If you live under a rock, maybe you missed the Zimmerman verdict: absolution from even a manslaughter charge for killing Trayvon Martin. With this case, Zimmerman has joined the club of many publicly condemned individuals that juries have held innocent. President Obama stated after the verdict: “We are a nation of laws and a jury has spoken.” Words such as these make the average American feel proud to be living in a great country where democracy and the justice system is entrenched in our values. Don’t they?
Unless of course, you happen to be African American, or Muslim. The racial inequality that thrives in the United States today is prevalent not only in the black community but also other minority groups. Perhaps more than any other minority, American Muslims identify with the travesty of a trail that just ended. Trayvon Martin was black, but could easily have been Muslim. Exchange the hoodie for a hijab or a beard, and the parallels in stereotyping become quickly obvious. Before shooting Martin, Zimmerman told dispatchers that he looked “suspicious.” The same things happens to American Muslims on a daily basis, whether they are randomly selected for additional screening at airports or followed around by a security guard at a shopping mall, or their neighbors leave them strictly alone. In the words of a PolicyMic writer last year about the case:
This is the heart of the race problem in our country. We all suffer from this conditioning. Negative racial perception is so deeply entrenched and institutionalized that it consumes us. Some recognize and actively resist these perceptions. Others are privileged to never recognize that it exists. Unawareness is as problematic as both overt and covert racist action.
There is no doubt that discrimination against both African Americans and Muslims is alive and well in the United States today, for a variety of reasons. The Pew Forum reported that nearly six-in-ten adults (58%) say that Muslims are subject to a lot of discrimination, far more than the number who says so about Jews, evangelical Christians, atheists or Mormons. 49% say that African Americans face a lot of discrimination. Both segments of society face injustice in the American legal system, from the disproportionate number of African Americans in the prison system to Muslim prisoners held in Gitmo without being formally charged; from New York City’s stop and frisk program targeting African Americans, to the same city’s secret surveillance of Muslims.
The list of similarities goes on, yet there are differences as well. Writer Dennis Earl recently created a laundry list of ways that Muslims in America have it even worse than the African American community:
Think about it. Would American citizens be nearly as outraged about his death if (he) was wearing a turban or any other traditional Muslim head covering instead of a hoodie? Would they be wearing turbans in solidarity? Would they still be protesting in the streets demanding George Zimmerman’s arrest for weeks after the tragedy? Would they go out of their way to publicly support his grieving family? Would they demand changes to unfair law enforcement policies and criminal laws discriminatory to people like him? And, as far as the news media is concerned, does anyone believe CNN would have devoted so much wall-to-wall coverage if Trayvon’s name was Muhammed?
As an American Muslim, though, I feel much more hopeful. Race relations are better in many ways among religious groups than before. Pew Forum reports that although discrimination exists, familiarity in this case certainly does not breed contempt. Americans with the highest levels of familiarity with Islam express the most favorable views of Muslims. Nearly six-in-ten of those most familiar with Islam express favorable views of Muslims, compared with less than four-in-ten among those with less familiarity. And while, as Dennis Earl points out, the American public often doesn’t do much to stand up for the rights of their Muslim fellow citizens, the American Muslim community seems determined to change its own future for the better. Many Muslim groups are standing up without any media recognition for the rights of people like Trayvon Martin. For instance the Muslim Public Affairs Council has officially joined the NAACP request for a civil inquiry of the case, while the Council of American-Islamic Relations has welcomed the step as well. Perhaps if all Americans join together we can achieve Martin Luther King’s dream of justice and equality for everyone.
Saadia Faruqi is an interfaith activist, editor of Interfaith Houston and trainer of American Muslim issues. Follow her on Twitter @saadiafaruqi.