ODVV interview: Muslim Ban is a wake-up call to...
Debate on racism is now at the forefront of public attention in the United States. The killing of the unarmed 46-year-old African-American resident of Minneapolis, George Floyd, by a white cop earlier in May, prompted nationwide protests that were scarcely seen in the recent decades, rekindling racial wounds and dark memories the nation is well aware are parts of a history many enlightened Americans wish to recreate.
Under President Donald Trump, racial disparities were amplified perturbingly and antipathy toward Muslims, Mexicans, African-Americans and Asian-Americans was normalized. A 2019 poll by the Pew Research Center found 49 percent of Americans, including 73 percent of Black Americans, believed President Trump has made the race relations worse. Yet, the kaleidoscopic aggravation of race relations in the United States in the recent years is not only about the African-Americans. Nearly all minority groups are living through their own trials and tribulations, finding their civil liberties curtailed and their wellbeing at risk as racism makes a resurgence in a society that is divided, despite its promise of being a peaceful idyll for the dreamers.
The American Muslim Poll 2020 by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU) reported 60 percent of Muslims, more than any other religious group in America, experienced discrimination in the previous year. Anti-Muslim abuse has been steadily on the rise after President Trump came to power, including in 2017, one year after he was elected, when it experienced a 67-percent surge.
Sylvia Chan-Malik is an associate professor at Rutgers University’s Department of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. A scholar of American studies and religious studies, she has written on the history of Islam in the United States extensively. She is the author of the 2018 book “Being Muslim: A Cultural History of Women of Color and American Islam” and her writings have appeared on NPR, The Huffington Post, Middle East Eye and The Intercept.
Organization for Defending Victims of Violence has conducted an interview with Prof. Chan-Malik on the racial divides in the United States, President Trump’s approach to minorities and Muslims and the national reckoning on race following the death of George Floyd. (This interview was done before the November 3 presidential election.)
Q: Racism appears to be a major challenge in the 21st century America, to the point that it was raised as one of the key questions in the presidential debates of 2020 between Donald Trump and Joe Biden. In the first debate, President Trump tiptoed around condemning white supremacists, intensifying the belief that he is personally one of the reasons racial disparities are on the rise in the United States. Do you think Trump sees benefits in supporting and emboldening radical white nationalists or is deliberately fanning the flames of racism?
A: Yes, Trump has long history of racist behavior. You can trace the pattern easily, from lawsuits leveled at him by the Housing of Justice in the 1970s for turning away Black tenants in his buildings, his Central Park Five campaign, the birtherism against Barack Obama that launched his political career, and the numerous statements he has made since becoming president against Mexicans, immigrants, Black Lives Matter, Muslims and others. One of his first major executive orders was what has come to be called the “Muslim Ban” and he has a long history of speaking pejoratively about Islam and Muslims.
It is also not insignificant that two major targets of his executive order bans have been Muslims, and more recently, “critical race theory,” in which the federal government has banned any funding to go to institutions that hold “diversity” training that in any way recognizes racist histories of slavery, indigenous genocide and xenophobia. All politicians engage in forms of doublespeak at times, but Trump stands out in how he continually chooses to create space under his political tent for flat-out white supremacists, or those who want to maintain America as a white, Protestant nation.
It’s really a strange, ineffective tactic, because while he so desperately seeks to include or placate white supremacist and white nationalist voters, he also wants to be seen as some sort of “savior” for Black Americans, constantly touting that he has done more for Blacks than any president since Abraham Lincoln.
Q: In the 2016 presidential polls, one in four Latinos and 8 percent of African-Americans voted for Donald Trump. This is while his views on race relations were not concealed from the public and many Americans deemed him an outright racist. How do you think the racial minorities will be voting in the November 3 polls? Do you expect Trump’s approval to decline among the Blacks, Latinos, Muslims and Asian-Americans considering his four-year track record?
A: Polls have shown that Biden has leads amongst Black, Latinx, and Asian-American voters. They also show that Trump has had some small gains with voters of color, in particular Latinx men. The issue of gender is critical here.
Black women overwhelmingly support Biden – around 90 percent, compared to around 75 percent of Black men. For Latinx communities, around 70 percent of women support Biden, and 60 percent of men. So, Trump has made small gains with Latinx and Black men, but at the same time lost a great deal of support from white women. Asian-Americans are interesting insofar as prior to the 1990s, they used to be a reliable Republican voting bloc, but over the course of the last 20 years, they have come to vote mostly Democratic, around 70 percent. This has to do with newer generations of Asian-Americans, many born in the US, well-educated, and conscious of their position in this country as racial minorities. So all of that is to say, I don’t think Trump’s approval will decline with voters of color because he never had much approval in those communities to begin with. I do think more folks in those communities might be inspired to go to vote than during the 2016 election because of their intense dislike for Trump.
Q: President Trump has called the educational curriculum of schools and universities on the American legacy of slavery and racism “toxic propaganda” that will “dissolve the civic bonds” if not removed. He has specifically attacked the 1619 Project, threatening to cut funding to California schools that continue promoting it. And as you mentioned, his administration has also cracked down on funding to federal agency training programs around the themes of “critical race theory” and “white privilege” and stopped backing diversity and anti-racism schemes. How can these measures contribute to stifling a lively national debate on racism?
A: So much of Trump’s ideology and platform are about centering and protecting the perspectives of white heterosexual men. He is the poster-boy of white male grievance in the country, a walking and talking example of every straight white man who feels resentful of the opportunities “gained” by minorities, women and LGBTQ folks since the 1960s, and think there is something being taken away from them. That’s the whole premise of his Make American Great.
This recent executive order is a chilling example of how far he wants to take this politics of grievance, to the point of suppressing any speech, and not just speech, facts of the historical record, like the 1619 Project, like the work of Howard Zinn, like any history that reveals the devastating effects of enslavement, settler colonialism, exclusion, internment, xenophobia in this country—that do not uphold straight white men as ideal and heroic Americans.
I don’t think they will stifle debate because while Trump has the power of the presidency, the cat is out of the bag, there is no way he can silence these voices of people of color, women, queer communities, and others. Demographic trends show that by 2050, the United States will be a “minority-majority” country, which means the total sum of non-white communities will outnumber that of white Americans. This is a major source of anxiety for Trump and his ilk, and executive orders like this just show they are running scared, and know their opinions are in the minority, as even a majority of white Americans do not agree with these retrogressive ideologies.
Q: In his different statements, President Donald Trump has railed against the immigrants, Mexicans, Muslims and the Chinese, blaming them for the spike of crime and the economic woes of the United States. Trump has also toughened the immigration regulations notably, including for international students, through several executive orders. Do you think these statements and actions serve to make the United States safer?
A: Of course, they do not make the US safer. Under Trump, the US has alienated its international allies and fomented massive racial, class, gender, and religious divisiveness within the country. This is a recipe for disaster.
Q: How has the US government’s response to the killing of the 46-year-old African-American citizen George Floyd at the hands of a Minnesota police officer convinced the Americans that justice has been administered? Was the wave of protests that erupted against police brutality and racism ephemeral or is it possible to track signs of inclination by the government and its agencies, including police departments, to reform discriminatory and violence-breeding structures as a consequence of the protest movement?
A: No, justice has not been administered, and what is most remarkable about the aftermath of the George Floyd murder at the hands of the police is that we now have an actual national conversation around defunding the police and prison abolition. There is nothing ephemeral about the protests, they are just the latest expression of Black struggles against state violence that stretch back centuries in the US.
Q: Has the public sphere become more unsafe for the American Muslims as a result of President Trump’s rhetoric and policies? Do you think the divisions between the Muslim community and the broader public, deepened as a result of the Muslim Ban, the floating of the idea of a Muslim registry, and the president’s incendiary statements and tweets about Muslims, can be bridged?
A: Muslims have always existed in the United States as a non-white, non-Christian religious community. From the arrival of Muslim Africans during chattel slavery, who made up to 30 percent of enslaved peoples [coming] to America, to African-American Muslims across the 20th century in groups like the Moorish Science Temple, the Ahmadiyya Movement, and the Nation of Islam, and to today’s US Muslim community which is the most diverse religious community in the nation, comprising about 25 percent Blacks, 30 percent South Asians, 30 percent Arabs and Middle Eastern people, with significant numbers of Latinx and white Muslims, Muslims in the US have never been “safe.” Islam is a minority religion practiced largely by minority communities, in a predominately white, Christian nation. Perhaps for some non-Black Muslims, and more recent immigrants, the Muslim ban might have served as a wake-up call to the vulnerable position Muslims occupy in this country. But I would say most Muslims were already aware of this, and the president’s statements, while infuriating and vile, came as no surprise.
Q: Is it realistic to expect with the coming to power of a Democratic administration, specifically led by Joe Biden following the November 3 elections, the living conditions for Muslims and other minority groups will improve and racially-charged, Islamophobic sentiments will subside?
A: I have little faith in mainstream politics as catalysts for social change. While a Biden administration will certainly improve the conditions under which US Muslims live and reduce harm in many ways, they will also not actively improve anyone’s living conditions without on-the-ground, grassroots and activist efforts that mobilize communities of color themselves as leading agents of social change.
By: Kourosh Ziabari