Jul 28th 2009

Our Path

by James J. Zogby

Dr. James J. Zogby is the President of Arab American Institute

On July 20th, I was invited by the Department of Justice to deliver the closing remarks at a conference organized to commemorate the 45th anniversary of the Civil Rights Bill, here are some excerpts from my remarks

The story of Arab Americans coming of age, as an organized community, is a classic American tale-of immigrants seeking opportunity, benefiting from America's freedoms, while also experiencing the dark side of discrimination that has haunted our nation's history.

Although most Americans of Arab ancestry are descendants of that wave of immigrants who came to America in the pre- and post-World War One era--our development as an organized community is more recent.

As a result of The National Origins Act of 1924, quotas for Arabs were near zeroed out, and maintained at low levels until the 1960's. Partly due to this growth-stunting exclusion, and the intense pressure of assimilation that characterized the American scene in that era, the impetus toward becoming a self-conscious organized community did not take hold until the late 1960's-a bi-product of the transformative power of the civil rights movement.

As Arab Americans, we, too, marched and sat-in for civil rights and celebrated the great victories of that period. But as the civil rights movement morphed into a cultural nationalist awakening-there was a profound additional impact.

As African Americans claimed their "Roots," there came the realization among many other ethnic communities that we too had "Roots"-and we were now enabled to give voice to their importance in shaping our identity.

As Americans of Arab descent came together, we discovered a shared pride in a common heritage and we began the task of creating organizations that gave voice to our concerns and advanced our rights.

Here we encountered difficulties, in part due to those who sought to silence our emerging voice, and also to the negative stereotypes that presented an enormous hurdle to our acceptance and our efforts at self-definition.

It is no accident, therefore, that our first major national organization was devoted to combating negative stereotypes, fighting discrimination and providing services to our underserved community.

During this period, law enforcement agencies not only did not help, they were a problem. They harassed, conducted broad surveillance of our organizations and compiled extensive intelligence files on Arab American activists.

At the same time, too little was done to defend our rights. My office was fire-bombed in 1980. Other Arab American offices were targeted in a spate of attacks in the mid-1980's, one of which murdered my friend, Alex Odeh in 1985. During all this time, there was not a single indictment or arrest.

And there was exclusion. In 1983, when we were invited to participate in the 20th anniversary of Dr. King's March on Washington, some groups threatened to withdraw unless Arab Americans were removed. It was painful, but with the support of strong allies in the civil rights leadership, we stood our ground.

The Jesse Jackson Presidential campaigns of '84 and '88 provided Arab Americans our first opportunity, as an organized community, to participate as a political constituency. We registered and mobilized our voters, ran and won elections and formed political clubs.

Here we experienced new problems. Some candidates returned our contributions, and others rejected our endorsements.

Still we persisted, and with the help of allies, our advance continued. Jesse Jackson helped us knock on the door, Ron Brown opened it, and Bill Clinton welcomed us in and sat us at the table. Had it not been for the advances we made during the 1990's-the access we gained, the empowerment we experienced and the allies we developed-we would not have been able to withstand the challenges we faced in the aftermath of 9/11.

The horrific terrorist attacks of September 11 were a profound and painful tragedy for all Americans. They were a dual tragedy for Arab Americans. As Americans, it was our country that was attacked. Arab Americans died in the attacks. Arab Americans were also at Ground Zero, as 1st responders.

Sadly, however, many Arab Americans were torn away from mourning with our fellow Americans, becoming the targets of hate crimes and discrimination.

But, then, something very important happened. The American people rallied to our defense, making it clear that, despite the enormity of the challenge, a new dynamic was at work.

President Bush spoke out forcefully against hate, and both Houses of Congress unanimously passed resolutions condemning hate crimes against Arab Americans and Muslims. For the first time, law enforcement agencies investigated and prosecuted hate crimes, and ordinary citizens defended and protected us, refusing to allow bigots to define America.

Arab Americans are proud to have played a crucial role in the Post-9/11 era, serving on the front lines of the war on terrorism as police, firefighters, soldiers, FBI agents, and translators. And, when called on, we worked to assist federal, state and local law enforcement agencies.

We helped to create the first Arab American FBI Advisory Committee, and began regular meetings with the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice to share concerns and work through problems.

But all is still not well.

At the same time that these positive developments were occurring, an entirely different and negative message was being sent. Of special concern were the 2003 Racial Profiling Guidelines implemented by Attorney General Ashcroft that allowed ethnic, racial and religious profiling against Arab and Muslim Americans. This initiative was enlarged upon, in 2008, by Attorney General Mukasey whose new guidelines opened the door to even greater abuses-casting a cloud of suspicion over my entire community.

Profiling, and the dangerous conflation of immigration policy and national security policy, took many forms in the post-9/11 era. From the initial roundup of over 1,200 Arab and Muslim immigrants, the call-ups of 5,000 and then 3,000 Arab immigrants and visitors, to the NSEERS program, a badly conceived, poorly planned and arbitrarily implemented effort.

FBI and other officials, with whom I have spoken, have criticized the usefulness of these profiling initiatives, calling them a waste of manpower that produced little useful information, and damaged their community outreach efforts.

We are now, I believe, at the start of a new era. Leaders in my community have met with the new leadership at DOJ and DHS, and our relationship with the FBI, though tested at times, has developed, and in many instances, born fruit. In many ways, this conference today marks not only a commemoration of a past victory, but a renewed commitment to building on this past to ensure a freer tomorrow-sending the clear message that our march continues.

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