Racial Profiling and Citizenship

Beyond maintaining a system of distinctions, narratives of crime create stereotypes and prejudces, and they separate and reinforce inequalities. In addition, inasmuch as the categorical order articulated in the talk of crime is the dominant order of an extremely unequal society, it does not incorporate the experiences of domianted people n(such as the poor, nordestinos, and women); rather, it criminalizes and dicriminates against them…Finally, the talk of crime is also at odds with the values of equality, tolerance, and respect for others’ rights. The talk of crime is productive, but it helps produce segregation (social and spatial), abuses by the institutions of order, contestations of citizens’ rights, and especially, ciolence itself. If the talk of crime generates order, it is not a democratic, tolerant egalitarian order but its exact opposite.

Teresa Caldeira, City of Walls: Crime, Segregation, and Citizenship in Sao Paulo, page 39
This morning I had my suspicions confirmed about how the Palo Alto police force would respond to a recent string of robberies nearby campus. Yesterday, a brief article by SFgate,Palo Alto police told to question blacks, reported:

Chief Lynne Johnson spoke to residents about the crime surge Thursday at City Hall.

She says she issued the instructions because several suspects in the robberies are African American and police lack detailed descriptions.

Johnson says she does not want to create an environment of fear for “people of color.” But she says authorities have to do their “due diligence” in catching the suspects.

She says people who are stopped have the right not to talk to police.
Palo Alto’s police chief has instructed officers to question African Americans in the city following a spate of recent street robberies.

ABC local has another version of the story here:

She said because several of the suspects are African-American and the descriptions are vague, she’s instructed her officers to make contact with African-Americans in Palo Alto.

“When our officers are out there and they see an African-American, in a congenial way, we want them to find out who they are,” said Chief Johnson.

I began to think about the ways Palo Altons talk of crime and the implications this has for Black residents and Black students on Stanford’s campus. This is the reality that Black residents from East Palo Alto, before most of them have been pushed out do to economic pressures and gentrification, have had to experience when they crossed segregating Highway 101 to stroll the pristine streets of University Ave. With this increased scrutiny, Black people from nearby areas feel even less inclined to visit Palo Alto for social events or boutique shopping.

While Palo Alto is an largely white space, Stanford’s undergraduate Black community is representative of national figures where they number at about 12 percent. When these future leaders step off campus and go to restaurants or run an errand on University or California avenue, not only are the under increased because it is clear that they are outsiders in this ethnically homogenous area, by default they are considered suspects. No white student at Stanford is subject to this type of scrutiny or form of institutionalized racism. But on they must make sure that the private security knows that they belong to the campus community. They are not just from across the highway, from East Palo Alto, crashing some party, invading some dorm. Off campus and on campus, they are denied a sense of belonging.

Can’t you smell the stench of irony of this crap, especially in light of Nov 4th? If Barack Obama was walking down University Avenue, would the police approach him with questions trying to figure out if he belonged? Would they try to sort him out, unable to distinguish whether he was a the good type of Black as opposed to the criminal sort? Young Black men in suburbia have just as high arrest rates as in high crime areas. That is because no matter where they go, they are always being suspected as criminals. Growing up, I remember my mother going down to the police station screaming at the officers who hauled my brother in after pulling him over for loud music and tinted windows. He sat in jail as a person of interest. For all the times he was pulled over and hand cuffed as a person of interest just because he fit the description, of what? When crimes are committed by whites, not every white male is stopped, questioned, and charged with minor infractions just for just cause. America continues to incubate injustice and the exclusion of its citizens based on race. Few Black people have encounters with the state, except in their encounters with the police. And often these encounters are shaped by Racial profiling. This form of institutionalized racism that equates crime with race. It targets Blacks not for protection as law abiding citizens, but assumes they they need to be monitored and screened because they fit. This, in and of itself, is a violation of citizen rights. It violates the rights of those who are targeted for racial profiling to move freely in public spaces and treated equally by the state. When the very institution that is meant to preserve order and rule of law singles you out, how can you feel like this nation sees you as a true citizen even if they are electing someone who “fits the profile?”


The Stanford Black community responded swiftly. Kenneth Gibbs wrote the city council and mayor/city manager. They responded promptly with condemnations. Stanford African-American groups join chorus denouncing Palo Alto police chief

Immediately, community leaders — from the president of the NAACP, the mayors of Palo Alto and East Palo Alto, church leaders and legal advocates — condemned Johnson’s remarks, characterizing the police practice she described as racial profiling and suggesting Johnson should resign.
Monday night, City Manager James Keene told the city council that he had commissioned an auditor to review the department’s policy on racial profiling and that he had arranged to meet with city staff to hear their concerns.

Also Monday night, a coalition of black student groups asked city officials to review how the police department conducted its investigation into the robberies; to provide diversity training for all department employees; and develop an outreach program to improve race and community relations.
“I feel there needs to be an inquiry,” said Rodney Gateau, president of the Black Graduate Students Association, in an earlier interview with the Mercury News. “This needs to be scrutinized. This is more than a misstatement by a police official.”

This is an example of how students can make a difference. It still amazes me that Johnson said what she said so flippantly and matter of fact. I know I’m late on writing a letter. But I will write mine. We have to keep sending a message that we will not take injustice lying down. Good work!!

Random Thoughts on the Return

As I continue my extended procrastination session of checking email, I thought I’d put down some of my half developed thoughts about life back in America.

Theory and Praxis:
About ten years ago, I really struggled with the difference between Islam as an ideology and the ways Muslims lived it. I also began to doubt the ability of our generation to practice the spirit of this tradition. I never lost faith in the Message, but doubts about practice really wrecked havoc. The reality is that praxis and theory are intertwined, thoughts shape behavioral patterns and behaviors shape thought; belief influences practice and practice informs belief. I sat at a conference organized about a year and a half ago discussing African Muslim intellectuals and the archive. When Professor Butch Ware, now of University of Michigan, moved me as he talked about his research as a believer who practices his faith. Much in the same way, I admire and respect Sherman Jackson, and other scholars have are critically engaged with this tradition while at the same time embodying it. Initially, when I began my academic journey, I had hoped to build both worlds. By picking and choosing, operating within a framework that was not my own, I was loosing out. My strength as a young academic came from my own insights gained from my lived experiences as a Muslim and epistemological frameworks that were not entirely Western or Eastern. So, this leads to another one…

Fence Sitting
I’ve been gone for a year and a lot has changed since I’ve been away. A lot has changed in me and it reflects in the lifestyle changes I’ve made and my way of being in the world. What it really came down to was making a choice, to not be a fence sitter anymore. It was easy to be non-commital, but committing to something and failing was my worst fear. I kept trying to find a comfortable space without all the anxiety of being forced to grow. Over the years, I saw my potential for human development and fall ridiculously short as I regressed. I saw the same pattern in people I knew and cared about, and I saw the damage left in the wake. Before I left for Egypt, I wrote about my desire for inner grounding and personal transformation. I wrote with urgency to friends asking for prayers and well wishes as I knew this was make it break it time. And yes, sometimes we are broken only to be repaired and retrofitted to became a stronger edifice. My mentor told me that when we turn to or Lord for guidance on making decisions, it will be evident that the choice has been made when we have only one option to take. After about ten years of straddling both worlds, and one year in societies deeply infused with Islamic values and practices, during the final month before I left that world, I made my choice.

I received my ballot in the mail, and I cannot tell you how excited I am about being able to participate in this event. I am the first to admit that I’m not into politics too much. But I don’t buy that balderdash that some Muslims send out about it is haram to vote. Minus those fundamentalists (yes I will use the word), who cannot have something to say about this election? I was a skeptic at first, growing up the idea of a Black man in the White House was something we joked about. It was a dream, of course. I also thought maybe it was a set up, after two disastrous terms people would blame a Black man or a woman for not being able to clean up Bush’s mess. Regardless, l recognized this was a historic moment. I was abroad as the campaign picked up, and my perspective on the primaries and elections was filtered through Arab media and the majority of my interactions have been with Arabs and African Muslims living in Cairo. I realized that the entire world was electrified by Obama. Especially considering America’s dark history of slavery, Jim Crow, and institutional racism, Obama’s candidacy is truly phenomenal. He’s not Nelson Mandela, but Obama’s candidacy is nearly as symbolic. They see it, much in the way that I see it, Barack Obama’s candidacy symbolizes that America is truly a place where you can rise based on merit.So, it was strange coming back to the states and listening to our media. It was like the neocons lived under a rock somewhere, insulated from the rest of the world. I felt like I came home to a different country, but there still seems to be some sane people. Most of them are voting for Obama.

Blogistan: The Fate of Muslim Bloggers
Over the past year, Blogistan has lost some of its steam. But since I’ve been back, the entire map of blogistan has been redrawn as we lost so much territory. People are writing less, dissension has grown, ugly battles and physical threats have tarnished what could possibly develop into a republic of ideas, where scholars and lay people can discuss ideas democratically. I was saddened by the loss of several really amazing blogs, especially Sunni Sister and the numerous blogs that have gone to restrictive access. I know that commentors are not always civil, some get veiled death threats, and others bloggers are just socially ostracized. Before the whole string of shut downs and privatization, I thought about making a public call to all my sister bloggers. I still believe that blogging can change the future of writing. I think that it is one of the few ways that Muslim women can get their voices heard on the minbar. I hope that we can develop better standards to develop ideas and work towards positive change, or at least get us to think deeply about issues and reevaluate our institutions and traditions. What are some of the blogs that you miss?

Teaching Race and Islam

One of the best experiences in graduate school is teaching and this quarter I have the opportunity to teach my own historical sources and methods course on Race and Slavery in Muslim societies. Here are some snippets from my course:

Slavery, Race, and Society in the Middle East and Islamic Africa from the 7th century to the 20th century

Why are there still reports of slavery in some Muslim majority countries? How does slavery and race overlap in Muslim societies? During the rapid expansion of Islam from the Arabian Peninsula to Asia, Africa, and parts of Europe, Islamic concepts of universal brotherhood at times united disparate ethnic groups and various social classes. Yet, the Muslim world experienced one of history’s most substantial slave revolts and numerous ethnic conflicts. This course broaches a number of questions involving slavery and community identity in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa.

Students will have the opportunity to explore issues of slavery and ethnic-identity Muslim societies in the Middle East, as well as sub-Saharan Africa, through a close reading of primary sources. Students will analyze Islamic religious texts, epics, poetry, prose literature, Arab and European travel writings, slave narratives, polemics on slavery and race, inventory and manumission documents, colonial reports, and pictorial representations. As this is a comparative course covering a broad historical sweep, students will be required to compare and contrast periods and geographic regions. This course also allows students to examine the particularities of various Muslim societies keeping in mind universal Islamic principles. Throughout the quarter we will explore historiographical issues raised by studies of slavery and race in Middle Eastern and Muslim societies.

This is a thematic and comparative course examining several periods and locales. The course introduces Islamic principles of universal brotherhood and the Muslim community and examines how various Muslim societies dealt with social inequality, slavery, and ethnic boundaries. The chronological range stretches from the classical period of Islam (from the rise of Islam in the 7th century to the 10th century), African slavery including trans-Saharan slave trade until 1800 and Indian Ocean slave trade, trans-Atlantic slave trade, and the abolition of slavery in the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan during the early 20th century. The quarter concludes with an examination of slavery in the Muslim societies in 20th century.

 In the course, we examine various types of sources to try to explore themes of race and slavery over time and through space. One of the challenges is that you will find that there is no clear coherent narrative of slavery. The issues play out different depending on the society and historical circumstances. This is why I picked the following thematic approach:

Week 1. Islamic Traditions on Slavery and Race

9/22 Introduction to the Course

9/24 Islamic Traditions on Race and Slavery

Race: Quran Chapter 49 verse 13 3 translations; Prophet Muhammad’s Last sermon

Slaves: Primary: The Qur’an and Hadith on slaves in Hunwick 2-7

Week 2. Transformation in Slavery from Pre-Islamic Arabia to the Early Muslim community

9/29 Pre-Islamic  Traditions ‘Antar: From Slave To Knight (late 6th century)

10/1 The Caller: Islamic views on slavery and  Bilal ibn Rabah (7th century)

Week 3 Islamic Dynasties and Slavery

10/6 Berbers and the Islamic Conquest of North Africa (7th and 10 century)

10/8 The Abbasids: The Zanj  (10th century Iraq)


Week 4. Muslim Civilization and Cultural Encounters

10/13 The Shuubiya: High culture and  Controversy between Arabs and Persians (10th and 11th century Iraq and Persia)

10/15 Discovery of Europe (10th century Iraq)


Week 5 Medieval Arab views of Africa

10/20 Blacks in Arabic Literature

10/22 Sociology and Travel literature: Ibn Battuta and Ibn Khaldun


Week 6 Concubines and Royal Soldiers until the Early Modern Period

10/27 Mamlukes and Ottomans

10/29 Inside the Harem: Concubines and Eunuchs


Week 7. The African Slave Trade

11/3 Trans-Saharan Slave Trade

11/5 Indian Ocean Slave Trade


Outside Film Viewing : Prince Among Slaves, Preliminary Dates Week 11/5 or 11/6


Week 8 African Slave Narratives

11/10 Slavery in Africa

11/12 African Muslims in the Americas


Week 9 Islamic Slavery and the West

11/17 Barbary Pirates and White Slaves

11/19 Islamic Slavery and the European Lens


Week 10 Slavery in the 20th Century

Readings on Slavery Sudan and Mauritania


I have the privilege of a small class with a group of sharp and motivated students. My class is multi-cultural with students from various backgrounds and majors. As the texts get richer, they are contributing critical insight into the texts themselves. So far, we have examined the Qur’an, the hadith, the Prophet’s Last Sermon, one of the seven hanging verses written by ‘Antara, early biographical literature, al-Tabari’s account of the Zanj Salve revolt (one that he lived through), Ghazali’s text on the rights of slaves, al-Jahiz’s humorous essay on the “Glory of the Blacks,” and this quarter we have still more to come. Some of what we find in the text is jarring, at times it confirms our assumptions.

By the end of this course, I hope to write a scholarly article on teaching race and Islam. There are many challenges and problems in teaching slavery and race. There is no clear historical narrative linking all the case studies we are exploring. But what we do have in each case is the acceptance of slavery and inequality as a given. The course is not polemical, we often refrain from making judgments, at the same time we try to not overly historicize and overlook the brutality of human bondage. But by looking at the ways we can reconstruct the voices of the enslaved, understand how Muslim elites and literati thought about slavery and race, and explore the debates and contestations that centered around servitude and community identity, we can better understand these societies. Looking at slavery does not tell us everything about a particular society, but it provides an important view into the ways in which people saw themselves, the ways they asserted their power over their lives and/or over others, and the relationship that individuals had with power. Through this type of critical engagement my students will be better equipped to dialog about race and inequality both in Muslim majority societies and within Muslim minority communities in the West.

Charles Catchings lent his support by providing a rare edition of the al-Jahiz text. We spoke of doing some collaborative work to make the text more available, as well as many of the insights we’ve explored this quarter. I encourage you to be on the lookout for this upcoming project. In the meantime, I am working on a short reading list of primary and secondary sources for those who are interested. Please email me if you are interested, I’d love to hear your thoughts on these texts also.