How pervasive is the race problem in the USA?
To find an answer we don’t need to look beyond the latest revelations from Virginia where Governor Ralph Northam, a Democrat, has been accused of posting about a racist image that appeared on his 1984 medical school yearbook page. He admitted to darkening his face to portray Michael Jackson in a 1980s dance contest in San Antonio.
Later the State Attorney General Mark Herring also admitted to dressing in blackface during his time at the University of Virginia.
Now we are told that a Virginia Military Institute yearbook overseen by future state Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment in 1968 featured a host of racist photos and slurs, including blackface. Norment was managing editor of The Bomb publication that year. He went to VMI in Lexington after graduating from James Blair High School in Williamsburg and has been a state senator since 1992. The revelation about one of Virginia’s most powerful Republicans comes as the state’s Democratic governor and attorney general are facing calls to resign over their own admissions they wore blackface as young men.
“We like to think the racists are older, Southern, usually undereducated people who hold overt traditionally racist views and do things like freely use the N-word, or wear blackface,” said Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, a Duke University professor of sociology and author of “Racism Without Racists” in an interview with the NBC News (Feb, 5, 2019).
“And by that standard, most whites are free of racism,” Bonilla-Silva continued. “So, this means that most people, specifically white people, are free to join the chorus, to call for Northam to resign.”
“The problem is that racism is fundamental in the contemporary American landscape, fundamental and widespread but perhaps more subtle than the N-word and blackface,” he said. “It is not about a few bad apples, but the rotting tree.”
No one concerned can deny that we live in a racist society. The problem of racism, indeed, is so deep that an NBC poll, conducted in 2018, found that 64 percent of Americans said racism remains a major problem in the society. Pluralities of Americans said race relations in the USA are getting worse (45 percent) and think that too little attention is paid to race and racial issues (41 percent).
Racial discrimination isn’t just felt in public spaces. Just under a quarter of Americans said they have experienced discrimination in the workplace based on their race, but blacks are more likely than any other racial subgroup to experience it. About half (48 percent) of African-Americans said they’ve experienced workplace discrimination based on their race compared to 36 percent of Hispanics and only 14 percent of whites.
If these be the case in Trump’s America that once produced civil rights leaders like (late) Malcolm X (Alhaj Malik Shahbaz) and Martin Luther King, Jr., it is not difficult to deduce that the situation is worse in most multi-racial countries where neo-fascism is either alive and kicking or slowly but steadily creeping in. Unfortunately, substantive ideas of what we are to do about it are in short supply.
What the latest controversy involving Virginia politicians show is that we continue to view racism in this country through the episodic lens of a series of flash-points sparked by a horrifying image, a spoken slur or a bad tweet. These events trigger imprecise conversations, like whether Tom Brokaw truly has racism in his heart after saying, “Hispanics should work harder at assimilation” or Donald Trump truly has racism and bigotry in his heart when he signed an executive order blocking Syrian refugees and banning citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States and said, “Islam hates us.” Only if we’re lucky does such a conversation expand to touch upon dangerous racial and bigoted stereotypes that affect so many.
Is there any solution to stop racism?
For writers such as Ta-Nehisi Coates, racism won’t ever go away. It’s a kind of original sin, to be atoned for, not vanquished. For Hillary Clinton, her best 2016 campaign pitch involved reminding voters that Wall Street regulation wouldn’t end racism, sexism or other forms of oppression.
Those conclusions suggest that we should just try to cleanse ourselves of our own prejudices and try to raise the consciousness of those around us. “Diversity trainers” and consultants might be satisfied with that strategy, but the rest of us shouldn’t be since they have seen the futility or limitations of such measures when racism and bigotry is cascaded down from the top. Truly, one Trump as the POTUS is enough to start the racial warfare! The phenomenal rise of racism and bigotry in the USA since 2017 owes it to his hateful speeches and tweets.
It is, thus, important to speak the truth to power who promote racism and bigotry. And there is no Jihad better than that.
Tariq ibn Shihab reported: A man asked the Messenger of Allah, Muhammad (S), “What is the best Jihad?” The Prophet (S) said, “A word of truth in front of a tyrannical ruler.” [Musnad Aḥmad]
It was no accident that Islamic history is inundated with many mujahids who did not mind speaking the truth in the face of tyranny. The great scholars, sages and saints refused the favors of kings and noblemen to maintain their independence. Consider, e.g., the case of Imam Abu Hanifa (R) who refused to serve as the chief judge of Baghdad during the reign of Abbasid Caliph Mansur. The Caliph had hoped that by offering him a high post he could bring the Imam under his control. The Caliph, furious that his invitation was spurned, had the Imam flogged and put in jail. Even in prison, the Imam continued to teach and train his disciples. And it was in prison that this great mujtahid breathed his last at the age of 70 in the year 767 CE (150 AH).
Sadly, in these days when celebrity status with money, pomp and comfortable lifestyle are valued more than standing up for what is right, just and moral such role models that can speak to power are too few and are difficult to find (even in Muslim majority countries). No wonder that the evil practices of tribalism of the Days of Ignorance (Jahiliyah) of the pre-Islamic times are all too prevalent everywhere. Truly, new tribalism has set in motion – separating people between ‘us’ and ‘them’ and justifying untenable injustice for the ‘other’ people (who are deemed different – whether by race, ethnicity, gender, religion, caste or creed, wealth or any man-made classification). The genocidal activities in Myanmar against the Rohingya, the detention of millions of Uyghurs in China, the daily lynching and persecution of the Dalits, minority Muslims and Christians in India, the criminality of the Daesh against the Iraqi Yazidis, the discrimination faced by the immigrants, migrant workers and refugees – legal and illegal – and disadvantaged groups who are deemed different than the dominant group in many parts of our world are all part of this new tribalism whether or not we mask it under new or old names.
Tribalism leads to inequality, discrimination and injustice. It is reprehensible and unjust, and thus, unacceptable. Of all the revealed religions and man-made ideologies, Islam condemns injustice unequivocally. As a matter of fact, the crux of Islamic law is the realization of justice (‘adl). A celebrated hadith reports, ‘Allah says, “O My slaves, I have forbidden injustice for Myself and forbade it also for you. So, avoid being unjust to one another.” (Saheeh Muslim)
Human life will neither prosper nor enjoy peace and stability unless it is established upon a foundation of justice. Thus, justice represents moral rectitude and fairness. Allah declares in the Qur’an: “Allah commands justice and fair dealing…” (Qur’an 16:90)
The Qur’an further ordains: “O ye who believe! Be steadfast witnesses for Allah in equity and let not hatred of any people seduce you that ye deal not justly. Deal justly, that is nearer to your duty. Observe your duty to Allah. Lo! Allah is Informed of what ye do.” [Qur’an 5:8]
Consider also the directives of the Qur’an: “O you who believe! Stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses to Allah, even if it be against yourselves, your parents, and your relatives, or whether it is against the rich or the poor…“ [Qur’an 4:135]
With its premise of the equality of mankind and establishing justice for all, Islam came to obliterate racism and supremacy of any group that is based on birth, heredity, tribe, race, color, gender, wealth, ethnicity, nationality, etc. The Qur’an declared: “O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female, and have made you into nations and tribes, that you may know one another. Surely, the most honored of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted.” [Qur’an 49:13] [See, also the Quranic verses: 57:25, 60:8, 5:42, 42:15]
Let us also be reminded by what Ali (RA) instructed Malik Ashtar, the governor of Egypt, whose population comprised of the Coptic Christians: “Remember that the citizens of the state are of two categories. They are either your brethren in religion or your brethren in kind.” That is, there is absolutely no ground for treating anyone unjustly, unfairly or biasedly.
As noted by Prof. Sami al-Majid, “Justice is the greatest means of ensuring human dignity and human rights. Justice is what people ask for and expect from each other, regardless of their affiliations, loyalties, affections, and prejudices. Justice is not something that exists only in the courtroom. It is not something only judges decide. It is the way we as people should conduct ourselves with each other in the course of our daily lives. We should instill it in our children from the time they are small… All people should be embraced by it without exception. No one is above justice. No one is excluded from it and no one is exempted from it.”
Who can ignore the importance of establishing equality and justice, as ordained in Islam, to weed out racism or any type of tribalism? When this concept is fully implemented, there will be no room for oppression or suppression. The hollow concepts of ‘chosen’ people or ‘privileged’ class and ‘condemned’ races will all become utterly meaningless and obsolete.