Blacks and Arabs: The Conversation

n a chilly night in November, just a few days before Thanksgiving, there was rage in a gas station parking lot. News and personal videos from the Mobil at the intersection of the Southfield Freeway, a pathway to an idealistic suburbia, and Eight Mile Road, a once impassable barrier to get there, showed black-clad men and women swarming the station, asking questions about a clerk who had apparently pulled a gun on two children visiting there earlier that day.

It takes zero time for folks to take sides in these situations, since the line had been drawn long before these kids were even born. To put it simply: The kids visiting the store were black. The clerk and the owner of the station, who was not there for the incident but eventually showed up to calm the crowd and answer questions, were Arab.

And that night, the protest was yet another clash between blacks and Arabs in metro Detroit – although it was more visible and volatile than what happens every day in grocery stores and gas stations throughout the city.

There are the slurs. If you’re black, you’ve no doubt heard terms like “sand nigger,” “scarfie” and, perhaps the most pervasive, “A-rab” tossed around like tennis balls. Arabs have words for blacks, too: “Abeed” (“slave” in Arabic) may not be the n-word outright, but feels close enough. There are the stereotypes. Arabs think all blacks are poor, and blacks think all Arabs are rich – or at least getting over on the government.

And there is the truth: Both communities have more in common than we realize.


Blacks and Arabs are both trapped under the thumb of mainstream white supremacy, fighting with each other in close quarters not realizing what’s holding both communities back. The misconceptions about both were thrust on them by the majority, and they’ve both been used as political bogeymen to evoke fear in the white electorate. In this presidential election, there have been calls to police Muslim neighborhoods and prevent them from coming to our country. For blacks, the focus has been on vilifying movements such as Black Lives Matter.

There is so much that we can relate to and empathize about within our communities, and yet here in Detroit, where our numbers are plentiful, there exists a great divide and misunderstanding.

How can we bridge the gap? It starts with understanding our similarities to overcome our differences. 

Destination Detroit

The stories of how blacks arrived in Detroit need no explanation. Among the first to put down roots were slaves who found their own liberation, but blacks arrived in droves during the Great Migration, mainly to work in the car factories.

So did Arabs.

Among the first were the Lebanese. “They came because of the jobs, but they weren’t able to get jobs because of the language barrier,” says Weam Namou, an author who has written extensively about the Middle Eastern population for The Chaldean News and other publications. “So they turned to the jobs they were experts in, which was being a merchant.”

The Arab world has a strong mercantile tradition dating back centuries. And in a country like America where English is the dominant language, an extensive vocabulary isn’t needed to open and close a cash register. So as Detroit’s population grew, so did its number of Arab-run stores.

In the early 20th century, there was a strong Lebanese Catholic population in Windsor (just as there was a strong black Christian population in the 19th century), which attracted other Arab Christians to Detroit. The next great wave of Arab Christians came mostly from Iraq, who fled the country during Saddam Hussein’s regime beginning in the 1960s. More Christians from other Arab countries, including Palestine and Egypt, followed.

Arab Christians weren’t alone; Muslims from the Arab world also sought refuge in Detroit. Today in Detroit, there’s a near-even split of Arab residents who are Christian or Muslim – not an overwhelming majority of either, as one might assume. Most Arabs in Dearborn are Muslim, while the majority of Arabs in other metro Detroit communities are Christian. Yet the majority of those who practice Islam in Detroit aren’t Arab – they’re black.

Muslim melting pot

Kafani Ibraham Hassan Cisse remembers his conversion from Christianity to Islam. He was born in Flint and his grandmother there took him to worship at a Church of God in Christ. When he moved to Detroit at age 7, he was in constant search of religion. As a student at Wayne State University in the late 1980s, he found religion in the mosque.

“I never did the Nation of Islam,” says Cisse, who teaches Islam and the Arabic language at the Muslim Center on the corner of Woodrow Wilson and Davison Freeway on Detroit’s west side, pointing out that while several African-Americans are introduced to the religion through the NOI, there are many who aren’t and practice Sunni or Shiite Islam.

He studied Islam. He faithfully attended services. He sought clarity on religious nuances. And when he converted, his family and fellow black Muslims were ecstatic. Not everyone was as welcoming, though.

“The Arabs didn’t help me much, truthfully,” he says. “They were fond of the white brothers when they took Islam. When (white converts) took Islam, it was like the heavens opened up.”

That was more than 25 years ago, but still emblematic of one of the bigger tensions in metro Detroit: The rift between black Muslims and Arab Muslims and, thus, one of many cracks between blacks and Arabs regardless of religion.

The Muslim Center, established in 1985, has the largest black Muslim congregation in metro Detroit. Only in recent years, however, has there been outreach between that mosque and predominantly Arab mosques. There is commonality in religious practice, but getting past ethnic barriers has been a challenge.

“Truthfully, with some people, it’s like we co-opted their culture,” says Cisse, who speaks fluent Arabic and spent years in West Africa as a student at the African-American Islamic Institute in Senegal. “The Quran came in Arabic. Islam is not a culture; it came from a language. Anyone who wants to enter may enter.”

Cisse is hopeful, pointing to the efforts not just with the Muslim Center but other recently formed coalitions that bring together black and Arab Muslims – and white Muslims and South Asian Muslims as well. “It’s a work in progress, but it’s much better than it was, in terms of how much more we have to go.”

Racism on both sides

Blacks aren’t a monolithic culture. Neither are Arabs. Communicating that to both sides is what Rashida Tlaib, a former state representative – the first Muslim-American to serve in Michigan’s state house – who now leads the Sugar Law Center for Economic and Social Justice in Detroit, deals with daily.

Even though Tlaib grew up in southwest Detroit, attended the now-closed Southwestern High School and still lives in Detroit, she is frequently mistaken as everything from a recent immigrant to Dearborn to an outsider latching onto the city’s recent renaissance.

But she is a defender of all Detroiters, something she had to learn early on in her school days. “When we would go into party stores or gas stations, one of my best friends, who was black – the attendee would make (offensive) comments in Arabic toward her,” she says. “But I always loved being able to shock them and respond back in Arabic.”

Tlaib doesn’t mince words when it comes to describing her fellow Arabs. “It’s time for the Arab-American community to wake up,” she says. “Sometimes the Arab-American community’s biggest challenge is they do nothing unless it’s their community.”

Among the biggest faults of Arabs, Tlaib says, is their failure to look inward and deal with their own racism. The lighter your skin tone, the more “acceptable” you are, she says. (Black folks, sound familiar?) And that colorism translates to how faces with darker skin tones are greeted in gas station and convenience stores.

Combine that with the type of Arab a black person is most likely to encounter in metro Detroit, which is more than likely a recent immigrant. And immigrants only know what they know from typical stereotypes of African-Americans: Laziness, rudeness, a penchant for destruction. “I do think it’s because of the anti-blackness that we have in our country.”

Darrell Dawsey, communications director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, exemplified some of those offenses in a 2013 column for Deadline Detroit, describing a rude point-of-sale transaction between himself and an Arab clerk at an east-side shop. “But there also were way too many merchants whose racist disdain for their black customers was so palpable that you wondered how and why any self-respecting African-American could ever repeatedly shop at there,” he wrote.

That racism, Dawsey says, is reflective of American white supremacy. “You add to the fact that Arab businesspeople who operate in our communities see everyday representatives of the damage white supremacy has done to black people,” he tells BLAC.

“There’s a willingness by a lot of immigrant groups to assert your proximity to whiteness by doing what Americans do, which is disrespect black people. That is American as apple pie,” he adds.

Just as Arabs have stereotypes for blacks, Dawsey says blacks aren’t passing with flying colors in race-relations classes. “We harbor a lot of ideas and bullshit notions. We think everybody that works at the gas station is rich,” Dawsey says, noting that communities like Hamtramck and Dearborn’s east side are home to many Arabs hovering around the poverty line. “These are small businesses. They ain’t getting rich. That guy sweeping the parking lot or stocking the cooler, he ain’t getting over on you.”

Tlaib says she hears “A-rab” a lot, and chooses where and when to educate. She remembers a time when Take On Hate, a campaign spurred by the Dearborn-based Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS), rallied against violence in Inkster, and a black woman being surprised at “all the A-rabs” out in support. Tlaib took time to tell her why that pronunciation was offensive and pejorative.

“I’ll find those moments and correct them if it’s proper to do so,” she says. “It depends on the context. It just acknowledges the fact that she didn’t know.”

Intersections and parallels

Asha Mohammad Noor is part of the next generation of metro Detroiters helping to close the gaps. She lives at the intersection of one of the area’s increasing – and more dynamic – populations: African and Muslim.

As a Somali-American, Noor says she closely identifies with American blacks, but knows her black Muslim experience isn’t the same as the American black Muslim experience, nor is her “African-in-America” experience the same as the typical African-American experience, nor is it the same as the Arab Muslim experience, something she learned quickly when she moved to Dearborn, which has the highest concentration – not population, to be clear – of Arabs outside the Middle East.

“(Arabs) say ‘where are you from,’ and I’ll say ‘I’m from Africa,’ and they’ll say ‘I didn’t really know there were African Muslims.’ It’s like, what the hell?” she laughs. “I’ve gotten asked so many times, how is it I can be Muslim, black and African.”

Moore also works with Take On Hate to eradicate stereotypes on both the Arab side and the black side, fostering conversations and programming between both communities so they can learn about each other. She echoes what nearly everyone has said so far: “Here in Detroit, some of the division is rooted in anti-black racism and mistrust of the Arab community.”

But, she says, part of the issue is educating everyone – black, Arab or otherwise – about who exactly can be Muslim. “I don’t think we talk about Arab centrism in the religion enough,” she says. “There are Arabs who are black with very dark skin, but when you close your eyes and you visualize an Arab, it’s a white person.

“The more that we highlight other identities and even intersectional identities … I think that those discussions aren’t had very often,” she adds.

Kim Trent knows some of those discussions well. Her chapter of Delta Sigma Theta sorority began co-hosting discussions between blacks and Arabs in 2001.

“Arab-Americans had been dealing with profiling. And black folks have been dealing with profiling forever,” says Trent, education policy associate for Michigan Future and a member of WSU’s board of governors. “We found some common ground that we didn’t have in 2001. You know, as mothers – we all worry for our children.”

Conversations between blacks and Arabs have to start with the basics. “We were talking about the concept of how Islamic men don’t shake hands with women and the history of that, and why that’s part of their culture,” she says.

There has to be discussion of the light-hearted nuances. Trent remembers one meeting where Arab attendees didn’t eat any of the chicken provided for a meal. “If you know anything about black women, they get really offended if you don’t eat their food,” she says. “But the food wasn’t halal.” The Deltas learned that day.

But often, discussion circles back to the places where blacks and Arabs commune the most: businesses. “I think there’s a lot of resentment in the black community because Arab-Americans and Chaldeans tend to be shopkeepers and own retail establishments. It’s like, ‘Why do y’all own everything in our community?’” Trent says.

If there’s one conversation that needs to be had, Trent suggests, it’s black entrepreneurs talking with Arabs – especially Chaldeans – about how to build that commercial capital. “There’s things to learn from them if we want to,” she says.

Inside the bubbles

Trent and her sorors know the distinction between Chaldeans and Arab Muslims. A lot of others don’t.

To explain the difference is a complicated dance that involves cultural and religious identity, and a history of persecution within the ancient Arab world that reverberates today. Breaking that down to someone picking up a pack of smokes at a gas station isn’t simple.

“It’s an ethnic group who traces their heritage to the land of Chaldea where prophet Abraham was born in ancient Mesopotamia,” says Namou, who is Chaldean. “They were one of the first people who had embraced Christianity by the apostle Thomas, when he was spreading Christianity.”

Early Chaldeans spoke Aramaic. The majority population in the Arab world, however, speaks Arabic and practices Islam. Ongoing religious wars between Muslims forcing their language and religion on Arab Christian minorities led to them leaving those countries and re-settling in places like metro Detroit.

It’s in America where things become even more complex.

Because of the divide in Middle Eastern countries between Chaldeans and Arab Muslims, many Chaldeans tend to distance themselves from Muslims in the region. (Tlaib points to an attempt by Arab Muslims to build a mosque in Sterling Heights that was curbed by city officials who said it violated the suburb’s construction ordinances, but “the Chaldeans were so against building that mosque,” Tlaib says.)

Part of the reason why Chaldeans stand collectively stems from their treatment in the Arab world. “It’s a tribal mentality,” Namou says. “We’re Christian, but we lived in a Muslim country. And given how we came from a different world, everybody stuck together out of fear of understanding the new culture.”

And sticking together is exactly what Chaldeans have done – and how they came to dominate much of the service industry in metro Detroit. Shopkeepers hire cousins, friends, friends of friends and cousins of friends to work as clerks and cashiers. “It’s very rare that you will see a Chaldean out on the street unless he chooses to be there,” Namou says. “Otherwise, there’s always a home. There’s always a business.”

But that tribalism has led to many living in bubbles, Namou says. “(Chaldean immigrants) don’t acclimate very well. They’ll get satellite TVs with Arabic television and they’ll watch that 24/7.”

Inside those bubbles – bubbles distant from Arab Muslims, lest we forget – are the stereotypes held against African-Americans, and, oftentimes, a refusal to confront them.

That’s not to say some of the tension isn’t justified. More than 100 Chaldean store owners have been killed inside their own stores since the 1970s, Namou and Dawsey note – the majority in black neighborhoods. “It breaks my heart,” Dawsey says. “You don’t go into these stores and call people A-rabs. That’s not cool. These are not our enemies. Arab-Americans are not the enemy of African-Americans.”

The tide is slowly starting to turn, though. “If you get into some of these communities, Chaldeans feel like they have more support from blacks than whites,” Namou says. “Blacks also have a tribal background. We’ve both experienced oppression, and there seems to be kind of a compassion around that.”

Beyond Gas Stations

Khaled Beydoun is an Arab Muslim who grew up in Warrendale, a mixed-race neighborhood in Detroit bordering Dearborn and home to working-class whites, blacks and Arabs. After living in California and Florida, he returned to Detroit this year to teach law at the University of Detroit Mercy.

“There’s a lot of talented young professionals living in the city and there’s a lot of talented professionals across the country who are now eyeing Detroit as a destination where they want to work,” Beydoun says. “I think what the city (of Detroit) could do is to have more explicit diversity recruitment, reaching out specifically to African-American and Arab-American professionals because it’s a natural place that African-American and Arab-American professionals want to be.”

Beydoun says younger citizens are far more open-minded than previous generations. But older residents are harder to impress.

“The same institutions that perpetuate the stereotyping of both communities are steeped in the same kind of structures of white supremacy,” he says. “There needs to be these honest conversations about anti-black racism in these Middle Eastern communities.”

That starts, Beydoun says, with getting Arabs to recognize the importance of movements like Black Lives Matter, getting blacks to socialize with Arabs outside the gas station, and understanding that just as an Arab may be kicked off a plane for wearing a hijab, it’s akin to a black driver subject to an unnecessary traffic stop.

“The city is still very segregated,” Beydoun says. “Arab-Americans tend to live in very specific communities, African-Americans tend to live in very specific neighborhoods, and I don’t see the kind of meaningful interaction beyond the primary spaces where these communities interact – specifically, the small businesses.”

Getting educated

If you want to look at where Arabs and blacks are co-mingling, try your child’s classroom. As Detroit’s suburbs continue to diversify, schools have become inadvertent diversity workshops.

Dr. Robert Martin has worked as a teacher, principal and administrator in many school districts in metro Detroit, including Southfield, West Bloomfield and Pontiac, recently retiring from Utica Community Schools, which serves a handful of Macomb County communities that have seen a recent uptick in both black and Middle Eastern populations.

While principal at the now-closed Southfield-Lathrup High School in the late 1980s, he noticed that the school, at the time, was equally divided between Chaldeans, Jews, blacks and whites, and, for the most part, everyone got along. “Southfield and Oak Park were the first two Oakland County cities that fully integrated. Once you find a community that is receptive to integration, that tends to lead to other people following suit.”

But while working as an educational consultant throughout the 1990s and 2000s, Martin, who is black, found himself dealing with mostly white districts starting to contend with demographic changes. “It was telling people, ‘This is our new normal’ and teaching how to embrace these students and families that come our way,” he says.

Martin repeats a constant refrain: educating each community on their differences, and embracing them.

“We went through a period in our nation where it was felt that being colorblind was the best way in. Part of that comes from a good place – we want to see everyone as equal, we want to see everyone the same,” he says. “But to me, there’s some problems with that. It’s saying, ‘We’re going to treat everyone like they’re white.’”

Complicating diversity practices is, frankly, the current U.S. climate. “The election is bringing out some aspects in human nature that we’d hoped had been eradicated,” Martin says. “I think white Americans felt that after the voting rights act and the civil rights act and electing President Obama, we were done. But now you’ve got white Americans asking, ‘Wait, who are these Chaldeans?’”

Martin is optimistic, because he sees unifiers in the classroom, largely stemming from American pop culture. “Music has come a long way (in bringing people together),” he says. But again, there’s still work to be done with older generations.

“I don’t think metropolitan Detroit realizes it’s still grappling with our racial legacy and how that impacts the present and how that will help us to improve the future,” he says.

Which brings us back to the November incident at the Mobil gas station on Eight Mile. For years, Eight Mile divided blacks and whites. That line is blurry now. The new divide is clear.

During the standoff at the gas station, the owner, an Arab woman, apologized to the father of one of the boys harassed at the station.

“How old is your child?” she asks in
footage posted on YouTube.

“Eleven,” the black father responds.

“An 11-year-old? I have an 11-year-old. I would die for my child,” she says.

Two parents, face-to-face with each other raising children of the same age, and yet still so far away.


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