Last August when media attention spiked around the protests that Mike Brown’s death in Ferguson ignited, I noticed Syrian Americans on social media were largely ignorant of black history and the current struggle in America. Some of them were Syrian Americans who quote MLK and participate in the aesthetics of black culture. More disturbingly, these were all Syrian Americans who support the Syrian Revolution for human rights.
Pro Free Syria people in America were:
1. Framing Mike Brown as a thug
2. Perceiving a majority non-violent movement as riots
3. Not recognizing the power dynamics between the police system and the black community.
This is concerning because:
1. The Assad regime labelled protestors as “terrorists”
2. The Assad regime framed a majority non-violent movement as violent
3. Oppressors and those who support them rarely recognize power dynamics.
Everything I’ve pointed out is not exclusive to the Syrian American community by any means; in fact these observations are the norm for about half of America. Public education in America fails to teach students anything substantial about oppression — it’s why the overwhelming majority of Americans use the word “racism” wrong (racism is not about being mean to black people; conversely anti-racism is not about having a black friend). But because the Syrians started a revolution for human dignity and have sacrificed a lot to keep it going, its imperative that Syrians in diaspora uphold the principles of this revolution in our locales.
Confronting Anti Black Racism in the Syrian American Community
While scrolling through my twitter feed last August, one tweet from a prominent Free Syria activist in America stuck out. He’s a lawyer and clearly labels himself as a pro-democracy activist.
Above is a screenshot of our brief exchange, after which he promptly unfollowed me on twitter. The problem with his tweet is that it ignores 300+ years of oppression against Blacks and equates protesting with rioting. A few months later, when his Pro-Free Syria Facebook page started pushing the #SyrianLivesMatter meme, I commented saying that there were better ways to raise awareness for Syria while supporting Black Americans at the same time. I didn’t get to screenshot of that comment because it was promptly deleted and I was banned from commenting. Just like when Syrian activists don’t like it when others jump in and use our campaigns for their purposes, we shouldn’t do the same to #BlackLivesMatter.
There are dozens more instances of pro-Free Syrian Americans across the country showing similar ignorance, from people arguing in defense of the police to arguing that our justice system works fine (while showing they really have no idea how the justice system works).
Another person I interviewed, a teenage Syrian American from an upper class family, told me she feels that her whole family is racist. This becomes apparent when news coverage involving black people spikes, and people start offering their opinions at the dinner table. Her family cant understand the power dynamics between police officers and black america, and fails to empathize with black americans organizing against police brutality.
When I would casually mention to MENA Americans that I thought we could do a better job of supporting Black America, people would invariably say “Oh my Gosh YES our community is SO racist! We need that!”
Overall, I interviewed 4 Syrian Americans in depth from across the country, and they largely acknowledged that the Syrian American community upholds racist ideas. Two of my interviewees were already well versed on black history and anti-racism. The other two were not used to talking about racism, and we spent time building up their understanding of American power dynamics and how to conceptualize oppression.
A paraphrase of one such conversation:
Male Subject 1: “But what I don’t like is when black people commit a crime, people don’t say that is racist too. It’s like not a serious thing when a black person kills someone than when a white person kills someone, and that’s not fair.”
Me: “If a Palestinian murdered an Israeli, that would be wrong and that person should go to trial. But that Israeli didn’t die from the oppression of Apartheid. When as Israeli soldier kills a Palestinian in his village, it’s a murder within the context of Apartheid. So yes, if a black person murders a white person, the murderer should go to trial. But that white person didn’t die within the context of racism because black people do not perpetuate racism in America.
Male Subject 1: “So you’re saying that black people can never be racist? That seems like a stretch to me.”
Me: “Black people can be prejudiced and bigoted, but they can’t be racist. Racism is a system of oppression when one group economically disenfranchises another group. Black people never economically disenfranchised an entire society of white people.”
Male Subject 1: “I still don’t get it”
Me: “Palestinians can never commit ‘reverse Apartheid’ on Israelis”
Male Subject 1: “Oh yeah..I see that”
One Black American I interviewed expressed frustration at Arab American lack of empathy, understanding and reciprocity for justice. A Lebanese American anti-racist activist implored me to broaden my scope to all of Arab America, as these observations are not limited to Syrian Americans.
In the end, these conversations led me to two conclusions:
1) It’s absolutely critical for pro-democracy Syrian American institutions to provide public social justice educational programs for their communities.
2) The Syrian American identity, one that is both uniquely Syrian and American, largely does not exist. Syrian Americans in America identify as Arab and/or Muslim before identifying as Syrian, or even if they don’t: Syrian Americans have largely participated in #BlackLivesMatter as individuals or through their Muslim and/or Arab identity. Creating a Syrian American identity will require, in part, being publicly present in for American and Syrian justice struggles as a group. (This is also why I ultimately chose to limit this post to the Syrian American community).
(The first group display of Syrian solidarity with #BlackLivesMatter came from Syrians in Kafranbel rather than those living in America)
Understanding Racism in America and Current Social Justice Movements.
That is why SAC Houston decided to incorporate special programming into our general meetings by inviting local human and civil rights activists to speak on their area of expertise. We want to connect Houstonians to Syria and connect Houstonians to each other.
We taped our first program Saturday Feb. 21st at Kendall Library: Mustafaa Carroll of CAIR Houston gave us a tour of non-violent organizing in black american history.He spoke about Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee, the Congress of Racial Equality, and Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He spoke about how in the time before social media, lower class folks were organizing marches, holding voter registration drives, and making sure desegregation laws were being upheld.
After Mustafaa, I gave an overview of what racism is, what anti-racism looks like, and touched on two key pillars in today’s civil rights movement. A brief summary below:
1. Race is a social construct and has no basis in DNA. Celebrate the fact that our bodies create the same proteins and enzymes and share a biorhythm.
2. Social constructs have real effects on people’s lives. Just because race has no genetic basis doesn’t mean that racism isn’t real. Money and political borders are also social constructs that have profound implications on human behavior.
3. Racism is a system of oppression that arises when one group economically disenfranchises another group. In other words, when Americans took people from West Africa and enslaved them, that gives rise to racism.
4. This is worth repeating: Economic disenfranchisement gives rise to racism. Enslaving people is an example of economic disenfranchisement. This leads to their perception as sub human and dangerous, which is why it took America till 1965 to allow blacks to get a mortgage to own a house.
5. Therefore, anti-racism requires, in part, that we support economic empowerment. Economic empowerment looks like, in part, setting a living wage as the minimum wage in America.
6.Because of the gross economic disparity between blacks and institutional white America, the dominant perception of blacks is heavily skewed towards negative and threatening images.
7. This is why black people largely report feeling uncomfortable around police officers, because police officers can perceive black people as threatening, even when a crime is not actively being committed.
8. #BlackLivesMatter is a movement in America demanding, in part, that police officers be held accountable when they kill civilians. The current system does not hold officers accountable; Grand Juries have never sent a police brutality case to trial in America. Cases like the one in Houston, where an off duty officer shot and killed Jordan Baker because he mistook him for a suspect on the loose, will not go to trial.
9. Another major pillar area of abuse against Black America is the Prison Industrial Complex. Though violence in America has been on the decline for decades, incarceration rates have more than tripled. There are public and private prisons in America: these institutions are a 74 billion dollar industry and employ 800,000 people. Black people and people of color receive harsher sentences for petty crime compared to white people.
I’ll share our program after it’s uploaded on Youtube. Mustafaa’s presentation was a humbling reminder on how long, difficult, and beautiful social justice organizing can be. Black Americans organized along all fronts: social, cultural, and political. Changing legislation and changing hearts are both necessary when striving for a more just society.
The significance for Syrian Americans can’t be understated: this is the civil rights legacy and current reality of the country we live in, the civil rights movement paved the way for the Immigration Act of 1965 that allowed many of us to come to America, and the current Syrian struggle for human dignity obligates us to fight for not only Syrian human rights but also American human rights. This is the highest and most powerful meaning of what it means to be Syrian American.