was demonstrating after the death of Kevin Matthews. A month later, Dearborn Police fatally shot Janet Wilson, a black woman they accused of using her car as a weapon to run over an officer who stopped her.
“No one, I don’t care what color, what faith, should be dehumanized like that,” Tlaib told The Arab American News.
According to Tlaib, there is an anti-black attitude in Arab societies, even in the Middle East. “The anti-blackness that’s happening across this world is real. It’s very painful,” she said.
She called for sincere efforts among Arab Americans to empathize and understand the state of Black America and police brutality.
The former state representative also urged individual Arab Americans to be self-aware and check their own bigoted instincts.
Relations between Arabs and blacks in Detroit are complicated and vary across generations and political leanings.
Racial tensions in Detroit exploded into riots in 1967. The Kerner Commission Report blamed “an increasingly disturbed social atmosphere” for the unrest. The report, which highlighted the roots of violent protests that broke out across several American cities, slammed racist patterns in white-black relations that date back to slavery.
Almost half a century later, complaints of racism and fears of white-led gentrification are rising in Detroit. Meanwhile, Arab Americans who gained a foothold in the city by expanding their small business ownership after chain stores left, continue to struggle with their own identity, unable to agree on their place in the race construct and power structure.
In 2014, a prominent Arab American activist from Dearborn was arrested during a protest against police brutality in Ferguson, Missouri. Simultaneously, local Arab social media users were calling the protesters thugs.
A transactional relationship
Amer Zahr, a comedian and adjunct law professor at the University of Detroit Mercy, said Arab-black relations have improved over the past few years as more Arab Americans are identifying as people of color.
“It’s not where it needs to be, yet,” he said. “It needs to get a lot further, but I think that we’re moving in that direction.”
Zahr said there is terrible anti-Black racist trends among Arab Americans.
Arab Americans are counted as Caucasians on the U.S. Census.
Some of the anti-black bigotry in the Arab American community stems from that designation, Zahr said.
“One of the main characteristic of whiteness in this country has been anti-blackness,” he said. “So if you try to be white, you manifest that through racism.”
He added that Arab Americans mainly interact with African Americans in a business setting.
Local Arabs own hundreds of gas stations and liquor stores in Detroit. They serve a mostly black customer base.
“When you own a business in a low income community that’s not very mobile, and people have to come to you, that creates a position of power structure that’s not very healthy for creating relationships that are good to social justice,” he said.
Zahr added that the uneven, transactional nature of the interactions has fueled bigotry on both sides.
The comedian urged businesses to contribute and invest in the neighborhoods that they profit from. He rhetorically asked about the number of gas station owners who are helping revamp neighborhood parks or sponsoring a local baseball team.
“If we did that, it shows that we respect the communities that we’re in,” he said.
Detroit is the Motor City, but 26 percent of its households are without a vehicle, according to a 2014 study by the University of Michigan. In the absence of a reliable public transportation system, that leaves gas station and party stores as the sole destination for some needed commodities.
Zahr warned Arab storeowners against price-gouging.
“We do have a responsibility,” he said. “We shouldn’t just be crazy capitalists in an urban society. That’s how you create more poverty, not less.”
Zahr said soothing the tensions between the two communities falls on Arab Americans, who need to start identifying themselves as an oppositional group, willing to protest the system.
“When we see start to see that about ourselves, we’ll see the linkage with Black America much more closely,” he said. “That’s our problem; we need to deal with it.”
He added that some Arab Americans try to overstate their Americanism by showing more solidarity with law enforcement agencies than their own communities.
“For black people, their skin color is their blackness,” he said. “For us, our names are our blackness. Sometimes people might not know we’re Arab until they hear our name. That’s when the conversation changes with us. We are seen as ‘other’; we are seen as foreign, as people who don’t belong here.”
A personal responsibility
Rana Elmir, the deputy executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said Arabs and African Americans have complicated interactions that vary among individuals because of the two group’s diversity.
But she described the relationship, relying on her activism and personal observations.
“It’s a fractured relationship,” Elmir said. “Ultimately, it’s a relationship that’s based on transactions, as opposed to true understanding, solidarity, empathy.”
Elmir has been outspoken in her calls for allyship between communities.
She said building understanding takes time. Elmir encourages Arab and African Americans to ask themselves one question — “What would our joint community look like if we had solidarity, if we had effective partnerships?”
“My estimation is that we would be powerful,” she said.
Elmir said she feels a personal responsibility to call out and correct bigotry within the Arab American community, as an Arab American activist.
“Racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, homophobia, all come from the same pathology,” she said. “It’s all about ignorance and fear creating hate. If we can say anti-Arab sentiment is on the rise, but we can’t see how racism, particularly anti-Black racism and structural racism, has impacted Black communities, it’s difficult for me to justify how to ask other communities of color to come and support us.”
Concentrations of Arab and black residents in Southeast Michigan are segregated by geographical frontiers. For example, Tireman Avenue, which marks Dearborn’s northern border with Detroit, is also a demarcation line that separates the mostly Arab neighborhoods in east Dearborn from the mostly African American Aviation subdivision in Detroit.
Elmir called for communication and challenging racial perceptions to break the invisible barriers of segregation.
“We often come together when there is a problem, when there is a need for communities to come together because there was a shooting or because an eruption of anger or fear,” she said. “But outside those news events are we having these difficult conversations?”
She added that Arab and African American identities overlap because there are black Arabs. The two groups also share civil rights struggles, she added.
“Arab Americans understand educational inequities. Arab Americans understand being targeted and profiled. Arab Americans understand a militarized police force. Arab Americans understand a criminal justice system that is stacked against us,” Elmir added.
Breaking the walls
Dawud Walid, the executive director of the Council on American Islamic Relations, described interactions between Arab and African Americans as tenuous.
He said the two communities remain segregated despite relations between leaders and activists.
“There’s not a lot of deep connections socially,” he said.
Walid, a black Muslim, said the lack of social rapport fuels misconceptions and bigotry because people are afraid of what they don’t know.
A quarter of violent crime in Detroit happen within 500 feet of gas stations, according to city officials.
Gas station and liquor store owners have been targeted and sometimes murdered by robbers who happen to be black, igniting racial animosity.
“We should stand by our principles and recognize the authority of the law. Arab store owners in Detroit are being killed for $10 and $20 sometimes,” an Arab American engineer told the Arab American News in 2014, with underlying racial tones. He was stating that he stands with the police against Black Lives Matter protesters.
Walid said violent crime in Detroit is a security, socioeconomic problem, not a racial one. He added that hyper poverty and the breakdown of community make the city an unsafe place.
“There are black people who get shot and killed in Detroit on a daily basis,” he said. “I caution people against centering Arab life as if it’s more important than the overwhelming majority of people who get shot in Detroit who are actually black residents.”
Walid pointed to the discrepancy in police presence and response time between the greater downtown area and the mostly black neighborhoods on the east and west sides, where Arab Americans own gas stations.
“That’s a part of the institutional racism that’s related to policing in Detroit,” he said. “Arab American merchants unfortunately have to suffer from slower response time.”
Walid added that some gas station owners are reluctant to engage their customers beyond the business aspect.
“Bulletproof glass tends to dehumanize people — dealing with people basically as commodities, not as people,” he said.
Walid said the demarcation lines that separate Arab and black spaces in Metro Detroit were designed intentionally, so it will take intentionality from community leaders to eliminate them.
He suggested organizing joint block parties, sporting and social events across city lines to remove those perceived obstacles.
Dr. Sally Howell, a professor of Arab American studies at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, said it is hard to generalize Arab Americans’ racial attitudes about African Americans.
She said there are Arab Americans who live among African Americans and interact with them professionally and personally without having any issues.
“There are also people who see the City of Detroit as this ‘black space,’ who don’t want to go to the city for that reason,” she said.
Howell said some Arab Americans see Detroit as a zone of threat.
“These two communities coexist,” the professor said. “And there are many other communities between them. They’re sort of like a continuum.”
She added that Arab and black individuals bear the responsibility of representing their respective communities when dealing with each other.
“This is evidence that both of these populations are basically stigmatized minorities,” she said. “If people have an encounter with me, and they have a bad experience, they might say that’s a white lady. Whatever. But it’s not going to accumulate for white people the same way it’s going to accumulate for Arabs and blacks, because they’re minorities. Not just minorities, but minorities who have this extra burden of having been represented negatively in our society for so long.”
Howell said there is a long history of immigrants’ learning the bigoted racial and social hierarchies in the United States, and that could apply for some Arabs.
“It could be that you’re an immigrant; you don’t speak English; you’re new; you don’t have any advantage. ‘But you’re not black,’” she said.
The rise of Islamophobia and anti-Arab sentiment after Sept. 11, 2001 have generated comparisons between the hate that Arabs and blacks face.
After the shooting of Alton Sterling and Filando Castile, Take On Hate organized a meeting between black, Arab and Muslim activists to explore ideas to increase political solidarity across communities.
Jermaine Carey of the Muslim Center Detroit urged sincerity in compassion.
“The hashtag is cool, but every two months it fades away until someone else is murdered,” he said.
Carey said Arab Americans started feeling the heat of bigotry after 9/11, but African Americans have been experiencing racism for the past 500 years.
Professor Howell said political solidarity between the two communities goes back to the 1920’s when early Arab immigrants saw an opportunity in working with African Americans to rid their homelands of colonialism.
That sense of allyship lingered on for some individuals and organizations, according to Howell.
“But how do you take all that important work that people are doing and have it change attitudes of people who don’t have access to that work,” she said.
The Arab American Civil Rights League (ACRL) holds a yearly joint event with the NAACP to honor judges who safeguard civil rights.
Rev. Wendell Anthony, the president of the Detroit branch of the NAAC, also sits on the ACRL board.
ACRL Chairman Nasser Beydoun said building personal and professional rapport between Arab and African American leaders helps dispel misconceptions and prevent tensions from rising.
Beydoun, who was the head of the Arab American Chamber of Commerce, said despite remaining challenges, tensions between Arabs and blacks in Detroit have decreased drastically over the past 15 years.
“A lot of it has to do with educating our community in doing business in the African American community, and how to treat their customers,” he said.
Beydoun said activists have been encouraging business owners to hire people from the neighborhoods where they operate, treat customers with respect and give back to local organizations in the city.
Beydoun said African Americans have always been at the forefront of the civil rights battle, adding that Arabs and Muslims should learn from the black struggle and form partnerships to strengthen their position.
“What we see happening to us today has happened to the African American community — and it continues to happen to the African American community,” he said. “We don’t have the numbers to fight this battle on our own, so we have to form bonds with all communities of color.”