Arab Americans and African Americans Deserve Positive Media
By: Adriana Murray/Contributing Writer
For decades, African Americans have been perceived as dangerous and threatening. Empirical research shows that the majority of Americans view black males, in particular, as more threatening than their white counterparts. Media plays a significant role in how this racial bias was formed.
The popular Civil War epic, Birth of a Nation used negative images of African American males as propaganda to create fear and hate. Throughout the film, African American males were portrayed as sexually aggressive and violent, which ultimately led everyone to believe they were a threat to society. After the film was released, many people had a difficult time believing that the film was purely fiction. This film – along with many others that continued to portray males as gangsters and violent criminals – created both fear and distrust of African American males. As a result, African American males became the target of ridicule, fear, and even violence for decades.
The negative image of African American males is still apparent in today’s media. Similar to their struggle, Arab males are also perceived as dangerous or threatening. In films, the Arab male is often illustrated in two dominant roles: the terrorist or the evil oil sheikh.
Other media sources, such as the news, often show images of African American males as criminals and Arab males as terrorists or terrorist suspects. The lack of positive imagery contributes to the hate crimes felt by these two minority groups. Despite the fact that people of all backgrounds commit crimes and threaten the safety of others, these two groups are the only ones facing biases from a neurological level.
Recent studies indicate that there has been a significant increase in hate crimes against Arab Americans. In a study conducted by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, there were 260 cases reported in 2015. This is the second largest number of hate cases reported, the largest being the months following 9/11 in which there were 481.
Similar spikes in hate crimes against Arab Americans have been recorded in the FBI’S Uniform Crime statistics; annual hate crimes against the Arab community have consistently remained in the 100-150 range, roughly five times higher than the pre-9/11 rate.
Bobby Azarian, a neuroscientist, reported that biases in the media towards certain groups like African American and Arab males can cause people to gravitate towards people who share similar ideas. The commonality of hate and fear has galvanized support for Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.
The recent surge in violence towards the Arab community seems to be connected to the rhetoric surrounding the upcoming election about Arab refugees, Muslim immigrants, terrorism in the Arab world, and the roles of countries like Saudi Arabia in presidential campaigns. Trump has been at the forefront of using the media to depict Arab males as dangerous and something to be feared, particularly when he said most Syrian refugees are young, scary men. Trump has also made inflammatory comments such as “ Islam hates us” and “hundreds of New Jersey’s Arab population cheered on 9/11” to support his policies on immigration. He did so to elicit support for policies on immigration.
Since Trump’s comments are attention grabbing, news media have played them repeatedly without regard for honesty. These repeated images perpetuate irrational fear of Arabs by Trump supporters.
Negative media portrayals and discourse of Arab males translate into negative effects on everyday life. Racial microaggressions become an expected part of daily life, where hostile environments and racial slurs are normal. The racial micro-aggressions occur so frequently that others begin to uphold the fabricated image that Arab males are dangerous. In the case of Ahmed Mohamed, a high school student that created a clock to impress his teacher, experienced a reaction different from the praise he thought he was going to receive. The teacher’s implicit bias led her to believe that her Arab American student brought in a homemade bomb. The police also allowed their bias to overcloud the facts, stating that “we attempted to question the juvenile about what it was and he would simply only tell us that it was a clock.” implying that Mohammed was trying to hide the fact that it was bomb.
Similarly, Mohammed Khairulddin Makhzoomi was also perceived as dangerous, and ultimately a terrorist. Makhzoomi was removed from his Southwest flight after speaking in Arabic over the phone call, while other passengers were boarding the flight. Investigators took him in for questioning based on a preconceived idea that Arabic linked him to terrorism. The authorities stated, “You need to be very honest with us with what you said about the martyrs” with no evidence – only assumptions – that Makhzoomi had knowledge of “martyrs”.
It is assumptions and micro-aggressions similar to these cases that make it difficult for Arabs to be accepted and acknowledged as citizens that deserve the same respect and treatment as their white counterparts.
Although implicit racial biases have become so evident in everyday life, there are ways to combat the negative effects and further growth. In order to decrease the effects of negative images about Arab Americans, as well as African Americans, it is imperative that media outlets incorporate positive stories. Azarian argues that America cannot and should not ask the news media to stop reporting on terrorism, but to make a conscious effort to include positive stories about Arabs and African Americans, of which there are many.