Today’s guest writer, Zaid Jilani, first came on my radar in late 2011. When I first heard his name it was an attached to an epithet: antisemitic.
Zaid was then working at a think tank called the Center for American Progress and he’d used the phrase “Israel Firster” in a number of online arguments. He was echoing others who had used the term, having little idea that it invoked the old and insidious notion of Jews having dual loyalty. Ultimately, he resigned from the organization.
It would be years before Zaid and I met in person, introduced by another writer, Shadi Hamid, in Washington, D.C. The person I encountered was nothing like caricature I knew online. He was generous, kind and fiercely independent in his thinking. It was an important reminder to me to never judge anyone by their worst mistake. And more, that people are capable of change.
Those are among the themes that Zaid tackles in today’s powerful essay, which I am proud to publish:
Middle school is terrible for everyone, but you’re going to have to trust me that it was rougher on me than many. I was short, funny-looking, and a practicing Muslim in a town called Kennesaw, Georgia, where I almost never met anyone who looked like me or who worshipped like me. I was relentlessly picked on and beat up on a regular basis.
Ninth grade was my opportunity for a new identity. In attending a magnet school that was outside of my normal district, I had the chance, at last, to make new friends. But I often found myself being misinterpreted or misunderstood.
There was a student in one of my classes with whom I got into arguments over trivial things. He was friends with one group of people, and I was trying, desperately, to be friends with another, rival group. In retrospect it was utterly normal high school cliquishness, but I interpreted it as something else.
We were all asked to keep diaries to describe our experiences in class. I mentioned in that diary that I thought I didn’t get along with this other student because he was Jewish. A teacher read the diary and asked me to speak to a school administrator.
That administrator was a calm, soft-spoken man who used the conversation to learn more about me. He quickly realized that I had anxiety issues and was struggling to fit in. He pointed to the comments I had written about my classmate and suggested to me that they were antisemitic. I was judging him on the basis of stereotypes I had about Jewish people, not based on who he was.
Here is a good moment to reflect on the fact that I am a Pakistani-American Muslim. Our community is warm and generous, hardworking and inventive. My parents came to this country in the 1970s because they knew it was welcoming to people like us. Unlike life on the Indian subcontinent, here you aren’t instantly judged by your ethnic group, sect or caste. In America, we were free to be whoever we wanted to be.
But every community has its problems. Antisemitism was ours. The data bears this out: one ADL poll found that more than half the Muslim populations of some Western European countries hold antisemitic attitudes.
In political conversations and at social gatherings, it was all too common to hear ordinary Jewish people get conflated with extreme actors, like far-right Israeli politicians, or to hear about complicated conspiracies involving Jews that, if nothing else, are far too elaborate to ever reflect reality. (How can they possibly control the banks, the borders and, at the same time, be the actual founders of ISIS?)
What saved me from the same fate — of holding ignorant beliefs about an entire people — was that extraordinary administrator. The most important thing he impressed on me, calmly and without shaming me, was that my classmate, like me, was an individual. He wasn’t an avatar of some kind of monolithic group. And neither was I.
The primacy of the individual — that we judge people not by their lineage but by their deeds — is at the very foundation of a free society and of the American experiment. Here, unlike so many other places, including Pakistan, the law and our common culture insists that we see people as individuals who are the product of their character, not their tribe, family, race, or status.
This wisdom has come under sustained assault by an ideology that insists that we are, in fact, avatars of various demographic markers — race, gender, sexuality — rather than complex human beings.
Critical Race Theory sees people not as individuals, but more like the Borg from Star Trek. It insists that white people are inevitably oppressors and that African-Americans are inherently oppressed. And everyone else, like Schrödinger’s cat, exist in a kind of liminal position, playing the role of victims or victimizers depending on the situation. That is how, in the context of the admissions process at Stuyvesant, Asians are seen as “white-adjacent” and privileged, but in the context of street crime, they are cast as victims. Attributes of specific races are assumed.
Even after yesterday’s tragic shooting in a Boulder grocery store, this racist illogic reared its head. “It’s always an angry white man. always,” tweeted a “race and inclusion editor” at USA Today. A senior editor at Deadspin tweeted: “Extremely tired of people's lives depending on whether a white man with an AR-15 is having a good day or not.” Kamala Harris’s niece, Meena, offered: “violent white men are the greatest terrorist threat to our country.”
It turns out the suspected shooter wasn’t white. The suspect’s name is Ahmad Al Aliwi Alissa. And the fact that he is alleged to have carried out a mass shooting should not surprise us: If you look at the data on the ethnic composition of mass shooters they reflect, roughly, the ethnic composition of the American population. But given the rules of this ideology — that the importance of the lives lost depends on the group characteristics of the perpetrator — you can bet that the mainstream press will now pivot to a different story.
Perhaps the most disturbing, sustained example of the way this ideology distorts the truth is the coverage of ongoing violence against Asian-Americans, most recently last week’s Atlanta-area murders, in which six of the eight victims were Asian.
If you thumb through news articles from the past few days or read over statements from leading politicians, you’d imagine that the Ku Klux Klan is responsible for the spree of robberies, assaults and murders of Asian-Americans across the nation. The phrase “white supremacy” is used repeatedly. The Root’s Damon Young, for instance, took the occasion of the shooting to declare that “whiteness is a pandemic.” While it’s true that the shooter in Atlanta was a young white man, there is no evidence that he was a “white supremacist,” as Young writes. The facts we know so far suggest that he was motivated by perverse sexual beliefs, not racial hatred.
This narrative is pervasive, but it bears no relationship to the evidence before us. Not only are none of the high-profile attackers over the past few months white supremacists, many of them aren’t even white.
Although there is no comprehensive database that lays out the details of all of the attacks over the past year — we will likely have to wait until the FBI’s annual Uniform Crime Report is released — there is data showing what victimization of Asian-Americans generally looks like in the United States.
One recent study looked at hate crimes carried out between 1992 and 2014. It concluded that around 25% of those that carried out anti-Asian hate crimes during this period were nonwhite. (In contrast, about 1% of offenders in anti-black hate crimes were non-white.) Last year, the NYPD arrested 20 people accused of anti-Asian hate crimes. Two of them were white.
Those are just hate crimes — crimes in which the suspect explicitly declares a racial motivation. If you look at all violent crimes, you’ll see a picture that diverges even more sharply from the white supremacy narrative.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 2018 the majority of violent offenders who attacked white and black victims shared the same racial background as those they were attacking. For Hispanics, 45% of them shared the same racial background. But for Asians, that number is only 24%.
This is relevant because much of the violence that has occurred over the past year doesn’t neatly fit into the hate crime category. A robbery and attack on a 69-year-old Asian-American woman earlier this month in Daly City, California, for instance, is unlikely to be logged as a hate crime. Same for a disgusting episode this week on the New York City subway in which a man urinated on an Asian-American woman in her 20s.
While these sorts of incidents are unlikely to be legally charged and recorded as hate crimes, that doesn’t mean that prejudice necessarily plays no role at all. As the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights noted in a 1992 report, “many Asian immigrants operate small retail stores or restaurants in economically depressed, predominantly minority neighborhoods. The entry of small businesses owned by Asian Americans into these neighborhoods and their apparent financial success often provokes resentment on the part of neighborhood residents.”
A more recent 2012 survey by Pew asked Asian-Americans how well they get along across various racial divides. Twenty-eight percent of Asian-Americans said they get along not too well or not at all well with African-Americans. For whites, 9% of Asian-Americans gave the same response.
So why are so many self-described liberals embracing an ideology that seems to insist that white racism is the only kind of racism? That bigotry only counts when the perpetrator comes from a “powerful” group? That denies that the same person can be both a victim and a victimizer?
I suspect that many white liberals — ridden with guilt over American history and biases that still exist among the white majority — believe they are doing minorities like me a favor by denying us the responsibility of addressing our own prejudices. Critical race theorists often argue that the true definition of racism should be prejudice plus power, implying that only whites can be racist But hidden within that construction is the assumption that minorities can never be powerful.
My high school administrator disagreed. He looked at me and saw a young man full of potential. I wasn’t some domino set in motion by centuries of white supremacy. I was a human being with critical thinking skills and agency. And because he forced me to take responsibility for my own prejudices, I was able to become the person I am today — a journalist whose words carry the weight of social influence and power.
You cannot have power without responsibility. Denying minorities responsibility for their own actions, both good and bad, will only deny us the power we rightly deserve.
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