Racism is a complicated issue.
Racial prejudice has persisted in America despite the evolution of countervailing social norms that not only undermine the rationales that buoy such bigotry, but shame the bigots themselves. So why are people still jerks?
There have been a myriad of reasons suggested for the persistence of racism and racists. I haven't the space nor is this the occasion to audit the competing theories in detail, but suffice it to say that scholars have advanced various historical, socio-economic, and (yes) rational-choice explanations for the phenomenon's resilience. Whatever the cause, it's clear that we don't live in the vaunted “post-racial” society we occasionally heard bandied about in the heady aftermath of America electing its first black president.
It's just as evident that racism, at its core, is not just a “white” problem. That is, the pathologies that lead someone to judge another based solely on the color of their skin are not limited to Caucasians, but can be just as prevalent within minority groups. One need only survey the complex light-skinned/dark-skinned divide in the black, Latino, and South Asian communities (just to name a few) to get a sense of…well…the complexes. Granted, much of this self-loathing can likely be attributed to a hegemonic sense of beauty that people of color have been subjected to for centuries, but that's a conversation (really, a dissertation) for another time.
Perhaps the vilest form of racism, however, is that of one minority group towards another minority group. What makes it so heinous is that, unlike the privilege given to the lighter-skinned within one's own community, this dynamic does not stem from imposed aesthetic standards, but from the emulation of the same chauvinist mindset that works to label minorities of all shades as inferior. Growing up in New York and now living in Los Angeles, I'm all too well acquainted with this largely urban phenomenon. Despite this experience, I was still surprised to read Dawud Walid's recent string of posts on the prevalence of a particular racial slur in the Arab-American community.
Ignorance and/or Malice
Initially, Dawud took to The Arab American News to make his case that “Fellow humans are not 'abeed'.” He notes how the term (which in the singular is “abid”) is often used by Arabs to derogatorily refer to blacks (“abeed” meaning slaves). Throughout the piece, Dawud highlights the history of the term and the disingenuous defense of it by those claiming that they are merely using it in the sense of “worshipper” (as in “Abd Allāh” — see this great MM piece for an eloquent take on the matter).
From there, Dawud took to social media and did a quick search for “abeed” (or its various transliterations). What he found was the casual use of the term among a mostly younger, mostly Arab demographic. After tweeting his article to the offenders, some apologized to Dawud (noting that they did not know it was offensive) and some upped the ante by verbally abusing him. Par for the course on social media, I suppose.
Dawud's next follow-up in the series is what really caught my attention. The author acknowledges that there has indeed been–as one would expect and hope–a positive response from the Arab and Muslim community who have circulated his article through their networks. Yet, he urges us to move beyond the virtual spaces and address this issue on a “grassroots” level. Hardly anyone can fault him for that or have any qualms with the suggestion, but it does beg the question…
What Can We Really Do?
So, let's start with the good news. It seems that there are some who genuinely do not know the meanings and connotations associated with the term “abeed” and its variants. Education in this case can be an effective and quick remedy. Once you get past this bit of low-hanging fruit, however, the prospects for meaningful change drop off precipitously.
Tackling ignorance or naiveté is one thing; curing racism is a whole other matter. As Dawud himself notes, racism is in part structurally ingrained in the Arab community at large, not just the American diaspora. If you doubt him, think of the continuing struggles of South Asian migrant workers in the Gulf countries or, less anecdotally, consider a recent study that placed Jordan among the most racist countries in the world with Egypt and Saudi Arabia not far behind.
With this inherent obstacle, one has to question the overall efficacy of addressing the issue, on forums large and small, as Dawud suggests. Would this be a good first step? Sure. But part of me thinks that you would merely be preaching to the choir by bringing this issue up at our major conferences or otherwise making the topic too abstract to gain traction. Once again, it seems you have historical, socio-economic, and (yes) even rational-choice factors at play here (the latter perhaps stemming from a misguided calculation that by putting one group down, you can raise yourself up). Ultimately, I can't help but think that the marginal benefit of discussion–from the pulpit, the stage, or the MSA mussallah–would be negligible.
As the title of this piece suggests, I have no ready-made answers. If there is one thing studying social science has taught me, it is that cause and effect are extremely difficult to ascertain, let alone develop an effective treatment for. As an initial matter though, it seems engagement between the communities is in order. Though this is not a regional issue, it is not surprising that Dawud is experiencing this outgrowth of racism in perhaps the most segregated city in the US. No need to be heavy-handed about it, either–I imagine a basketball league would get you to the desired outcome faster than any number of sermons.
Big thanks to Br. Dawud in any case. The first step towards fixing a problem is acknowledging we have one. Racism, ironically enough, is an equal opportunity disease.