Historians will likely attribute George W. Bush’s successful 2004 reelection campaign at least in part to anti-Muslim fear after September 11. But might they also credit Barack Obama’s success so far to the same phenomenon?
September 11 has dramatically altered race relations in the United States, but not necessarily positively. Perceptions of hostility between blacks and whites in the United States have certainly dissipated, and polling data shows that the number of people who claim they would never vote for a black president has dropped significantly in the last eight years. But this trend might be less due to racial reconciliation than to a displacement of racism from blacks to a conflated image of Muslims, Arabs and terrorists.
In a 2000 stand-up comedy routine, Dave Chappelle quipped: “Sometimes racism works out in black people’s favor,” referencing Muslims in particular. Chappelle began to tell the audience of being on an airplane during a hijacking. When he surreptitiously turned to another black passenger and gave him a thumbs-up, a white person sitting nearby whispered appreciatively, “Oh my God, I think those black guys are going to save us!”
But their take was a misinterpretation: really, Chappelle was confident the hijackers would spare him and the other passenger because “black people are bad bargaining chips.”
After September 11, many other comedians, writers and pundits noticed a similar pattern in our country: Black people began to be viewed more favorably by whites as hostility toward Arab-Americans and Muslims increased. A week before the attacks, American delegates walked out of the World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa. Now, Americans see black people as far less threatening than Arabs. Though Dave Chappelle is Muslim, after the attacks he joked he was getting through the system — or at least airport security lines — much faster than before.
Has anti-black racism been replaced by Islamophobia? One glaring answer can be found in changes to the presidential campaigns. At the beginning of last century, candidates feared not that they would be seen as Muslims, but as Negroes. In 1920, a biographer of presidential candidate Warren G. Harding published a pamphlet that suggested Harding was the great-grandson of a black woman — and therefore could become the country’s “first Negro president.” Harding’s supporters were furious. As the Yale history professor Beverly Gage has written, “the taint of ‘Negro blood’ was political death.” Harding’s supporters drove the biographer out of his job and destroyed as many of the pamphlets as they could find.
Fast-forward to 2008, when candidates running against Barack Obama have circulated photographs of him wearing a headscarf and encouraged rumors he attended a madrassa. At a recent rally, John McCain told a supporter who feared that Obama might be Arab that it wasn’t true because Obama was “a decent family man, a citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with.”
And while McCain has declared Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s sermons out-of-bounds for political attacks, his campaign has nevertheless attacked “Barack Hussein Obama” for “palling around with terrorists,” using his association with teacher and former domestic terrorist Bill Ayers to scare many Americans into thinking of dangerous sheiks living in caves.
Obama has responded to this Islamophobia less by condemning the bigotry than by affirming his Christian values and distancing himself from Islam. In one unfortunate turn this summer, Obama campaign volunteers even repositioned Muslim women at rallies so they wouldn’t be caught in television footage of the candidate. (The campaign later apologized and said the action was unsanctioned.)
It wasn’t until Colin Powell’s endorsement of Obama last week that a prominent political figure took issue with the anti-Muslim sentiments that have been rampant through the campaign. “These are the kinds of images going out on Al Jazeera that are killing us around the world,” Powell said. “And we have got to say to the world it doesn’t make any difference who you are and what you are. If you’re an American, you’re an American.”
Regardless of whether anti-Muslim fears among the electorate have influenced votes, the next president will need to face the reality that racism may not be dying in America, but instead just taking on a different color. “As far as I know” neither candidate in this race is Muslim, but that should not stop either one of them from condemning this new form of racism head-on.
Niko Bowie is a senior in Timothy Dwight College.