Tuesday, May 10, 2016

An Arab in the plane is the new Black on the sidewalk

In three years, in 2019, we will mark a very dark anniversary--four hundred years since the first Africans were sold as slaves in Virginia.  Between the old country's caste system and its untouchables, and slavery and African-Americans here in the adopted home country, I feel like I always carry an unbearable burden of the sins of the past.

I have no idea how a young black man makes peace with how his life has been screwed up forever thanks to this history.  It is beyond my wildest imagination.  Which is all the more why I am blown away by Martin Luther King's commitment to non-violence in the struggle for civil rights.

It took me a few years of living in this country to understand the deep effects that slavery and white supremacy have had on everyday life.  I am continuing to understand my own deep-seated biases as well, and am trying my best to rid myself of those.  The earliest learning experience was in graduate school when the friends from Nigeria and Ghana laughingly observed how people switched to the other side of the road in order to avoid walking up to them on the sidewalk.  Kayode and Seth laughed about it because they had a great sense of humor.  But, I suppose other than laughing about it what else could they have done anyway!

Now, we have added one more category to such awful behavior: An Arab, or anybody who even looks Arabic while on a plane is now viewed with suspicion.  But, unlike the sidewalks where people crossed the street, racists cannot get down and climb into a different plane.  Which is why things like this happen:
A college student who came to the United States as an Iraqi refugee was removed from a Southwest Airlines flight in California earlier this month after another passenger became alarmed when she heard him speaking Arabic.
That was a month ago.
The student, Khairuldeen Makhzoomi, a senior at the University of California, Berkeley, was taken off a flight from Los Angeles International Airport to Oakland on April 6 after he called an uncle in Baghdad to tell him about an event he attended that included a speech by United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
“I was very excited about the event so I called my uncle to tell him about it,” he said.
It turns out that one does not even have to speak Arabic.  One does not even have to wear a jubba for a fellow passenger to get all worked up.  You are a danger if you even look like this:


Who is he?
Had the crew or security members perhaps quickly googled this good-natured, bespectacled passenger before waylaying everyone for several hours, they might have learned that he — Guido Menzio — is a young but decorated Ivy League economist. And that he’s best known for his relatively technical work on search theory, which helped earn him a tenured associate professorship at the University of Pennsylvania as well as stints at Princeton and Stanford’s Hoover Institution.
So, if he was not speaking Arabic, or wearing a jubba , then what happened for him to be forced off the plane?  His seatmate, who was "a blond-haired, 30-something woman sporting flip-flops and a red tote bag" "had Seen Something, and so she had Said Something":
That Something she’d seen had been her seatmate’s cryptic notes, scrawled in a script she didn’t recognize. Maybe it was code, or some foreign lettering, possibly the details of a plot to destroy the dozens of innocent lives aboard American Airlines Flight 3950. She may have felt it her duty to alert the authorities just to be safe. The curly-haired man was, the agent informed him politely, suspected of terrorism.
And what exactly was Menzio scribbling?  Math!  "A differential equation, to be exact."

After reading the news report, I tweeted:
The trolls showed up right away.  Such is life in these United States, which will only get more awful if the fascist gets elected in November!  I shudder thinking that it could be President Donald Trump addressing the nation in 2019, marking the tragic anniversary!


Ramesh said...

You've gone off on a different tangent on this one. When I first read the news item, the thought of racism did not strike me at all. What I found funny was that the lady got scared of equations. Yes, I know differential calculus is something to be terrified of and legions of students have willingly submitted themselves to this torture. New ground has been broken in the fight against obscure equations. The lady is able to enlist the mighty US authorities in the war on calculus. Unleash the drones. Let loose the Navy Seals. Bomb the s#$% out of them. And proclaim Mission Accomplished.

RIP Calculus. Open the window Khé. You can hear the undergrads celebrating.

Sriram Khé said...

Yes, it presented a golden opportunity for comedians and everybody who has a sense of humor.
But, here is my trouble with laughing at this incident: while laughing might even be cathartic, simultaneously we are becoming less and less enraged when that is what our response ought to be. After all, this is not the first time or even the second time when a passenger or a crew member has unfairly treated a passenger just because he looked or spoke a certain way.
This lack of rage over social issues and the liberal sentiment to laugh with the comedians is also why I slowly walked away from he Daily Show and the Colbert Report also. While we were laughing, the racists and bigots and the awful people continued on with their atrocious practices ... and they have now they "Stand with Trump" ... and even in this, the response was to laugh at Trump and his Trumpeters ... guess who is laughing now? (

Mike Hoth said...

I'm worried about whichever president we have in 2019 addressing our nation about slavery, since neither of them have an understanding of the horrors still faced by people then and now. We never elect people who understand the poor because nobody listens to poor people long enough to elect them to positions!

I'm all bombing calculus though. It can join a few other subjects I have no love for. If only presidential hopeful Donald Trump would spout rhetoric about hating those!

Sriram Khé said...

The one president who could have compelled us to engage in a deeper and nuanced understanding of race issues pretty much chose not to for all the political reasons. Yep, I am referring to Obama. As much as his election to the presidency was one heck of an achievement for this country that was built on the backs of slaves, I have worried that this also fueled a complacency that we are now past the race issues ... which is also why I am not that surprised that racism and hatred of all kind have been exposed during this campaign season--it was always there, hidden in plain sight :(

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