The Struggle for the Idea of America

The Arab American National Museum in Dearborn - Michigan celebrates the history of Arab Americans

This week I traveled to Dearborn, Michigan to speak at the 15th annual “Images and Perceptions” Diversity Conference. The focus of my remarks were the challenges we are facing today. Dark forces have been unleashed in our society that are threatening the very meaning of America that we have fought to create and that we must now fight to protect.

Before discussing this issue, I want to reflect on how important it is that Arab American leadership brought together this convening of elected officials, law enforcement, educational institutions, social service agencies and a broad array of ethnic and religious organizations.

Thirty-three years ago, I remember coming to Dearborn under very different circumstances to address a traumatized and vulnerable Arab American community. The leading candidate for Mayor had just sent a mailing to every household in the city featuring a bold headline that screamed “ABOUT THE ARAB PROBLEM.” The mailing went on to decry the huge influx of Arab immigrants—who at that point were about 20% of Dearborn’s population—claiming that these foreigners were “ruining our darn good way of life.” The community was both hurt and frightened. When I spoke to them on that occasion, I sought to boost their morale by telling them that “you aren’t Dearborn’s problem, you are Dearborn’s promise.”

Like so many other Arab American communities before them, these Dearbornites worked hard, built their businesses, educated their children, established institutions, and became engaged in the political and social life of their city. In the process, they, in fact, succeeded in becoming Dearborn’s promise.

Today, the President of the City Council and a majority of the Council are Arab Americans, as are the State Representatives and a number of local judges. In addition, members of our community serve in leadership roles in law enforcement, education, and a range of civic institutions.

In just three decades Dearborn’s Arab Americans worked their way from the margins to the mainstream. But, and here is what is so important, they have not forgotten from whence they came nor have they forgotten the discrimination they had to endure. And so, they annually convene this critical conference and are now in a position to provide leadership in promoting the values of diversity and inclusion.

It was this issue—the urgency of promoting these values—that was the subject of my remarks to the conference. It is urgent because I believe that America is at a dangerous crossroads, and at stake is the very self-definition of our country.

This is not a new struggle. From the beginning, there have been two competing ideas of America. On the one hand, there was the vision of some of our founders to create an open, inclusive, and tolerant society where all could find freedom and opportunity. They were countered by darker forces driven by intolerance and our “original sins” of slavery, genocide, territorial conquest, and ethnic cleansing.

Despite the early dominance of the darker forces of bigotry, in each period of our history, there have been those who struggled to assert the more inclusive idea of America. Not only African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans, but the diverse communities of immigrants that came and experienced discrimination and exclusion which included Asians, Irish, Italians, Jews, Eastern Europeans, and Arabs. Despite repeated efforts to close the doors to different ethnicities, America remained open and welcoming. And we are better for it.

Immigrants have made their way into the mainstream. In the process of becoming Americans, they have changed the meaning of America.

What would America be today if not for the contributions of the many peoples that have made up this land? What we can rightly ask is what would our food, music, art, style, and humor be if not for the contributions of African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, and the waves of immigrants who came to our shores?

This struggle, however, is never-ending because the roots of intolerance run deep and are always with us. We cannot forget this reality. When I hear good, but naïve, people decry acts of intolerance saying, “this not American” or, “this isn’t who we are,” I feel forced to respond, “tragically, it is who we are and it is a part of our story.”

If we think only of the open and welcoming America, we can easily fall victim to the purveyors of intolerance. BUT, we must also remember that in our history, time and time again, our better angels have won.

We are now facing yet another manifestation of this same struggle to define the idea of America. The forces of darkness have reemerged preaching their gospel of bigotry and fear. Some blame President Trump for creating this intolerance, but that is too simplistic. He didn’t create it, he merely tapped into the darker forces that have always been with us. For a time, they were submerged but he gave voice to them, he legitimized them, and brought them into the public square.

As a result, our decades-long struggle to defeat racism and secure civil rights, to fight against intolerance toward immigrants, and to promote cultural diversity and respect for women is in grave danger of being reversed.

The deplorable has now become acceptable. When women are degraded and assaulted, the disabled are insulted, and immigrants are defamed and threatened, the very idea of the America for which we fought is put at risk.

This poisoning of our culture is having an impact throughout our society. Our media discourse has become coarse and divisive, hate crimes are up, and we are now seeing children mimicking these behaviors in our schools and in our communities.

It’s up to us to push back against intolerance and, as we have done for centuries, we must say “no, this is not who we aspire to be, this is not the idea of America we fought to advance.” We must push back in our homes, schools, churches, synagogues, and mosques, saying, “this will not stand.”

I am an optimist. I’ve seen us do it before and I know that our better angels can triumph once again. But they will not win without us acting as their agents. This is the challenge we face. And that is why the “Images and Perceptions” conference is so important. By bringing together community leaders eager to restore civility, respect, and tolerance, we are assembling a team of warriors to engage in the battle to save the idea of a welcoming and inclusive America. And I am so very proud to see Arab Americans at the forefront of this struggle.