Stereotyping Muslim Americans: The White Racial Frame Expanded

I received this participant-observation note today from a student (thanks Chris) at a major east coast college, who attended a hearing of the NJ Senate Judiciary Committee on June 27th was at the State House in Trenton, NJ. It says a lot about how backward we have become on the overt (post-post-racial?) white-racist framing of people who are not white, and most especially those seen as new immigrants or “foreigners.” This racist framing, in this case of a Muslim American lawyer from India, now often is so extreme that it rivals some of the worse racist framing and harassment in U.S. history.

Chris begins his observational account with the setting:

The hearing’s main purpose was to confirm a slate of nominees to the NJ Superior Court. The first hour or so of the hearing passed in much the same manner that I’d imagine most state-level judiciary committee hearings do. A few white nominees for the Superior Court came before the committee, swore a short oath of truthfulness, were greeted with kind words by one committee member or another, and gave a brief statement expressing their gratitude to various persons, their commitment to fairly and impartially uphold the law, and their willingness to answer any questions. Just one of the three/four . . . nominees who came before Mr. Mohammed was asked a question. It was a courtesy softball to give the nominee a chance to brag about her experience.

Then an Asian American nominee, Sohail Mohammed, was called up. He came to the U.S. as a child with Asian Indian parents, got an engineering degree, worked as an engineer while he also went to law school in his spare time. As an influential immigration lawyer, he won awards and two years ago was named one of the 101 most influential people in the state New Jersey by the New Jersey Monthly magazine. He is also on the state’s ‘Super Lawyer’ list (2006 to 2010).

Chris then describes a rather dramatic change from what happened to the white nominees:

On paper, his is a classic tale of rags-to-riches in the land of opportunity, but two of the committee members saw in him not the American Dream, but rather the “enemy within”. NJ State Senators . . . grilled Mr. Mohammed on his religious beliefs, his past clients, and his affiliation with a Muslim-American civil group. They asked him to define jihad, after which he was made to state under oath that he would adhere to the New Jersey and U.S. Constitutions–and not Sharia law in his rulings from the bench.

This is clear evidence that the far-right propaganda machine has so stereotyped Muslims and Middle Eastern peoples that numerous major political officials see Muslim Americans as alien or extremists first, and maybe “real” Americans after a full interrogation. Once again, they often seem rather uninformed about Islam and the history of actual Muslim Americans. (No Muslim American was involved, for example, in the 9/11 terrorism.)
Chris then adds:

He was questioned in detail on the nature of his association with the Muslim American Brotherhood, which works to advance relations and understanding between the Muslim-American community and non-Muslim Americans. He was questioned in even greater detail on his duties as a member of an FBI group tasked with building cultural understanding of Islam and Muslim-Americans among law enforcement and intelligence personnel in the wake of 9/11. He was asked to defend having represented an Imam whose immigration paperwork was later found to contain an honest error.

In contrast, too, white politicians and interrogators never seem to raise questions about the many Christian Americans who are nominated for various critical and sensitive government positions–and yet belong to a religion that has many members in US groups with extremist-religious or terrorist connections like the extreme anti-abortion groups or the white Christian Klan-type groups in the United States (recall Tim McVeigh too).

Chris’s reactions seem appropriate:

The attacks on Mr. Mohammed were baseless, outrageous, embarrassing, and insulting; yet, most of the senators who came to his defense did little to challenge the narrative that informed his attackers. The witnesses from “Women Against Sharia Law” and the Tea Party suggested that Mr. Mohammed had terrorist ties. A few Senators spoke out against these allegations, but only because they were sure that Mr. Mohammed’s background had been thoroughly vetted by the FBI and the Governor’s office. They countered the questions about his religious beliefs and civic associations by pointing to his extraordinary qualifications, as if to say, “we don’t have to worry about this Muslim, look how successful he is.”

Only two senators spoke out about the racial profiling done by the others at the hearing:

The last witness I heard before walking out suggested that it was inappropriate to put a Muslim on the bench because this is the 10-year anniversary of 9/11 and the face of the justice system should not be the same as the “face of those who attacked our country.” Mr. Mohammed’s children were in the audience the whole time.

The array of discrimination against Muslim and Middle Eastern Americans in recent years is broad–racist jokes, cartoons, e-mails from fellow employees, not being hired or promoted because of Islamic religious observance, taunted with slurs. Many cases of employer discrimination involve workplace prohibitions against religious practices, such as not allowing Muslim men to wear beards or not permitting daily prayers. And then there is this chronic type of racial profiling. We as a country, and especially some arch-conservative whites, seem to be moving in the old nativistic or racist direction of needing scapegoats to blame for various U.S. problems, or just to take out collective minds off the much serious and central reality of white racial framing and institutionalized racism still at the core of this society.