It’s really hard to live anywhere, I imagine, and not be aware of and disturbed by divisions among people. This week my university is holding student elections as I mentioned in an earlier post. But today Hamas withdrew from the elections because the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority (PA) has been rounding up students in Hamas and locking them up in PA jails. Indeed, if one were to judge based on the color of the kuffiyah sported by most students on campus it appears that most people are allied with Fatah with a smidgen of PFLP (actually it seems that they have created a political block with the Communist party and also DFLP). Of course this division between Hamas and Fatah has been going on far too long, fomented by the U.S. and the Zionist state. This division is certainly one that is a part of typical divide and rule colonial policy. This division is by now well known.
But there are other divisions, divisions that I find far more disturbing. Divisions that are not about ideology or even vying for political power. Divisions that are based on something that seems deeper and more disturbing. I mentioned before that I have heard several times now from students–mine and others I’ve met on campus–as well as from colleagues that it seems to be acceptable among at least Nabulsis to say hateful things about Palestinian refugees. The kinds of things I hear are reminiscent of what Hutus said of Tutsis during the Rwandan genocide. I want to call this racism, though the word is not precise enough. And words like discrimination and prejudice don’t seem nearly strong enough to describe what I’m hearing and how it makes me feel. But both Nabulsis and refugees are Palestinians. It’s a kind of intra-racism, laced with classism. Because when I probe and when I call students or colleagues on their use of language and the meaning held in it they attempt to rationalize their claims. They do so by talking about Palestinian refugees as thieves. They say that Palestinian refugees, when they first came to Nablus during and after an nakba in 1948 they stole. They say that now they still steal. I’m not sure if there is any truth in this or not. And really it doesn’t matter. No one wants to think about why people steal–if they steal. What do hungry people do when there is no food? What are the roots of the problem: who made these families homeless and hungry to begin with? Why must we always blame the victim? And who is it that we learned this from? The world always blames Palestinians for their predicament. Must Palestinians participate in this rhetoric?
The way I hear people speaking about this reminds me of the way I hear privileged white Americans, locked up in their little gated suburban communities speak about people of color–usually Latino/a and African American–who live in urban centers. Ani DiFranco’s song “Subdivision” speaks beautifully to this phenomenon in the U.S. (yes, Tam Tam, I’m still listening…):
white people are so scared of black people
they bulldoze out to the country
and put up houses on little loop-dee-loop streets
and while america gets its heart cut right out of its chest
the berlin wall still runs down main street
separating east side from west
and nothing is stirring, not even a mouse
in the boarded-up stores and the broken-down houses
so they hang colorful banners off all the street lamps
just to prove they got no manners
no mercy and no sense
and i’m wondering what it will take
for my city to rise
first we admit our mistakes
then we open our eyes
the ghosts of old buildings are haunting parking lots
in the city of good neighbors that history forgot
i remember the first time i saw someone
lying on the cold street
i thought: i can’t just walk past here
this can’t just be true
but i learned by example
to just keep moving my feet
it’s amazing the things that we all learn to do
so we’re led by denial like lambs to the slaughter
serving empires of style and carbonated sugar water
and the old farm road’s a four-lane that leads to the mall
and our dreams are all guillotines waiting to fall
i’m wondering what it will take
for my country to rise
first we admit our mistakes
and then we open our eyes
or nature succumbs to one last dumb decision
and america the beautiful
is just one big subdivision
Before I left Los Angeles to return to Nablus I read a story in my hometown newspaper about a new report released about racial profiling in LA. Racial profiling and its counterpart racism is something that I know all too well from growing up in a deeply structurally divided city like Los Angeles. Growing up was schizophrenic in many ways as I went to schools filled with kids from all over the city and all over the world–Chicano/a, Sri Lankan, Japanese, African American, Chinese, Nicaraguan, Vietnamese, Iranian, Armenian kids. We spent the day together, but forming deep bonds was always difficult given the fact that the city is so spread out and traveling from one side to the other for a play date could take a couple hours in each direction. On the rare occasion when it was possible to travel for a play date or a birthday party witnessing each other’s lives certainly left an impression of privilege, class, and racism in the various urban and suburban areas around the city, though I would not have a consciousness about it until much later. We were divided structurally even as the school system tried to bring us together in a post-Brown vs. Board of Education era. But there are other ways in which racism manifests itself in Los Angeles, and other cities to be sure: racial profiling. This is something many of us have known for a long time from stories friends would tell us, but this report quantifies these anecdotal experiences:
We found persistent and statistically significant racial disparities in policing that raise grave concerns that African Americans and Latinos in Los Angeles are, as we put it in the report, “over-stopped, over-frisked, over-searched and over-arrested.” After controlling for violent crime rates and property crime rates in specific neighborhoods, as well as a host of other variables, we found the following:
For every 10,000 residents, about 3,400 more black people are stopped than whites, and 360 more Latinos are stopped than whites. Stopped blacks are 127% more likely to be frisked — and stopped Latinos are 43% more likely to be frisked — than stopped whites.
Stopped blacks are 76% more likely to be searched, and stopped Latinos are 16% more likely to be searched than stopped whites.
Stopped blacks are 29% more likely to be arrested, and stopped Latinos are 32% more likely to be arrested than stopped whites.
If the report didn’t just cover drivers–if it had included those who travel on airplanes–I imagine we’d have to add Arabs, Iranians, and Muslims more generally to this study. Because they too are subjected to racism and racial profiling in the U.S. But we can’t talk about racism in the U.S. or at least white people don’t in public, in polite company. Try to talk to white students about it in the U.S. and they complain that they didn’t own slaves so they’re not responsible (this, especially if you bring up reparations for slavery). Or try to get white students to own up to their white privilege and they protest. Racism, of course affects Brown people in the U.S. in all sorts of ways and it affects all sorts of Brown people. Or people with names that are not European.
In the current election campaign Al Jazeera has been taking heat for a report it aired recently about some explicit white racism that a reporter captured on film in Ohio. I posted it last week, but it was re-aired last night on “Inside Story.” The discussion was with Manning Marable and Glen Ford about the ways in which race is affecting this election.
Of course, as Marable and Ford make clear, race always plays a role it is just more visible this year–even if not uttered publicly most of the time–because Barack Obama is running for president. Or if a white person does talk about race they tend to do so in a way that elides white racism, white privilege, and white responsibility for this history and its present, as is the case with Frank Rich’s recent op-ed. In an editorial for the Black Agenda Report Ford elaborated on some of these same points about the ways in which racism is functioning in this election campaign:
Well, Rednecks, Reagan Democrats and all kinds of racists may well vote for Obama. He has praised their hero, Ronald Reagan, effectively declaring that the world-class race-baiter wasn’t a racist, after all. Obama has blamed his own former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and every other Black that complains about racism for creating harmful diversions that stand in the way of solving the nation’s “real” problems. Barack Obama is successful because he coddles racists, in hopes of getting their vote. But a Black candidate’s willingness to malign other Blacks and pander to racists does not signal the end of racism. Rather, it confirms that race is central to U.S. political life. Racists can vote for Obama, and feel good about themselves. But you won’t find me celebrating.
But there are other divisions here, divisions which go unmentioned. Divisions that have been exacerbated because of the way that race-baiting in relation to Obama is not always about his Kenyan father. More recently, as I’ve written over the past few weeks, it is race baiting both by republicans trying to claim that Obama is really Muslim, that Obama is really Arab, or that Obama “pals around with terrorists.” The disturbing part of all this is the way this racism is allowed to go unchecked. Unchallenged. It creates more divisions for Arabs and Muslims in the U.S. And this has gone on unabated as was reported earlier today in Ha’aretz:
The campaign of Republican presidential nominee John McCain is demanding the Los Angeles Times release a video purportedly showing Barack Obama at an event in which he spoke of his friendship with a controversial Palestinian scholar, the newspaper reported on Tuesday.
The footage is said to be of a 2003 banquet during which Obama, who was then an Illinois state senator, spoke of his relationship with Rashid Khalidi, a Palestinian-American Orientalist who is known for his frequent criticism of Israel, the L.A. Times said.
And apparently it’s not just John McCain and Sarah Palin race baiting now. It’s also Joe the Plumber. He is now not just a spokesperson for America’s economic problems, but also a mouthpiece for American Zionism:
“Joe the Plumber,” the small business aspirant and overnight media sensation who has endorsed John McCain’s presidential campaign, said on Tuesday that he believed a Barack Obama presidency would spell “the death of Israel.”
Perhaps to counteract this, or perhaps to show how much he just loves the Zionist state, Joe Biden is busy on the campaign trail ensuring voters that he and Obama will continue that support if elected. Which is why I find it disturbing that some Palestinians continue to somehow believe that they should support Obama.
But in the end when it comes to these divisions the dishonest broker, the U.S., will likely not change much when it comes to Palestine and the region more generally. No U.S. President has ever acted in a way that would suggest any different, nor has this been true on the campaign trail. Once in a while there have been Presidents whose rhetoric seems okay, but their actions never match up as can be seen in this clip from Al Jazeera last night:
In a logical or ideal world there would be solidarity among African Americans and Palestinians that wouldn’t be scared by the Israel lobby. Cynthia McKinney and Rosa Clemente understand this. Ralph Nader and Matt Gonzalez understand this. But including such candidates–all candidates of color, I might add–would mean we would have to deal with issues of racism, racial profiling, and justice in the Middle East not to mention justice for descendants of American slaves in the form of reparations. If such candidates had just been included in the debates we might have actually had debates about the difficult issues, about the pandering to the lowest common American racist denominator. But both independent candidates have been left out. More divisions have been created. And racism continues to go unchecked, unchallenged, and unchanged. In the U.S. and here in Palestine.