Race Relations in the US: An Overview - By Javeed Akhter

  John Hope Franklin, the highly respected historian of slavery, Professor emeritus at Duke university and the chair of President Clinton's commission on “Race Initiative”, stated recently that “our whole country, our whole practices, are suffused with it [racism]…”. The initial reaction would be that it is a rather extreme assessment of the current status of race relations in the US. However a closer examination of the facts would lead one to conclude that it is fairly close to the truth. The segregation of housing in our cities, the much higher rate of unemployment amongst African- Americans, the many and recurring instances of police abuse against minorities, the bias in the judicial system which results in African- Americans being three times more likely of being convicted of the identical crime of drug use than Caucasians, the wide distrust of law enforcement officers by African- Americans, and the practice of jury nullification (acquitting a defendant by a juror on the basis of race while ignoring the evidence), are just a few manifestations of unhealthy race relations in our society. President Clinton's assessment that racism is an important ongoing problem which needs to be confronted with honesty, courage, and prudence is accurate and laudable.

According to Joseph Brodsky, the well known essayist and Nobel prize winner for literature in 1987, the belief that race accounts for differences in human character and ability, that makes a particular group of people superior to the other is really “a form of misanthropy”. There is a tendency in human nature toward misanthropy and to assume their own ethnic group to be superior and consequently to look down upon other ethnic and racial groups. Unless this human trait is recognized as a major and potentially dangerous weakness and corrected it can easily degenerate into racism.

Islam has been very sensitive to the issue of race and as discussed later in professor Haq's article, and has dealt with the issue clearly and forcefully. Historically, Muslim societies have been relatively more successful in immunizing themselves against this weakness in human character than other societies. As Professor Ali Mazrui points out in a recent article in the “Foreign Affairs,” “Muslims may not have produced the best, but have avoided the worst (in race relations).” He draws attention to the following facts:
  • Masajids (Mosques) have never been segregated in Muslim societies.
  • Leadership (Khilafat or Caliphate) of Muslims has passed on from one racial group to another; Arabs in the Ummayad dynasty, Turks in the Ottoman empire, Persians in the Safavid empire, Africans, Indians etc.
  • There has never been in Islamic history, a movement like fascism or nazism or a phenomenon like the genocide of native peoples (Native Americans) by invading armies of Muslims.
  • Slavery in Islam was color blind and slaves were treated very differently than in the West. In many instances, especially if the king did not have a son, he appointed his slave to succeed him. The Fatimid dynasty in Egypt and the Slave dynasty in India are examples of this startling and fascinating phenomenon.
  • Muslims have a chosen language (Arabic because it is the language of the Qur'an) but have never had a chosen people.

It would therefore be instructive to analyze how Muslim societies have been able to maintain relatively healthy race relations and to assess if any lessons can be drawn from their experience, which might offer solutions that are applicable to the current US society.

Even a cursory analysis of race relations amongst Muslims, highlights the role Islamic scriptures appears to have played in molding the Muslim attitude towards race. The Qur'an suggests diversity in race, color and ethnicity is something to be celebrated.

“O mankind! We created you male and female and made you nations and tribes so that you may know each other. Lo, the noblest of you in the sight of Allah (God) is the best in conduct.” (Qur'an. Al-Hujarat; 49:13)

Similarly, Muhammad (S) , the messenger of Allah, the great teacher, who clarified Qur'anic teachings for mankind, emphasized in his Khutba (sermon) at the farewell Hajj (pilgrimage) that the color of skin or nationality does not give one group or people superiority over another.

“No Arab” he said “is superior to an Ajami (non- Arab) except by righteous conduct.” (Farewell sermon)

A visit to any mosque shows us that the US Muslims have been able to maintain this historic attitude of building a color blind community. Even though Muslims in the US are a small minority, they are one of the most racially diverse group of any people in the country. The national leadership of the US Muslims, as seen by the recent and past officials of the Islamic Society of North America, reflects this diversity and includes people from the Indian subcontinent, Caucasian-Americans, African- Americans, Malaysians, Arabs and others. These facts allow the Muslims to be potentially useful contributors to the national debate on advancing race relations.

We realize President Clinton's initiative might be a cynical exercise in politics and public relations. However the fact that, by taking on this issue, he has been the recipient of more criticism than praise belies this assessment. Even if it were politics, “using a high minded appeal to amity for political mileage”, as the Christian Science Monitor notes, “is better than using a cynical appeal to divisiveness.”

This publication is the result of a community hall type forum which was held at the Ida Noyes hall at the University of Chicago on November the 22nd, on the anniversary of Harold Washington's death. It includes summaries of the presentations made at the meeting as well as the concrete suggestions which emerged during the interactive discussion which followed. The first article is based on the presentation made by Professor Inamul Haq, on how Islamic scriptures were able to change the tribalistic and racist attitudes amongst its followers. The next article is an analysis of the issue, from the perspective of the media, by Ayesha Mustafa the editor of the “Muslim Journal”, which has a national readership and represents the views of the African- American Muslim community led by W.D. Muhammad. This is followed by an analysis of the current status of “affirmative action”, by a young attorney Kamran Memon, who is a graduate of the University of Chicago's law school and is practicing civil rights law. The final document is a set of concrete suggestions which emerged from the discussion and debate at this meeting as well as the deliberations by the scholars in our Think Tank.

We hope that this position paper will make a useful contribution to the national debate on race relations by confronting the problem with intellectual honesty.

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