Al-Ahram Weekly Online   28 August - 3 September 2003
Issue No. 653
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Survival in America

African Americans and other oppressed minorities still face an uphill struggle. Matt Bowles and Matt Horton write from Washington

On 23 August 5,000 people gathered at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC, a fraction of the hundreds of thousands who turned out exactly 40 years earlier when Dr Martin Luther King Jr delivered his "I have a dream" speech.

The 1963 March on Washington was a landmark in the 400- year struggle of Black Americans against institutionalised racism, violent repression and disenfranchisement. It brought decades of non-violent resistance to the steps of a federal government which had failed them. As King said on that day: "America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked 'insufficient funds'."

Some speakers at Saturday's march may have quoted King's metaphors, but the inability of today's African-American leadership to attract prodigious numbers of sympathisers is representative of the weakness of organised Black resistance in America. As dire issues of healthcare, poverty, labour exploitation, fair housing, police brutality, gentrification and incarceration confront the African-American communities in the United States, an historical perspective is important in understanding the current predicament of demobilisation.

Despite small gains that the Civil Rights Movement had made by the early 1960s, Black discontent continued to intensify and the demands of the movement struck closer to the heart of American power. The discourse broadened from issues of civil rights and segregation to issues of colonialism, capitalism and US imperialism.

Malcolm X articulated oppression against African Americans in an international anti-imperialist framework and situated resistance in the context of the global anti-colonial and de- colonisation struggles of the 1960s. Martin Luther King Jr also began to champion the struggles of the poor and working classes, and developed an ardent opposition to the US war against Vietnam. The Black Panther Party was formed towards the end of the 1960s, organising armed community defence groups to protect their neighbourhoods from increasingly violent state repression. They also organised free breakfast programmes and community education projects, and it was this cohesive community organising that the federal government found the most dangerous.

As these grassroots strands of the movement became more threatening to the federal government, repression increased. The government actively sought to infiltrate, divide and destroy Black organisation by using tactics that ranged from the dissemination of false propaganda to targeted assassinations, such as the murder of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton while he lay sleeping in his bed. The government also sought to incorporate into the white political establishment African- American leaders who would function to articulate the interests and needs of Black people to a white audience.

With the decline of a grassroots African-American political base, the rise of black leaders became especially ironic because "Black interests" became whatever the co-opted leaders declared them to be. And this in turn prompted the diminution of space for popular Black participation in critical discourse.

The incorporation of African-American elite-driven agendas has functioned to demobilise grassroots activism and reconstruct or exacerbate power hierarchies within the Black community. Further, as so-called Black leaders such as Jesse Jackson gain acceptance in the establishment, and while others like Al Sharpton run for President, Black demands are increasingly articulated within the established liberal framework of the Democratic Party, thus preventing them from articulating views that fall outside of that framework. This severs them from grassroots anti- imperialist activists who stand in solidarity with other oppressed people in the US and around the world.

The somewhat ambiguous racial situation of Arab Americans, the latest target of government-sponsored racism in the US has tended to be closer to whiteness than to blackness, sometimes even situating Arabs as a "model minority".

The mainstream Arab-American leadership has carefully chosen an assimilationist approach, following the path of European immigrants who were able to "become white" by moderating their rhetoric and refusing to engage in confrontation with the establishment.

Nevertheless, the Arab-American relationship with "whiteness" has been tenuous due to expanding US imperialist policy in the Middle East and the corresponding increase in Orientalist discourse. These phenomena were exacerbated exponentially after 11 September as Arabs were re-racialised in America, farther from whiteness than ever before.

The paradox of continued attempts by the Arab-American leadership to assimilate into an establishment that is systematically targeting their community helps to explain their complete failure to develop either cogent analyses or cohesive activist strategies to confront the violent repression and abuse inflicted on their community since 11 September.

The politically vacuous "terrorist" label is a prominent fragment of highly racialised hate rhetoric used to demonise Third World people of colour in general and Arab and Muslim people in particular. Ironically, since "terrorism" is the central discourse currently justifying the US conquest of the Middle East, Arab- American "leaders" who wish to build ties to the White House do so at the expense of confronting such labels or developing a politically useful critique of US imperialism.

Paradoxes abound, as some mainstream Arab-American organisations opposed the invasion of Iraq while endorsing the invasion of Afghanistan. Further, some rhetorically decried discrimination against Arabs and Muslims, but then encouraged Arabs and Muslims to contact their local FBI -- the primary government agency attacking their community -- if they had any trouble, and to cooperate with voluntary federal interrogations based on racial profiling. Such hypocritical advice is neither helpful nor empowering to the Arab-American community.

Even as some things have improved since the 1960s for American minorities, too much remains the same, while some things are even deteriorating. An estimated 71 million Americans do not have healthcare, one in three children lives in poverty, over 2 million people in the US are now behind bars as corporations buy prisons and incarceration becomes a profitable industry. All of these statistics disproportionately affect people of colour in this country, especially Blacks and Hispanics. In many states, like Virginia, roughly one third of black men of voting age are disenfranchised because of prior criminal records, and communities across the country remain segregated in separate and unequal conditions.

For Arabs and Muslims, things are as bad in this country as they have ever been as deportation proceedings begin breaking up families and unknown numbers of people continue to languish in jail.

As the US wages war on people of colour abroad, and continues to repress and abuse people of colour at "home", it becomes imperative to revive popular grassroots participation in critical discourse and in the development of activist strategies for empowerment and resistance.

We can draw hope and inspiration by turning to one of King's final visions, articulated in May 1967, shortly before his assassination: "We have moved from the era of civil rights to the era of human rights... We must see now that the evils of racism, economic exploitation and militarism, are all tied together. ... you can't really get rid of one without getting rid of the other... the whole structure of American life must be changed. America is a hypocritical nation and [we] must put [our] own house in order."

THOUSANDS MARCHED in the American capital Saturday to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington, where Dr Martin Luther King delivered his historic "I have a dream" speech. The 1963 Washington march marked a high point in the civil rights struggle that demanded freedom, equality and increased employment opportunities for African Americans and urged Congress to pass civil rights legislation. But it was only in 1965 that the Voting Rights Act overruled local southern legislation and finally gave African Americans voting rights in the South.

Forty years on, African Americans and other oppressed minorities still have a long way to go. Equality remains elusive in the United States where racism is alive and kicking. The figures are damning: 50 per cent more African Americans than whites live below the poverty line, and one tenth of African Americans between the ages of 25 and 29 are in jail, compared with only 1.2 per cent of whites from the same age group. Commenting on the historical and ongoing oppression of African Americans and other minorities, including Arab Americans Dr King's son, Martin Luther King III, said: "Today we are here to accept the challenge, knowing that we have a lot of work to do to heal the fettering sores of racial oppression."


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