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Protecting Our Own From Racism

Guest Column
Vivek Rao

In the week that has passed since the malicious attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, our nation has painfully mourned the loss of thousands of civilians, victims of terrorists who had a disturbing disregard for the value of human life. Certainly these victims, along with their friends and families, are the greatest sufferers in this terrible tragedy.

At the same time, however, we should not forget about a faction of the United States that has been victimized by these recent attacks in a more subtle and indirect way: the American community of Arabs and Muslims.

The United States has always been a self-proclaimed melting pot of ethnic and religious groups, a unique nation that welcomes people of all backgrounds. Despite this image, though, the truth remains that the history of this country has not been one of complete racial peace and harmony. We have had our fair share of problems since the signing of the Constitution over two hundred years ago. Slavery persisted deep into the nineteenth century, long after countries such as Great Britain abolished the heinous institution. Anti-immigration political parties such as the Know-Nothing Party attempted to have their biases against foreigners imprinted on American laws in the 1850s.

Then, shortly after World War I, Italian anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were convicted of robbery and murder right here in Massachusetts. Their trial was dominated not by hard evidence, but by blatant disdain for their ethnic roots and political beliefs. In the 1950s and 1960s, the civil rights movement brought the hatred and segregation between whites and blacks into the spotlight. More recently, the Rodney King trial in the early 1990s ignited race riots that threatened to tear the country apart.

This is hardly what is supposed to happen in a nation renowned for its alleged racial and ethnic harmony. Still, the United States has made significant progress in recent times. Segregated schools and restaurants are a fading memory, immigrant groups have established strong communities in cities across the nation, and the political correctness movement, though we all hate it at some point or another, has at least encouraged people to think about racism and prejudice.

However, the recent attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon threaten to disrupt any efforts to create a truly harmonious American society. As we all know by now, all of the hijackers identified by federal authorities were Arab and Muslim, apparently fighting under the guidance of dangerous Saudi terrorist Osama bin Laden. The already existent stereotype of Arab terrorists has only been perpetuated and strengthened by the attacks, and it is our duty as Americans and as citizens of humanity to prevent any backlash against the American Arab and Muslim community.

It is hardly unprecedented for international developments to inspire racially motivated prejudices within the United States. During World War II, over 100,000 Japanese-Americans were forcibly moved from their homes, and placed in “War Relocation Camps” in the Midwest. While few, if any, of those relocated were actually threats to American security, almost all of them were victims of racial biases resulting from Japan’s involvement in the war, especially the attack on Pearl Harbor. During the Cold War, Senator Joseph McCarthy prompted a “Red Scare,” in which public hysteria made the United States a dangerous and inhospitable environment for those with Communist beliefs and for all people of Eastern European origin.

Now, once again, in the aftermath of the vicious attacks of last week, public sentiment is threatening to make life a living hell for an innocent minority of our population. Arab-Americans who live in this country have received death threats, many by alleged American “patriots.” In a few isolated incidents, Arab-Americans have been the victims of assault. This trend promises to continue, as war would, if anything, increase the hatred of those Americans foolish and uneducated enough to put the responsibility of a few maniacs on the shoulders of an entire community.

Many of you are probably reading this article and thinking that you would never be capable of such terrible behavior, which is probably try. Although a small number of us would ever make a death threat or actually assault somebody, racism can be much subtler than that. No one is immune from racism. I will admit, for example, that the day after the attacks occurred, I was walking through Kenmore Square when I saw a person who was clearly of Arabic descent. My first reaction was that perhaps he was about to plant a bomb or commit some other such act of terrorism. Although these thoughts quickly left my mind, the fact that they were my first reaction scares me immensely, for such instantaneous biases form the core of racism.

I am sure that many of you have had experiences similar to mine.

It is not always easy, especially when such a small minority is involved, to prevent the actions of a few from shaping our opinions of the whole group. Yet this is the task we must accomplish if we are to keep our nation strong in the weeks and months ahead. Sure, we can demonstrate American pride by waving flags and singing our national anthem, but if we are truly proud of the principles on which our country stands, then we must make all Arabs and Muslims living in America feel like they are a welcome ingredient to our cultural melting pot.