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We Can All Just Get Along

A major hate-crimes backlash against Muslims and Arab Americans failed to materialize despite ominous warnings.

May 08, 2003|Richard J. Riordan and David A. Lehrer | Former Mayor Richard J. Riordan is the chairman and David A. Lehrer is the president of Community Advocates, a newly formed human relations agency based in Los Angeles.

Before the war, we heard many ominous warnings about the "backlash" of hate crimes against Arab Americans and Muslims that was surely on its way.

The FBI warned with great certainty that the war would lead to retaliation against Muslims and people of Middle Eastern descent. The Muslim Public Affairs Council warned that we should brace ourselves for hate crimes not only against Muslims but also against people who simply looked like Muslims. "Hatemongers confuse the Sikh community, Hispanic community and other people of color," the council said somberly.

Even today -- with the war over and American soldiers on their way home -- we're still hearing about that awful backlash of hate.

On Friday, Assemblywoman Judy Chu, chairwoman of the Select Committee on Hate Crimes, held hearings "raising awareness about the hate-crime backlash on California residents as a result of the recent war."

On Monday, Mayor James Hahn announced an "anti-hate-crime campaign" with seven citywide hearings because "hate crimes and the use of hate language have increased over the past few months."

But wait a minute. Has there really been a big upsurge in hate crimes? Have you read about many? Heard about them? Most likely you haven't, and that's because, by and large, the big backlash never occurred. There may have been isolated incidents, but those voices predicting that Americans would take out their fears and anxieties on other Americans as vigilantes and bigots got it all wrong.

In reality, the Arab American community has not been vilified. Recently, the U.S. attorney general reported opening 36 cases of "backlash discrimination or hate crimes" in the entire U.S. (a nation with about 190 million adults) after conducting nearly 10,000 interviews with U.S.-based Iraqis.

In Los Angeles County, the district attorney's office reports only five backlash incidents, of which four are charged as misdemeanors. We should have learned about our nation after 9/11. A study by the New Jersey Law Journal found only 488 complaints of discrimination filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in the U.S. in the eight months that followed. Generally, 60% of such filings are found to have "no reasonable cause."

The fact is Americans have absorbed the messages of tolerance, inclusion and nondiscrimination that have been directed at them over last few decades, since the civil rights struggle began.

Today, bigots are rarely elected to public office. Appeals to ethnic or racial solidarity have fallen on hard times (witness the resounding recall defeat of Nativo Lopez in a recent Santa Ana school board election and the near universal vilification of the ethnically based attacks on Antonio Villaraigosa in Los Angeles).

We do not take our fear and anger out on the Arab American grocer on the corner, the Pakistani cabdriver who picks us up at the airport or the Islamic mosque we pass on the way to work. Our more-than-justified anger against the Iraqi regime, its allies and apologists has not been passed on to others who worship or look like them.

One hate crime is one too many. But given the scale of both the war and 9/11, we haven't done so badly for a nation of our size, diversity and manifest capacity for inflicting violence on ourselves. It's time to recognize the changes that have transformed the United States for the better in this realm.

There are real issues to be concerned about in this difficult and terror-ridden world, problems like job loss, poverty, the growth in the number of undereducated adults and disparities in income. The nation's continuing commitment to tolerance does not seem to be one of them.

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