BLM Protests

The United States has clearly reached a boiling point. The viral video of Derek Chauvin’s cold blue eyes staring at us while he calmly murdered George Floyd in Minneapolis over a $20 transaction has sparked protests all over the United States and in several cities around the world. Some would isolate the blame for this event and the increasingly emboldened white supremacist movement on thinly disguised racial rhetoric coming from the White House. Though I agree that White House rhetoric plays a major role, I argue that the reemergence of the white supremacist movement can be traced back to another president — George W. Bush.

In the aftermath of the civil rights movement, the United States entered a period in the early 70s that might be described as one of “Political Correctness.” Political correctness was characterized by a “desire to sweep away the debris of racism and sexism and hatred.”(1) Though the merits of political correctness may be debated, when viewed through the lens of today’s reality, it had a major regulating effect. I remember watching news analysts during that time dissect the words of political candidates searching for traces of political incorrectness and discussing whether a miscue during an interview or a debate spelled the end of a hopeful’s candidacy, or even career.

In today’s political reality, the very opposite is true. Tennessee 2016 congressional candidate, Rick Tyler, posted a billboard in Polk County showing a picture of him with his family and the words, “Make America white again.”

As we find ourselves in a cauldron of racial unrest triggered by the murder of George Floyd, maybe we, as Americans, should be taking a closer look at how we got here. How did we get to this place where candidates are running on a white supremacy ticket and white supremacists are marching in the streets with Nazi flags?

I claim that the period of political correctness ended suddenly — on a single day. That day was September 11th, 2001. Even now, almost 20 years later, who of us can’t instantly recall where we were and what we were doing when we watched our first video replay of the American Airlines 737 smashing with a burst of flames into the side of the WTC North Tower. And then we stared aghast as many of us saw it play out on live television — the second plane hitting the South Tower followed by the horrific pancake collapse of both buildings. Americans experienced a deep, collective trauma.

Brothers of Sikh American, Balbir Singh Sodhi, who was murdered
in the first post 9/11 hate crime (credit: NPR)

Four days later, Sikh-American gas station owner, Balbir Singh Sodhi, was murdered in Mesa, Arizona in the first post-9/11 “anti-Muslim” hate crime. On September 20th, then-president George W. Bush addressed Americans and asked, “Why do they hate us?” His absurdly inaccurate answer, “They hate our freedoms,” paved the way for the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and a never ending “War on Terror.” Now Americans from both sides of the aisle were watching “shock and awe” on TV and processing their trauma with feelings of retaliation.

And any sense of the need for political correctness when speaking about Muslims went completely out the window. Evangelical figureheads led the way. Throughout 2002 and early 2003, evangelical Protestant leaders had shown themselves to be among the most caustic critics of Islam in the U.S. Within a few months of each other, evangelist Franklin Graham and Southern Baptist leader Jerry Vines created headlines by preaching things about Islam and Mohammed that I refuse to repeat in print because what they said could very well be classified as hate speech. (2)

And now it was definitely OK for politicians, talk show hosts, clergymen, supremacist leaders — and the general public — to speak openly about their hatred for Muslims.

I contend it was this ground zero, like a meteor falling into the ocean, that is still sending out waves of hate in all directions. Hate is not selective. With permission granted for open hate speech, it was only a matter of time before emboldened white supremacists re-hoisted their Confederate flags and came back out into the open with new energy for reclaiming a white supremacist America.

And this unrestrained hate has spread like wildfire and become a national crisis playing out in cities all over the country.

Like nothing we’ve seen in our lifetimes, non-blacks are waking up and tapping into the emotions of their black friends and listening. The tragic death of George Floyd has forced the passive supporters from multiple ethnic backgrounds to sit with the tangible realities of the discrimination of, the criminalization of, and the execution of people of color. In the past, most have been silent about these realities. But now with the facts quite literally staring them in the face, and not able to distract themselves with sporting events, live concerts, or weekend beach outings, their silence has suddenly been transformed into outrage — and that outrage has erupted.

Huge numbers are now mobilized and filling the streets with chants of justice for George Floyd, along with belated shouts on behalf of the many local and national losses to the same systemic machine. Many for the first time are sharing condolences with their black counterparts and awakening with horror to their lives of comfort, denial, and absence in the face of generations of Black oppression. Following the lead of African American organizers, they are finding their places in a long past due supportive role in the struggle and presenting an open challenge to the convention, culture and secrecy of Systemic Racism in all its forms. The organic expression of human solidarity taking place in the United States, and in many cities internationally, is unprecedented.

It took the cold eyes of Derek Chauvin going viral to trigger it, but it’s good to have a wave of support for the Black Lives Matter movement and a beginning of a focused effort to address the systemic racism that has been woven so deeply into the fabric of American society since the first African slaves arrived in 1619.

Sikh American restaurant in Santa Fe, New Mexico vandalized on June 21. (Credit: Santa Fe Reporter)

But if we are serious about sustaining the level of effort required to dismantle systemic racism by working our way back to 1619, a very important, and early, stop along the way is September 11th, 2001. A blanket of anti-Muslim sentiment on both sides of the political divide still covers the United States even 20 years later. And it’s undeniable that this played a major role in the empowerment of George Floyd’s murder.

If Gallup were to take a survey of the white BLM activists in the streets today about their attitudes towards Muslims, what would the data tell us? If the campaign platforms of the over 20 Democratic presidential candidates are any indicator, ending the “War on Terror,” which has killed or maimed millions of Muslim civilians who have never taken part in any sort of extremist activity, is not a priority. (3)

2020 Democratic Debates (Photo credit: Doug Mills/The New York Times)

As the author of a book intended to address many of our misconceptions about Muslims, I do promotion work and direct it towards what I had hoped would be a friendly audience, political progressives. I’ve been appalled at the vitriol directed towards me simply for suggesting that we work towards peaceful relations with Muslims.

On a Facebook post, I typically get fewer than half positive reactions and a long string of almost exclusively negative comments, some of which are impossible not to classify as actual hate speech. And even in the very context of Black Lives Matter activism in San Diego, some of my black Muslim friends have mentioned encountering Islamophobia in the ranks.

Hatred towards groups of people, whether because of skin color, eye shape, religion, ethnicity, nationality, gender identity, sexuality, ability, or any other characteristic we can invent, cannot be vectored in one direction only. Hatred moves in all directions like the ripples in a pond. If we leave the door open to generalized resentment towards Muslims, there will be little we can do to support the black lives matter movement in any sustained way.

So as we march and protest, as we read the list of recommended reading for learning to be antiracist, as we call in to city council meetings and write letters to our elected representatives, let us leave space for introspection and ponder the idea of also listening to and learning from our Muslim neighbors. They come from uncounted ethnicities and dozens of nations all over the world, including black America. I’m convinced that without hearing them, our success in creating systemic change for black Americans will be limited and temporary.

Co-Author: Yusef Miller, of African-American Muslim Descent, Board Member of the Islamic Society of North County, Escondido, CA

Steve Slocum is the Author of “Why Do They Hate Us?: Making Peace with the Muslim World” and is a Peace Activist.

1. Chow, Kat (14 Dec 2016) ‘Politically Correct’: The Phrase Has Gone From Wisdom To Weapon, Code Switch — Race. In your face.NPR, KPBS. Retreived from https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2016/12/14/505324427/politically-correct-the-phrase-has-gone-from-wisdom-to-weapon

2. Cimino, R 2002, ‘New Boundaries — Evangelicals and Islam after 9/11’, Review of Religious Research, December, 2005

3. Only Tulsi Gabbard made ending the war on terror a mainstay of her campaign platform. She was never considered a contender.