Resurrection of Deep Racial Icons: The “Dangerous Other” – Part I



Race and racism are more contested in contemporary society than ever in the five hundred years of racist constructions leading to and coming from the modern world system. While some see an election of the United States’ first African American president as the last nail in the coffin of its racist policies, others see it only as the covering over of racist systems that are no longer profitable or desirable in a globalized world driven by neoliberal values that deny racism and distort its centralized past. Observing this in relation to Joe Feagin’s racial “framing” (The White Racial Frame: Centuries of Racial Framing and Counter-Framing), and seeing the weight they might have in finding our way forward during times of hegemonic decline, we need to identify the racial icons that arose in rationalizing systems of racism, and observe their contemporary usage in our society.

Two recent events demonstrate the ongoing power of these racial icons ranging from the individual to the institutional levels. These are the highly racialized claims of “self-defense” or “stand your ground” by George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin, and the systemic claims of defending “ethnic rights” of Europeans against “multiculturalism” as incursions against civilization by Anders Breivik in the mass murders of Norwegians at a “liberal” summer youth camp.

Although in both cases the killer clearly perpetrated the actions leading to the targeted death of those they killed, one as an individual and the other as a representative group, both claim they were (or are) actually defending themselves or their societies. In both cases, on the individual and institutional levels, their “defense” requires seeing those they killed as a threat, even before there is any interaction on any level between the perpetrator and the victims.In Zimmerman’s case as a self-appointed neighborhood “watch” man, he saw Martin as “on drugs” and as “up to no good” precisely because Trayvon was young and Black and wearing a hoodie, with no other evidence of any wrong-doing (which Zimmerman had no legal right to address anyway).

In Breivik’s case as a self-appointed social regulator against “Islamic colonization”, he saw the youth camp as a group representative of “multi-culturalism” values that would threaten Norwegian society, with no evidence that there was any threat or that these individuals were connected to that hypothetical situation (which Breivik had no right to counter anyway).

Both of these cases, while apparently different in scope and victimization, require a “dangerous other” to make the “defense” claim. Although many see that the number (77) and age (mostly youth) of victims with the Norwegian case see it as a despicable case of an “individual psychopath” but definitively wrong, they also deny the claimed linkage to ethno-racial domination with remarkable similarity to recent laws passed by the state of Arizona. Apologists and deniers will not make the claimed inference that there are ideologies in Norwegian and American societies that support and engender such claims of threats. And, of course, these are firmly landed in histories of legalized racial and ethnic domination.

Terrorism in Norway: Racism Implicated in Gunman, News Reports (updated)

The terrible news, as you’ve no doubt heard by now, is that there were two terrorist attacks in Norway – one at the capital of Oslo and another, more deadly attack, just outside the city at a camp for children.  Reports are that the death toll is around 90 people killed, many of them children, and scores were seriously wounded.  All those numbers may yet rise.  The shooter is alive and in custody.  He has been identified as a 32-year-old Norwegian farmer, Anders Behring Breivik (picture below via MSNBC from his Facebook page).  Racism seems to be implicated in this story in two, very telling, ways: Breivik’s views and the initial news reports about the terror strikes.

Anti-Immigrant, Anti-Muslim Views. According to Norwegian journalist Liss Goril Anda, writing for the BBC, Breivik had posted “racist, extremist right-wing comments along with fellow anti-Muslims” on right-wing websties. On his Facebook profile, he identified his political views as “Christian, conservative.”  However, Breivik didn’t belong to any known factions in Norway’s small and splintered extreme right movement.  Goril Anda writes that the Breivik’s online postings represent, “with varying degrees of extremism, a section of the Norwegian population which feels that the country’s immigration policies are too lax.” Goril Anda goes on to speculate, “Norway might now be forced to deal head-on with this undercurrent of nationalism and anti-immigration sentiments.”  The Mail refers to him as “an extremist who hated Muslims.”

According to another report, Breivik was recently posting online that politics today was not about socialism vs. capitalism but nationalism vs. internationalism. He argued on a Swedish news website that the media were not critical enough about Islam and claimed that Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom in the Netherlands was the only “true” party of conservatives.  (Wilders said in a statement, “I despise everything he stands for and everything he did.”)

Breivik recommended other sites associated with the so-called counter-jihad movement, notably Jihad Watch, Gates of Vienna and the Brussels Journal. In December 2009 he wrote that he was working full time to promote the ideas of Islamophobes like Robert Spencer and Bat Ye’or.

He also wrote of his contacts with the English Defence League (EDL) and Stop Islamisation of Europe and claimed to have given them advice on strategy. He attached importance to building “a Norwegian version” of the EDL to fight against anti-fascists and anti-racists.

Updated Sunday, 8:26amET: And, of course, the racism in his selection of victims:  “Many of the victims in Friday’s shooting were the children of immigrants from Africa and Asia…” according to New York Times (via @Alondra).

Shameful Journalism. Shiva Balaghi writing at Jadaliyya has an excellent piece detailing all the major news outlets that first reported this story as a case of “Muslim terrorists” and/or “jihadi groups,” supposedly “angered at the war in Afghanistan,” including: the New York Times, The Financial Times, and PBS.  Perhaps most revealing is her account of Judy Woodruff on PBS’ Newshour, Balaghi writes:

Judy Woodruff’s interview with a Norwegian journalist that aired on PBS’s Newshour followed a similar scenario. We did learn that “a thirty-two-year old white Norwegian guy [sic]” had been arrested for presumably having carried out the bombings and the shootings. But no information was provided on the attacker’s motivations or political affiliation; Woodruff simply did not ask those questions. Who forms the neo-Nazi movement in Norway? [emphasis added]

Benjamin Doherty writing at The Electric Intifada has this more detailed account of how a supposed “expert” on terrorism set media speculation on Muslims following the attacks:

“Experts” who supposedly study this topic — almost always white men and very often with military or government backgrounds — direct suspicion toward Muslims by pointing to claims of responsibility on “jihadi” web sites that only they have access to. Notorious attacks invariably inspire false claims of responsibility, or false reports of claims of responsibility, but this apparently doesn’t discourage the media and experts from giving them undue attention.
From the “experts” to The New York Times to the world…

The New York Times originally reported:

A terror group, Ansar al-Jihad al-Alami, or the Helpers of the Global Jihad, issued a statement claiming responsibility for the attack, according to Will McCants, a terrorism analyst at C.N.A., a research institute that studies terrorism.

In later editions, the story was revised to read:

Initial reports focused on the possibility of Islamic militants, in particular Ansar al-Jihad al-Alami, or Helpers of the Global Jihad, cited by some analysts as claiming responsibility for the attacks. American officials said the group was previously unknown and might not even exist.

The source was Will McCants, adjunct faculty at Johns Hopkins University, and Doherty does an effective job in tracking down McCants’ sketchy sources on this story.   Even after McCants posted that his information was flawed (and the claim for responsibility had been retracted), major news outlets like the BBC, the New York Times, The Guardian, The Washington Post were still promoting information originally sourced from him.

The news spread quickly and amplified the association in many people’s mind between “terrorism” and “Muslim.” The problem, of course, is that it wasn’t true, even as these mainstream news outlets kept reporting that it was.

White-Blindness & Terrorism. Taken together, these paint a broader picture of the ways we do not see race when it is white, and the ways we do not acknowledge racism in our thinking about terrorism and the ill-conceived “war on terror.”  In a way, we have white-blindess, like snow blindness, when it comes to terrorism.  A white, Christian, conservative, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant terrorist takes up arms and the mainstream media is caught short trying to report on the story because of their own white-blindness, their inability to see, indeed even imagine, whiteness as a race. It’s likely now that these same news outlets will start referring to him as a “lone wolf,” increasingly a phrase that is used only to describe white terrorists.  The “lone wolf” designation further distances Breivik’s politics from his actions.  The rhetoric of “terrorism” and “the war on terrorism” is language that is steeped in connotations of a dangerous, Dark Other, despite the evidence to the contrary.  Like the attack by Timothy McVeigh on Oklahoma City that killed 168 people, the Norway attacks demonstrate that white men can be terrorists.  It’s only white-blindness that keeps us from seeing that.

Islamophobia: Flying Racism



The Charlotte Observer newspaper recorded a Delta (ASAConnection) incident of probable discrimination against two Muslim clerics who, ironically enough, were travelling to Charlotte for a meeting that will deal with Islamophobia.

Reportedly the fearful chief pilot and a passenger pressed for the plane to go back to the gate after it was taxing. The pilot reportedly refused to fly with them even though they had been fully checked by the TSA screeners:

Imams Masudur Rahman, an adjunct professor of Arabic at the University of Memphis, and Mohamed Zaghloul said they and their bags were checked twice by security agents at the Memphis airport before boarding the 8:40 a.m. Delta Connection Flight 5452 to Charlotte.

The conference on Islamophobia is timely given the outbursts of anti-Islamic rhetoric since the U.S. killing of Bin Laden last Sunday:

Organizers said more than 150 religious leaders from across the country will meet through Sunday to discuss prejudice and fear of Islam or Muslims.

Jibril Hough of the Islamic Center of Charlotte put it succinctly: “These guys definitely have something to talk about.” And the Memphis professor also noted that this discrimination:

reminded him of Rosa Parks and her famous 1955 stand against riding in the back of an Alabama bus because she was black. “That racism, I felt today in the plane … should not happen to anyone.”

The media are reporting that they were detained because of their “Muslim dress,” and I would guess too because of their beards. That is, certain physical characteristics. Clearly, most native-born European Americans do not see them as “white,” as one survey we did made quite clear. (Only 7 percent of self-defined white college students saw Middle Eastern Americans as clearly “white.” See Chapter 12 here)

As I have described elsewhere, Middle Eastern Americans have been part of the U.S. mix since about 1900. And European American legal-political authorities have grappled with defining them racially. Between 1909 and 1944, at least eight court decisions by European American judges legally assessed whether certain Arab Americans were “white.” Four ruled that they were, and four ruled that by “common knowledge” or “legal precedent” they should not be considered white. Note too that the many white supremacist writers of the early twentieth century saw them as “parasites” and “Mongolian plasma” that would “contaminate the pure American stock.” Middle Eastern immigrants (both Christians and Muslims) were then cataloged with southern and eastern Europeans as “inferior races” by European American intellectuals. They suffered extreme stereotypes that many European Americans drew from the already entrenched white racist frame, including old derogatory terms such as “blackie,” “camel jockey,” and “sheeny.” Some of this racialized stereotyping and framing clearly persists on a large scale today, renewed by events of the last few decades.

In addition to physical features such as skin color and facial features, many European Americans, in the early period and today, have used distinguishing markers that are cultural in character, such as clothing (hijab, turban), language accents, and religious customs. In the too common racial-ethnic framing of Muslim and Christian Middle Eastern Americans today, certain cultural markers are added to skin color marking to target them for racialized stereotyping and discrimination.

Peter King Hearings “Despicable”

Mark Potok, director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, calls the hearings in Congress by New York Republican Peter King “despicable.” A number of critics have referred to the hearings as a modern-day form of McCarthyism designed to stoke fear against American Muslims. King has refused calls to broaden the hearing to examine right-wing militias or any non-Muslim groups. In this video clip (16:38) from Democracy Now, Potok points out that the real threat of “radicalization” in the U.S. comes from domestic, far-right, white supremacists:

The hearings are already hugely successful in terms of promoting King’s public profile and in stoking the low moral ground of Islamophobia. Despicable indeed.

NYC Cabbie Attacked: Hate Speech into Action

Ahmed Sharif, a New York City cab driver stabbed by a passenger, says he was definitely attacked because of his religion.  Sharif was stabbed repeatedly while driving his taxi on the East Side Tuesday.  The suspect, a white man named Michael Enright, attacked him after first asking whether he was Muslim.   Many are saying that this attack is part of a growing anti-Muslim bigotry in the U.S.

(Image from CSM)

The apparent hate crime attack on Mr. Sharif and the alarming wave of hate crimes against Latinos that Joe wrote about yesterday are connected in a number of ways.   One of the major links is the way that these acts of violence are part of a larger social context that includes rising tide of hate speech targeting Muslims and Latinos.

The research connecting hate speech to hate crimes is mixed.   When it comes to individuals explaining their motivation for hate crimes, there’s actually relatively little research that investigates motivations for hate crimes.  One study that does this finds a range of motivations:  thrill, defensive, mission, and retaliatory motivation (J. McDevitt, J. Levin, and S. Bennett, “Hate Crime Offenders: An Expanded Typology,” Journal of Social Issues, 58 (2):303-318).   In the case of Enright’s attack on Sharif, this appears to be a “mission” hate crime, in which Enright was on a “mission” to attack anyone who was Muslim.   Other research, such as Alexander Tsesis’ book Destructive Messages (NYU Press, 2002), demonstrate how hate speech gives rise to dangerous social movements.

The question really is where did Enright, a film student who was working on a project to promote cross-cultural understanding, get the idea that he should attack someone who was Muslim?  No one knows for sure.   The fact is that after traveling to Afghanistan to work on a film project, Enright returned to New York where there is an ugly display of hate speech downtown about the so-called mosque controversy. Could this have played even a small role in Enright’s violent actions last Tuesday?  It seems more than plausible.

The fact is that the U.S., and even the country’s most diverse city, New York, are becoming more treacherous for people of color.   And yet, this violence gets repaid with loyalty.  Despite the brutal attack on him, the cab driver Mr. Sharif told supporters outside City Hall that he still loves New York.

“This is a city of all colors, races, all religion, everyone. We live here, side by side, peacefully.”

The ‘Mosque’ Controversy

What’s quickly become known as ‘the mosque at ground zero’ controversy should be a local story about land use and zoning, has blown up into a national disgrace that says a lot about the current state of religious intolerance, Islamophobia and racism in the U.S.     As Keith Olbermann cogently pointed out, there is no “mosque” (it’s an interfaith community center) and it’s not “at Ground Zero” (it’s several blocks away in a former Burlington Coat Factory).  I was here on 9/11 and watched those towers fall to the ground.   I’ve also watched as a particular group of survivors from that day, often referred to as “The Families,” have been valorized in the press and by themselves beyond all reason.  This group, “The Families” never includes any of the relatives of the workers from the restaurant at the top of the towers, many of them undocumented immigrant workers.

In many ways, the objection this project in lower Manhattan (aka, the ‘mosque’) is one that appeals to the lowest common denominators of racism, religious intolerance and Islamophobia.   But, there are other voices.

Earlier this month, Mayor Bloomberg (not always my favorite flavor) gave this speech which was brilliant, i thought, and hit just the right note:

“We’ve come here to Governors Island to stand where the earliest settlers first set foot in New Amsterdam, and where the seeds of religious tolerance were first planted. We come here to see the inspiring symbol of liberty that more than 250 years later would greet millions of immigrants in this harbor. And we come here to state as strongly as ever, this is the freest city in the world. That’s what makes New York special and different and strong.

“Our doors are open to everyone. Everyone with a dream and a willingness to work hard and play by the rules. New York City was built by immigrants, and it’s sustained by immigrants — by people from more than 100 different countries speaking more than 200 different languages and professing every faith. And whether your parents were born here or you came here yesterday, you are a New Yorker.

“We may not always agree with every one of our neighbors. That’s life. And it’s part of living in such a diverse and dense city. But we also recognize that part of being a New Yorker is living with your neighbors in mutual respect and tolerance. It was exactly that spirit of openness and acceptance that was attacked on 9/11, 2001.

“On that day, 3,000 people were killed because some murderous fanatics didn’t want us to enjoy the freedoms to profess our own faiths, to speak our own minds, to follow our own dreams, and to live our own lives. Of all our precious freedoms, the most important may be the freedom to worship as we wish. And it is a freedom that even here — in a city that is rooted in Dutch tolerance — was hard-won over many years.

“In the mid-1650s, the small Jewish community living in lower Manhattan petitioned Dutch governor Peter Stuyvesant for the right to build a synagogue, and they were turned down. In 1657, when Stuyvesant also prohibited Quakers from holding meetings, a group of non-Quakers in Queens signed the Flushing Remonstrance, a petition in defense of the right of Quakers and others to freely practice their religion. It was perhaps the first formal political petition for religious freedom in the American colonies, and the organizer was thrown in jail and then banished from New Amsterdam.

“In the 1700s, even as religious freedom took hold in America, Catholics in New York were effectively prohibited from practicing their religion, and priests could be arrested. Largely as a result, the first Catholic parish in New York City was not established until the 1780s, St. Peter’s on Barclay Street, which still stands just one block north of the World Trade Center site, and one block south of the proposed mosque and community center.

“This morning, the city’s Landmark Preservation Commission unanimously voted to extend — not to extend — landmark status to the building on Park Place where the mosque and community center are planned. The decision was based solely on the fact that there was little architectural significance to the building. But with or without landmark designation, there is nothing in the law that would prevent the owners from opening a mosque within the existing building.

“The simple fact is, this building is private property, and the owners have a right to use the building as a house of worship, and the government has no right whatsoever to deny that right. And if it were tried, the courts would almost certainly strike it down as a violation of the U.S. Constitution.

“Whatever you may think of the proposed mosque and community center, lost in the heat of the debate has been a basic question: Should government attempt to deny private citizens the right to build a house of worship on private property based on their particular religion? That may happen in other countries, but we should never allow it to happen here.

“This nation was founded on the principle that the government must never choose between religions or favor one over another. The World Trade Center site will forever hold a special place in our city, in our hearts. But we would be untrue to the best part of ourselves and who we are as New Yorkers and Americans if we said no to a mosque in lower Manhattan.

“Let us not forget that Muslims were among those murdered on 9/11, and that our Muslim neighbors grieved with us as New Yorkers and as Americans. We would betray our values and play into our enemies’ hands if we were to treat Muslims differently than anyone else. In fact, to cave to popular sentiment would be to hand a victory to the terrorists, and we should not stand for that.

“For that reason, I believe that this is an important test of the separation of church and state as we may see in our lifetimes, as important a test. And it is critically important that we get it right.

“On Sept. 11, 2001, thousands of first responders heroically rushed to the scene and saved tens of thousands of lives. More than 400 of those first responders did not make it out alive. In rushing into those burning buildings, not one of them asked, ‘What God do you pray to?’ (Bloomberg’s voice cracks here a little as he gets choked up.) ‘What beliefs do you hold?’

“The attack was an act of war, and our first responders defended not only our city, but our country and our constitution. We do not honor their lives by denying the very constitutional rights they died protecting. We honor their lives by defending those rights and the freedoms that the terrorists attacked.

“Of course, it is fair to ask the organizers of the mosque to show some special sensitivity to the situation, and in fact their plan envisions reaching beyond their walls and building an interfaith community. But doing so, it is my hope that the mosque will help to bring our city even closer together, and help repudiate the false and repugnant idea that the attacks of 9/11 were in any ways consistent with Islam.

“Muslims are as much a part of our city and our country as the people of any faith. And they are as welcome to worship in lower Manhattan as any other group. In fact, they have been worshipping at the site for better, the better part of a year, as is their right. The local community board in lower Manhattan voted overwhelmingly to support the proposal. And if it moves forward, I expect the community center and mosque will add to the life and vitality of the neighborhood and the entire city.

“Political controversies come and go, but our values and our traditions endure, and there is no neighborhood in this city that is off-limits to God’s love and mercy, as the religious leaders here with us can attest.”

Much of the fury around this faux-issue has been generated by the vengeful rhetoric of George W. Bush immediately following 9/11 and his misguided “war on terror” and attack on Iraq. Bush’s rhetorical legacy continues in Sarah Palin’s bumbling vitriol.  If Bush had given this kind of speech immediately following 9/11, I believe we’d have a safer world and dramatically less of the Islamophobic racism fueling this controversy.    Very recently, President Obama has defended the notion of a mosque in downtown Manhattan, and then seemed to equivocate on it.   One of Obama’s strengths has been his pitch-perfect ability to reach that note of America’s highest ideals and, drawing on Lincoln’s rhetoric, to appeal to the better angels of our nature. If ever there were a time for Obama – and each one of us – to appeal to the better angels of our nature, it is now and around this controversy.

Islamophobia: Popular, Acceptable Form of Racism

Islamophobia, and the racial profiling of almost anyone not white, seems to be the popular and acceptable form of racism these days.  Following the Christmas Day attempt to blow up an airplane bound for Detroit by Umar Farouk Abdulmuttalab, a Nigerian and a Muslim, a majority of Americans favor racial and ethnic profiling be used in airline security.   Recent poll data from Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds:

“…59% of adults say factors such as race, ethnicity and overall appearance should be used to determine which boarding passengers to search at airports. Twenty-six percent (26%) say these factors should not be used to determine which passengers to search. Another 15% are not sure. Interestingly, however, even more Americans (71%) believe such profiling is necessary in today’s environment. Eighteen percent (18%) disagree and see profiling as an unnecessary violation of civil rights.  Men feel more strongly than women that profiling is necessary in the modern environment. Sixty-eight percent (68%) of men say profiling should be used to determine which boarding passengers to search, but just 51% of women agree. Sixty-two percent (62%) of whites and 52% of those of other races say profiling should be used at airports. African-Americans are more closely divided on the question.”

This is striking data suggesting that Americans are quite willing to jettison civil rights in the service of stereotypes and racial prejudice.   It’s also based on faulty reasoning.  Quite simply, racial profiling doesn’t work.  As Arsalan Iftikhar, writing for CNN, points out:

For years, the concept of “racial profiling” has reportedly undermined important terrorist investigations here in the United States. Most notably, these examples include the April 1995 Oklahoma City bombing in which the two white male domestic terrorists, Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, were able to flee while officers operated on the theory that the act had been committed by “Arab terrorists” for the first 48 hours of the investigation.

Similarly, during the October 2002 Washington-area sniper investigation, the African-American man and boy ultimately accused of the crime reportedly were able to pass through multiple road blocks with the alleged murder weapon in their possession, in part, because police ‘profilers’ theorized the crime had been committed by a white male acting alone.

According to a report last summer by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Rights Working Group to the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination: “Both Democratic and Republican administrations [in the United States] have acknowledged that racial profiling is unconstitutional, socially corrupting and counter-productive, yet this unjustifiable practice remains a stain on American democracy and an affront to the promise of racial equality.”

If the fact that racial profiling is tremendously ineffective doesn’t seem to deter the American impulse to want to “do something” following this lastest attempt at a terrorist act, perhaps considering the fact that this sort of knee-jerk, McCarthyism stands in stark constrast to democratic ideals of equality will temper this reaction.  I fear that such an appeal will fall on deaf ears and there’s growing evidence that this is so.

Consider, for example, a recent interview with Retired Lt. Gen. on Fox News (opens video), in which he flatly states that we should profile and strip search all 18-28-year-old muslim men.  In my view, this qualifies as Islamaphobia - prejudice and discrimination against Islam and against Muslims.  It seems clear that this is a popular, and increasingly acceptable, form of mainstream racism.

And, as another example, Ed Koch – former mayor of New York City – saying in another recent interview (opens video) that “not every Muslim is a terrorist, but “hundreds of millions are,” which is just patently false as the protest by peace-loving Muslims in Detroit, outside the courthouse where Abdulmuttalab was being arraigned, demonstrates.   But, as we see again and again on this blog, such racism is unlikely to be moved by logic and rational argument.

A writer using the name ‘unspeakable’ asks at Daily Kos: do Arabs and Muslims have a place in America? I want the answer to this rhetorical question to be a resounding, “yes, of course!”   Increasingly, I fear that my country is saying “no.”