Author Deepa Iyer explores the challenges of US minorities
After the terror attacks on 9/11, South Asians, Arabs and Muslims in the United States experienced a paradox: The state became both the defender of their civil rights but also the source of surveillance and detention of hundreds of immigrants from those communities.
Projections are that by 2043, America will become a “majority-minority” country, with people of colour becoming the majority of its population. Deepa Iyer, a senior fellow at the Center for Social Inclusion, discusses this transformation in her book We Too Sing America and offers advice to both the state and minorities on how to build better understanding.
Iyer said the surveillance of Muslims by US authorities led to feelings of isolation, fear and a sense of not belonging, that members of those communities are “others” who should be viewed with suspicion and whose rights, presence, and even lives are less equal and valuable than others’.
“When there is a distrust in law enforcement, people hesitate to report to the police something that is happening in their community or in their family,” Iyer said in an interview. “They are afraid if they do that, they will be on the terror list and they will be investigated. Americans generally have a fear of Muslims because they think law enforcement and the US government are engaging in activities against those communities.”
South Asian, Arab and Muslim activists have worked with the Black Lives Matter movement because they say that when African Americans achieve true equality, it will be impossible for systems and policies to engage in discrimination and racism against other communities of colour.
Kameelah Mu’Min Rashad, an interfaith fellow and a Muslim chaplain at the University of Pennsylvania, told Iyer: “All of a sudden after 9/11, Islam started to be foreign. It became associated with war and foreign policy despite its long history in America. And if Islam becomes foreign, then Black Muslims don’t even exist.”
Some South Asians and Arabs were racialised after 9/11 but Black Muslims had been racialised earlier. In the 1950s and 1960s, the FBI spied, disrupted and infiltrated Black Muslim mosques.
Although some argue that the federal government had the right to scrutinise Muslims, Iyer points out: “The selective enforcement of national security and immigration policies deprived South Asian, Arab and Muslim immigrants of their rights to equal protection under the law and presumed their guilt by association.”
She argues that the US government’s 2014 surveillance guidelines give individuals from South Asian, Arab and Muslim backgrounds a different set of rights than others, resulting in second-class citizenship for them.
“‘It is an internal advocacy issue where our communities are trying to ask and demand (US President Barack) Obama to fix the guidance,” Iyer said. “Where we are in terms of the Obama administration’s tenure and the election cycle right now, I am not sure if we are going to see any progress with that right now but it continues to be a really important advocacy point for South Asian Muslims who are looking for ways in which they are not targeted by law reinforcement.”
Iyer, in her book, suggests that racial justice organisations stand alongside South Asian, Arab, Muslim and Sikh communities to demand the US Department of Justice address deficiencies and loopholes in federal guidelines.
Additionally, she said, Muslim communities should lobby legislators to enact anti-profiling measures that ban unjust surveillance practices by state and local law enforcement officials not covered under the federal guidelines.
She also said government agencies should analyse and share publicly the outcomes of their surveillance policies and programmes while assessing the effects the policies have had on communities of colour and immigrants.
Iyer wants public hearings to press the state to consider apologies and reparations and to discuss the realities and experiences of South Asian, Arab, Muslim and Sikh communities in the post-9/11 environment.
Iyer also offers advice to minorities, saying more joint actions and unity are needed when addressing common issues and shared problems. For example, South-east Asians and South Asians could form deeper alliances to address the deportation and immigration enforcement crises affecting their communities, spurred on by the 1996 immigration laws and post- 9/11 policies.
She quoted Greisa Martinez, a field organiser for United We Dream, a Latino-American group, who said that Latino-led organisations should recruit non-Latino immigrant youth and create welcoming spaces for them.
Iyer warned that efforts may be under way to expand the category of “white” to buttress the numbers of whites and to convey the false impression that whiteness can include non-racial factors such as higher economic and educational status. Iyer argued that minorities should resist the invitation to dismantle the racial ladder.
We Too Sing America offers well-thought-out practical steps to anyone concerned about the future of minorities in the West. With the rise of the perceived threat of minorities, the book’s timing could not be better.