The challenges of defeating the novel coronavirus have put our lives into sharp focus by pushing out nonessential issues. Are civil rights an essential issue now? Will the changes that the pandemic brings give us the courage to prioritize shared initiatives? Alliance is in the air and may provide us with a safe path forward regarding our rights.
Medical researchers around the world are setting an example by working across the divide of nationality to bring positive results. Americans can also work across their divides to promote civil rights.
A group of Japanese Americans recently approached some of San Diego’s Arab Americans because they knew so little about us. The result was the Japanese American Citizens League and the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee co-hosting two panel discussions at a San Diego library to learn more about each other’s history, our love for country and our struggle for civil rights.
Arab and Jewish Americans have formed worldwide alliances for decades, yet those alliances are rarely heard about. Arab and Jewish San Diegans are eager to share how they are building trust, a microcosm for what could happen between Israelis and Palestinians. For a decade or more, we have hosted joint events and movies and have had picnics each summer at La Jolla Shores.
Alliances to promote civil rights here at home can lead to alliances to promote peace abroad. Earlier this month, Arab American Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Michigan, allied with Jewish Rep. Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, to issue a joint statement requesting that the Trump administration release funds appropriated by Congress to support the well-being of the Palestinian people during the coronavirus pandemic. These courageous elected officials embolden peace outcomes rather than the default chaos of perpetual war.
Civil rights crimes in the United States come from allowing division to fester, rather than forging alliances. Consider the recent past. Ahmaud Aubrey’s death in Georgia in February is being looked at as a hate crime amid criticism that justice has been delayed.
Asian Americans have become particular targets since President Donald Trump called the coronavirus the “Chinese virus.” One incident was a ghastly knife attack in March against an Asian American father and his two young sons in Texas.
The FBI in New York issued a warning that same month that white supremacists might try to infect Jewish communities with the coronavirus, too.
Here, we are alarmed that in separate grocery store incidents in our own Santee this month, a man wore a Ku Klux Klan hood and a couple displayed swastikas, but we are heartened by the community voices speaking out against expressions of bigotry.
Ironically, this last April was also Arab American Heritage Month. Like all Americans, Arab Americans seek freedom and opportunity in the United States and are part of the fabric and weave of America. Like the promise of America, Arab Americans are hardwired for diversity, strongly practiced for centuries in multireligious and multiethnic Arab lands. Arabs helped to create contemporary practices in medicine, hygiene, engineering, trade, finance and accounting that we can take for granted. In the arts, a fusion sensibility influenced the world in music, art, architecture and literature. Arab Americans are on the front lines of the coronavirus crisis as first responders, doctors, nurses and researchers.
However, Arab Americans are also experiencing a form of McCarthy era invisibility. Our voices are silent in the face of negative stereotypes. Arab Americans struggle to be counted in the U.S. census and in demographic breakdowns of COVID-19 deaths. It is vital that we are counted, especially now with a potentially disproportionate rate of infection and death with COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Our recent history of assassination, deportations, false imprisonment, job discrimination and other injustices is little known. Our positive and critical voices are slowly entering into the mainstream of American consciousness as we form alliances.
Americans continue to achieve justice under extraordinary circumstances. African Americans have brought into glaring light their disproportionate COVID-19 deaths. Arab Americans and other people of color are also disproportionate victims of COVID-19. Women of color continue to expand the definition of feminism. Japanese Americans continue to combat ignorance and stereotyping after their unlawful imprisonment during World War II. Disabled Americans are exuberantly vocal about fair employment, access and representation.
Our safety against future discrimination and abuse depends on alliances and fostering proactive and constructive education. Our shared and layered heritages will outlive the coronavirus and nurture freedom with justice. Arab American Heritage month in 2020 is American Heritage month. We channel our collective contributions to envision peace, health and a harmonious future.
Bittar is a visual artist, an educator, a writer and president of the San Diego chapter of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. She lives in North Park.