Erik Love, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Dickinson College, poses crucial questions about the future of race and activism in America in his first book, . This relatively short but dense monograph is a study of how advocacy organizations that serve Americans who fall under the Middle Eastern racial construct represent the interests and fight for their rights. Through extensive historical and sociological research, Love sets out to map the ecosystem of organizations claiming to speak for Middle Eastern Americans, and interrogates their use (or lack thereof) of race based language, organizing, and advocacy strategies.
Love begins his study by laying out the argument that Islamophobia is rooted in racism, specifically bigotry against an identifiable racial construct that Love terms “Middle Eastern American.” Middle Eastern American, according to Love’s definition, includes every group and individual that “looks Muslim,” and therefore has been or could be the target of Islamophobia, whether they are Muslim or not. In general terms, this includes Arab, Muslim, Sikh, and South Asian Americans.
As Love explains, though there is “no way to actually look Muslim,” the assumption made by Islamophobes that Muslims have identifiable racial features means that racism is ultimately at the core of Islamophobia. In other words, “the racial lens through which Americans see the world distorts and conceals the obvious truth that it is basically impossible to accurately determine someone’s religion based solely on their physical appearance.” While some may question the hypothesis that Islamophobia is a form of racism, once you begin examining the language of Islamophobes, the racialized language used to argue that Islam and Muslims are inherently dangerous becomes incredibly obvious.
Love dives into the history and advocacy strategies of six of the largest and most important organizations currently representing Americans within his defined Middle Eastern demographic: the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, the Arab American Institute, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the Muslim Public Affairs Council, South Asian Americans Leading Together, and the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund. In examining these organizations, Love asks: 1) “Strategically, does it benefit civil rights advocates to call out Islamophobia as racism?” and 2) “If one of the most pervasive and damaging forms of racism — Islamophobia — is not challenged as racism by advocates, what does that mean for civil rights in America?”
Love’s research reveals that, while these groups experimented with race-centric strategies in the 1970s and 1980s, after 9/11 all these organizations used a “colorblind” approach to deal with Islamophobia. They went out of their way to avoid connecting or characterizing Islamophobia as race-based discrimination, in line with the backlash against “identity politics” and positive race-conscious policies in the late 20th century. The persistence of this colorblind response is particularly notable, as both positive (monitoring of civil rights violations) and negative (profiling and surveillance) U.S. government interactions with these groups and their constituents depend upon racial constructs.
Though he suggests Middle Eastern American advocacy organizations would be more effective if they acknowledged Islamophobia’s racism, and campaigned as a united, anti-racist front, Love refuses to dismiss these groups’ post-racial strategy. Instead, he places responsibility for defeating Islamophobia and racism on the general American public. “Whatever shape this work takes, the tireless efforts of those advocates to improve civil rights should more than suffice, if Americans truly do want to live in a society that rejects racism,” he argues.
As dramatically proven by the last U.S. presidential election, there are a high number of Americans who either actively or passively support the continuation and strengthening of institutional racism. And, as Love points out, the predicted demographic shift around 2040, when non-white Americans will outnumber white Americans, does not guarantee that white Americans will no longer exercise disproportionate social and political power.
In his concluding remarks, Love articulates some harsh truths that must be recognized by any American that considers themselves liberal or progressive: progress and justice are not inevitable, and victims of racism and discrimination cannot overcome this structural phenomenon unless society as whole helps them dismantle it.