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"The Problem of Racism is Not Black and White,"

by Sam Husseini January/February 1998 issue of Poverty & Race

In what was billed as one of President Clinton's most important speeches, he urged us to "begin" a dialogue on race relations. Clinton spoke of "the problem of race." There is no such thing — except for racists. There is the problem of racism, a word Clinton managed to use only once during his speech.

Too often, we view ethnicity as dealing with "black" and "white" — two inextricable opposites that are constantly clashing. The increasing population of Latinos, Asians, Arab-Americans, other groups, as well as "mixed" people, should make us realize that we are all shades of pink and brown and beautiful colors which we don't have names for yet.

Clinton noted this changing face of America, but here too at points he seemed to view it as adding to the "problem." Said Clinton: "To be sure, there is old, unfinished business between black and white Americans, but the classic American dilemma has now become many dilemmas of race and ethnicity." Clinton then made his only mention of Arab-Americans: "tension between black and Hispanic customers and their Korean or Arab grocers." The subtext seems to be more groups, more problems. It should be more groups, more solutions — more opportunities to see how all cultures are hybrids and all people are related.

We need a sense of history. Without it, things that should be fundamental are forgotten and become invisible. We don't have a way of acknowledging our country s crimes — no museums or monuments are built for the slaughter of the indigenous population or the hate that met one immigrant group after another; only very recently did a rausuem open, in Detroit, that deals honestly with the slavery of African-Americans.

The recognition of growing groups should not cause us to forget great tragedies that have been perpetrated upon African-Americans. Ralph Reed, on CNN's "Crossfire" just a few years back, commented that African-Americans "fled oppression and tyranny in order to come here." No one objected. What kind of mindset "forgets" that Africans were brought here chained in slaveships? Recently, there were tributes to Sen. Strom Thurmond. Did anyone note that he ran for President in 1948 with the motto "Segregation Forever"?

Perhaps the most dramatic moment of Clinton's speech was also the most disturbing. He invoked the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing as a great, shining example of what the US should be like. Said Clinton of the victims, we "forgot for a moment that there were a lot of them from different races than we are." Missing from his rendition of events in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing was the massive scapegoating by the major media and some political leaders of Arabs and Muslims. Everyone seemed to know exactly who was responsible, because of course terrorism is virtually synonymous with Arab Muslim. This had a real human impact, as hate crimes skyrocketed against Muslims and Arabs. Thugs in Oklahoma threw stones into the home of a pregnant Iraqi refugee, who had internal bleeding and lost her near-term baby.

We must move beyond talk and look seriously at policies. After the TWA 800 crash (which featured a virtual rerun of the Oklahoma City bombing media rush to judgement), the Gore Commission on Airline Safety and Security recommended broader use of airport "profiling," which singles out Arabs for more extensive searches at airports. How is that consistent with the President's vision of America? Arab-Americans should be viewed as a part of — not apart from — America.

Like too many of our discussions, international events were hardly mentioned. Does the issue of race play no role here? How less likely is our government to prevent tragedy in Rwanda because the victims are dark-skinned? How much more suspiciously do some people view investments from Japan than from England? Or alleged campaign contributions from China than from Canada? Or immigrants from Mexico than from Sweden? How much more tolerable is it that Iraqis are starved to death to further a failed policy since they are "different from us"? How much easier is it for some to argue that Palestinians should not have real self-determination because they are not "as good as" some other group?

Do we have nothing to learn from other countries? The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee had its annual convention as Clinton was giving his speech. There were Arabs and Arab-Americans there who were darker than most African-Americans. Some were as light as the "whitest" European. Malcolm X noted that during the Hajj in Mecca, there is serenity between different ethnicities. Yes, some other lands have ethnic strife, but many do not. Maybe we could do some listening as well as some preaching.

We need to look at the basics that have too often been rendered cliches. We are all of one "race," the human race. We are a rainbow of colors and of one human family. This cannot be dismissed as "political correctness." Rather, we must examine ourselves and perhaps realize that we are all recovering from the heresy against humanity that is racism.

Sam Husseini is former media director for the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

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