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The Problem With “When They Go Low, We Go High” In An Anti-Black Society

Andrea N. Williams- Muhammad

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In 2016, First Lady Michelle Obama’s quote, ‘When they go low, we go high’, was first invoked in response to growing anti-black and racist sentiments hurled by the current president and his supporters. Like many others, I believed it was stirring and motivational, yet never felt right in my heart, let alone mind. Going high, but what was the starting point? How are we defining the actions of the ‘they’ or ‘them’? What is the breaking point, when engagement with the ‘they’ becomes problematic and leads to your destruction? Are there rules to this engagement? What game are we playing? Who gets to be the judge or referee? So, the quote and the sentiment never really set right in my heart and led to more questions than answers.

The first assumption of the quote, ‘they’  have a moral compass and actively engaging you in this manner, placing you on the same level. The reality, whiteness in America seeks to maintain its power and control. White slaveholders and the system of hate they used to justify those they enslaved, built a model of power and control, which is the foundation of our current economy and societal structure. This institutionalized whiteness is so ingrained in our culture we are blind to its implications and oblivious to how we each play a role in maintaining this system. Ignorance of the historical development of this country and the narrative of being ‘American’ allows for ‘them’ to maintain their control and a passive acceptance of ‘their’ control and power.

The ‘they’ is often not embodied in a singular person or one group, but a collective body of thoughts and behavior; perpetuating fundamental beliefs or maintaining a perceived status quo. It is individual, institutional, and structural. While social media is full of single racially- charged incidents, when viewed as a whole, they are rooted in long-held beliefs and perceptions of white superiority and disdain for Black presence in their daily lives. Guilt, maybe. Fear. Many are not even aware of how and why they ‘hate’ Black people they simply, do. Here is where we will begin, if you cannot soundly identify or recognize why you hold a particular belief or idea, your actions can never firmly centered in a morally or ethically position. Many of the recent encounters reveal whiteness is predicated on lies; and the belief that white words are superior to truth. The interaction between a San Francisco couple, confronting a Black Man. provides a case study in how we are often engaged and the surveillance of our presence. Threats to call the police, with false information was of no significance to them in their minds, they were right and justified. This incident and the modern-day lynchings of Black persons, allows us to understand ‘they’ or morally bankrupt and will do whatever is necessary to maintain their perceived control.

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A quote by Matshona Dhilwayo bridges the gap between the contradictions in my heart and the understanding my mind seeks,

“It is possible to turn the other cheek when one has stopped counting.”

For generations, Black Americans have taken the ‘higher’ road in response to prejudice and discrimination. At times I believe, we have stopped counting because we knew few changes were coming or justice. During the pinnacle of the civil rights movement during the 60’s the emergence of Malcolm X, challenged the idea of ‘turning the cheek’ when faced with violent acts perpetrated upon Blacks by Whites. The slaps, the senseless murders of Black people on the streets, you count and recognize your enemy for who and what they represent.

In confronting our enemy, we must meet them on their home field of engagement. Millions have taken to the streets across the globe, no longer willing to accept the status quo and suffer needlessly at the hands of those who seek to negate our very existence. As a country, we must understand, this was NEVER a fair fight, on an equal field of battle, or with ample weapons. Nothing about the ‘American’ way of life ever guaranteed any of us a fair shot or equality.

You can not get justice from a system founded by people who in the 1700s published books on how to address the ‘negro problem’. Even Thomas Jefferson knew this day was coming, but in the end, he still held firmly to the belief we were an inferior race who could be easily controlled and manipulated.

Did the enemy play fair when Dr. King was trying to catch a moment of calm at the Lorraine Hotel? Was the enemy morally centered when Malcolm stood in the Audubon Auditorium and was assassinated in front of his family? Did they think twice as Medger Evers pulled into his driveway to spend the evening with his wife and family? When Fred Hampton lay in bed beside his wife was there a second thought?

The idea is not to meet your enemy on some lofty plateau of moral superiority, because they have none; their superiority is based on an ideology that doesn’t even recognize you as their equal. The real lesson, learn from your enemy- their tactics, fighting styles, and methods of engagement. Fight them not with their tools, but your own.

As people of faith, we tend to view those around us, as divine creations of The One; forgetting it was one of those divine creations, who we call the Shaytan. Yes, we accept others for who they are and respect all of humanity. The balance then becomes in recognizing just as the Quran teaches, not everyone will be called to faith or will lead peaceful harmonious lives. This is where we find ourselves, after almost five hundred years of oppression and abuse across the world, here in America, there may not be any redemptive hope for our enemy or the system they created. This does not mean, we simply acquiesce to their control and power, it means we engage them on a level playing field and defeat them using their own rules and weapons.

Knowing your enemy does not mean you become them; nor does it eliminate Divine intervention during periods of unrest. Knowing your enemy, is simply that you fully embrace the reality that they are your enemy and act accordingly. While we hold firm to our faith and the knowledge that He is the Best of Planners, we cannot enter into the enemy’s seat of power believing our mere presence and fervent prayers will somehow miraculously and instantly change their heart. That is not our calling or role, and not our divine purpose. Imams, scholars, and activists engaged in the work of justice and equality, are not divinely elevated to personas and are not representatives of our Lord, but mere offering religious insight and guidance. They hold space, offering insight, and protection.

Never, in the history of this country, have those in power and control ever fully recognized, accepted, or atoned for the entrapment, kidnapping, and enslavement of Africans. Instead, they have violently and systematically created a country of denial and continued oppression. The argument is that things have improved from the ’60s.  My response, I am still not free of the anxiety of having my children taken from this world, simply because they are Black.

We are not allowed to move about this world without having to do twice as much; be ten times better; while still being thought of as less than.

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Andrea N. Williams- Muhammad, has dedicated the last twenty-five years confronting issues of race, community relations, specifically centered on the intersection of race, faith, and maternal health disparities. Co-Lead of the Reproductive Health Equity Alliance of Maryland and owner Urban Green Diapers.

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Podcast: David’s Dollar | Tariq Touré and Khaled Nurhssien

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We often preach about our children learning the importance of money, group economics, and developing healthy spending habits. How awesome would it be to have a fully illustrated picture book that explores how a dollar travels from hand-to-hand?

Join Khaled Nurhssien and award winning poet and author Tariq Touré as they discuss Tariq’s new children’s book David’s Dollar. In this Interview they touch on art, Islam’s approach to community and Tariq’s creative process.

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The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support MuslimMatters with a monthly donation of $2 per month. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

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MuslimMatters has been a free service to the community since 2007. All it takes is a small gift from a reader like you to keep us going, for just $2 / month.

The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support MuslimMatters with a monthly donation of $2 per month. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

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Beyond 2020: Grounding Our Politics in Community

Kyle Ismail, Guest Contributor

Published

As tense and agonizing as these unending election days have been, it pales in comparison to the last four years.  I plainly remember how it all began on the night of November 07, 2016. I watched as the political map of the US became increasingly red late into the night. All the social media banter, conspiracy theories and left-wing critiques of candidate Hillary Clinton, formed an amorphous blob of white noise as I heard Trump announced as the next president. Now that Trump has run for re-election, half the country was hoping for a repudiation but will have to settle for the fact that despite a small margin, Donald J. Trump will not have a second chance to erode our democratic institutions and divide us. But we can’t move forward until each of us acknowledges our own pathological role in what we’ve become as a deeply divided country. 

We need to grapple with how we can gradually improve the circus-like reality that has become our ordinary, daily politics. We’ll relive more and perhaps improved “Trumps” if we don’t accept our own responsibility in creating a divided America. This starts with being better members of local communities. Here are a few of Trump-induced realizations that I’ve come to accept:

  1. Caring about our immediate neighbors and listening to their challenges and concerns is the part of political engagement that we all have to embrace above and beyond actually voting if we hope to be more than a 50/50 nation.
  2. Social media and its profit-driven algorithms are actually eroding how we see each other but could also be altered to help better educate us about our local social/political landscape.
  3. Local Politics has direct impact on our lives and is also at the heart our religious obligations to our neighbors. It also sets the tone for where the federal level derives policies that prove to be best practices (some examples are included below).
  4. Agitation and protest are not the same as being politically organized on a local level. Protest is sometimes needed, but it will never replace consistent and patient work. We learned this lesson with the Arab Spring as that movement failed to transform into a movement that was able to govern effectively. And the same appears to be true about the Black Lives Matter movement.

The voting is over for now. But voting is really the smallest part of being committed to bettering our communities. It was Prophet Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) who gave the most specific definition of community/neighbor and encouraged his followers to guard the rights of the neighbor:

“Your neighbor is 40 houses ahead of you and 40 houses at your back, 40 houses to your left and 40 houses to your right” Prophet Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him)

Support MuslimMatters for Just $2 a Month

MuslimMatters has been a free service to the community since 2007. All it takes is a small gift from a reader like you to keep us going, for just $2 / month.

The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support MuslimMatters with a monthly donation of $2 per month. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

Why does this relate to being politically organized?? The need for political organizing comes when any group of people want to create change in accordance with their values. We’ve all watched protest after protest that change little to nothing at the neighborhood level. This will continue to happen without organization, which span school boards, block clubs, nonprofits, and religious community outreach.  How can Muslims enjoin right and discourage wrong in any meaningful way? It comes through having authentic relationships with neighbors and turning that into organized and engaged communities.

Rosa Parks

Nothing illuminates the value of such relationships better than the story of Rosa Parks in her role in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. People often think that she was the first brave soul to defy the custom of allowing whites to sit before African-Americans could be seated on her city’s buses. Nothing could be further from the truth. The difference was that her sets of relationships were so interwoven into her local community that it forced a massive response. Park’s connections spanned socioeconomic circles as she had close friendships from professors to field hands. She held memberships in a dozen local organizations including her church and the local NAACP. She was a volunteer seamstress in poor communities and provided the same for profit in wealthy white circles. When someone with her relational positioning was able to leverage the political organizing ability of MLK and Dr. Ralph Abernathy, the Montgomery Bus Boycott was sparked.

When something happens to Muslims, who can we mobilize to respond? Who becomes angry? Who do we work with in our communities to create policies that reflect our values And what are our internal barriers to such cooperation?

“Whosoever of you sees an evil action, let him change it with his hand; and if he is not able to do so, then with his tongue; and if he is not able to do so, then with his heart—and that is the weakest of faith.” Prophet Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him)

Our Predecessors Organized Locally

At some point in time voting became the sum total of political engagement in the minds of many and is now deemed by some as worthless. We quickly forget that the organizations that battled for voting rights were first locally organized to improve communities. SNCC, SNCC, CORE, NAACP, and the Urban League all formed to create change in various ways and the fight for voting rights was a component of these local agendas. So when we’re tempted to believe that voting doesn’t matter, it’s likely due to our lack of engagement in local issues that form the contours of our community life. If you’ve ever heard of Ella Baker or Fannie Lou Hamer (worth researching!), you probably never bought into this type of logic.

One of the many lessons we can pull from this rich history is that we cannot pursue policies, seek alliances, or negotiate a position with political parties (see Ice Cube’s debacle in negotiating with Trump) without first being organized from within. No set of friendships or outside philanthropic support can supplant the need for internal organization. This lack of organized political engagement has weakened Muslims in general but has fatally weakened African-American Muslims as voices within the larger Black community – a voice that gave Islam its first fully accepted and influential place in American society.

Immigrant-based Muslim communities could also benefit from a local approach because despite being several generations in America, their American bonafides are still not set in stone. Concerns about Islamophobia will not change outside of developing authentic relationships with non-Muslims.

This also pushes back against a culture shaped disproportionately by social media algorithms that promote isolation and division for the sake of profit. Our attention to the national news cycle also takes our attention away from local communities where our power is formed. In this type of political malaise, re-engagement in local politics and community relationships can bring us back to important principles that resonate with the values of Islam.

Local politics help shape federal policy

The final word on any law or policy rests with the federal government, but much of what becomes orthodoxy begins with a few concerned citizens in local communities. As with community policing, criminal justice reform, climate sustainability, or any issues that has not caught on, the federal government will often step back to see how a new law plays out at state and local levels. Illinois didn’t wait for Obamacare but has a well-established program to ensure that anyone 18 and younger in Illinois has health insurance through a program called All Kids . Colorado has, in the midst of protests against police brutality, altered their law of Qualified Immunity to make police more accountable. And California has advanced the conversation on reparations  by sanctioning a study to understand how the state could benefit by redressing the descendants of American slavery.

By advancing issues and electing representatives who support the causes we believe in, we insert ourselves into a narrative that would’ve otherwise been forged without us. There’s no shortcut in this process short of rolling up our sleeves to understand our local systems and existing organizations. Moneyed interests are prepare to control the narrative regardless of who the president is and we have to remake this system from the ground up. Our history provides us with a roadmap to do this and it goes far beyond being citizens who only argue over national issues while standing on the sidelines. Remembering our 40 neighbors as advised by the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) is the best place to start.

Some helpful links:

Local Elections

State Legislatures

School Boards

County Prosecutors

Mayors

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MuslimMatters has been a free service to the community since 2007. All it takes is a small gift from a reader like you to keep us going, for just $2 / month.

The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support MuslimMatters with a monthly donation of $2 per month. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

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Podcast: Imam Connect | Muddasar Ahmed and Omar Usman

Omar Usman

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In this episode, we interview Muddasar Ahmed from Imam Connect about their innovative approach to providing Islamic services for the community. This episode goes into what the Imam Connect platform does, as well as working through some of the challenges involved in launching a new solution like this.

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MuslimMatters has been a free service to the community since 2007. All it takes is a small gift from a reader like you to keep us going, for just $2 / month.

The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support MuslimMatters with a monthly donation of $2 per month. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

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