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What Would MLK Do? After Sept. 11, Equality is Under Attack in the United States
22 January 2002
The day after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s official holiday seems a good time to ask where things stand with the concept of equality in the United States of America.
While he's remembered and eulogized as a leader of a movement about civil rights, at the heart of King's message was the notion of equality. Justice, King wrote from Birmingham Jail in 1963, requires not just an end to segregation and legal racism against African Americans, but a broader shift: "To see ourselves as one with all those who have committed to this country, no matter what their national origin, race or religious beliefs."
Having just returned from an airplane trip that caused me to feel queasy even before I left the ground, it seems to me that any commitment to "equal treatment" has been put on hold since Sept. 11.
My neighbor on one flight this weekend was a young, dark-skinned African American who said he'd flown regularly since the WTC/Pentagon attacks. He said he'd been stopped at every boarding gate. "I don't mind extra precautions, but extra precautions against whom?" he asked. "For what? On what grounds?"
Since Sept. 11, traveling has been ghastly, my neighbor said. Then again, he's never had an easy time at airports. "It's just that now I have to take off my shoes," he said.
I did, too, but only once, in one of the four airports I passed through. With new security measures in place at airports this weekend, the procedure of boarding flights still seems entirely inconsistent.
Standing in my first line at Newark, on Friday, I watched security guards ask men of all colors -- but only men -- to remove their footwear. Coming home from Tucson, guards were asking men and women alike. At the gate in Dallas, I saw a slender, African American woman in a cashmere sweater and a Southeast Asian women in a sari pulled out of the line for a full bag and body search, after both passed through the metal detector without setting off alarms. In Chicago, one "Arab-looking" businessman and one white (not "Arab-looking") businessman were being questioned as I boarded the last leg of my crazy journey.
What to make of any of it? Aside from the questions raised in my own brain about my own idea of "Arab-looking," my anecdotal data proves nothing, except that I do not know what is going on, and neither did my flying companions. Whatever it is, however, we're going along; no pickets, no raised voices, no questions at all.
After all, how closely does one person's experience reflect the national picture? How does one person know what she's seeing? It's easy enough to assure ourselves that we don't have enough information to be critical.
"One of the problems is there is no central data keeper," Debashish Mishra of South Asian American Leaders of Tomorrow told Working Assets Radio on Monday. (SAALT compiled a hate-crimes list from published reports after 9.11, and now is focusing on education and outreach.) The federal government is not required to keep records of airport detentions, says Mishra, and nice as it was of Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta to issue guidelines to airline workers noting that racial profiling is "not only immoral but illegal," his department's regulations just aren't stringent enough. The fine for an airline caught breaking the rules is $2,500, says Mishra, and "that's nothing in comparison to a $25,000 plane-load."
If I asked my fellow passengers to join me in a protest of racial profiling, would they? Before Sept. 11, the ACLU reports that 80 percent of Americans opposed racial profiling of motorists by police. Lawsuits had been filed, and investigations of police practices by TV journalists had shocked people.
Since that infamous day there's been at least something of a reversal; immediately after the attacks, a Sept. 13 ABC News/Washington Post poll showed a majority of Americans supporting "special scrutiny" for "special" people -- like those suspected of being Arab, presumably. Public education done around the issue of "driving while black or brown" seems to have no resonance now that the hysteria is about Asians and Arabs caught flying.
"The driving-while-black campaign never included us," Amardeep Singh Bhalla of the Sikh Coalition told Working Assets Radio on Monday. "We have to expand the campaign to cover airports and cover all of us."
The National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium has just posted an interactive map of the United States on the Internet. Pick a state, any state, and you'll find literally hundreds of people have been physically attacked by bigots since Sept. 11 -- and we're not just talking about graffiti or curses.
Nor did the assaults stop when the press coverage did in October; as recently as December 7, in Northridge, Calif., a Sikh American man was beaten by two guys with metal poles at his liquor store. "The victim attempted to explain that he was Sikh and had no association with the accused terrorists," reported NAPALC, but the beating continued and the victim ended up in the hospital with head injuries.
The American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee claims to have confirmed 520 violent incidents directed against Arab Americans, or those perceived to be such, as well as 27 cases in which people were expelled from aircraft because passengers or crew didn't like the way they looked. The AADC has also received several hundred complaints of employment discrimination against Arab Americans since September 11, including numerous firings.
And just this November, Congress voted to expel a whole class of workers from their jobs in the name of national security. The ACLU, NAPALC and others filed a lawsuit last week challenging the Aviation and Transportation Security Act, which requires all baggage screeners to be American citizens. Legal permanent residents comprise 25 percent of screeners nationwide and up to 80 percent of screeners at San Francisco International Airport, reports NAPALC. Workers could begin to be dismissed from their jobs as soon as April 2002.
Yet we're still celebrating King's holiday as if we deserved one.
This weekend in Washington, an unprecedented coalition of elected officials, immigrant advocates, civil rights and religious leaders marked Martin Luther King Jr. day with a rally and town hall meeting. Among the speakers were Martin Luther King III, representatives Maxine Waters and John Conyers, Anthony Romero, Jim Zogby, Karen Narasaki and Rev. Al Sharpton. Those gathered, courtesy of the ACLU and a vast array of sponsoring organizations, raised a call for peace and justice, and a reigning-in of the Justice Department's so-called war against terror.
Gatherings like that bode well for the future, Singh Bhalla and Mishra told Working Assets Radio. "When Arabs and Asians and Sikhs meet with the transport secretary about racial profiling [as they did this past fall, prompting Mineta to issue his guidelines], African Americans and the civil rights movement should be there with us," said Singh Bhalla.
Seventy-three years after the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., it seems we still have a lot to learn. And here's a hint: justice is never spelled "just-us."
Laura Flanders Published by