by Mikel Kwaku Osei Holt
First Lady Michelle Obama is scheduled to visit Milwaukee Thursday to converse with members of the Sikh Community who are recovering from the devastating terrorist attack on their temple several weeks ago.
I’m sure the First Lady will convey the thoughts and prayers of the president and most Americans who are grieved and horrified by the incident that left six people dead at the hands of a known bigot who held membership in several White supremacist organizations intent on destroying all people of color.
I assume Mrs. Obama’s conversation will be restricted to those barometers, although I can’t help but wonder how the First Lady would respond if one of the Sikh’s talks about the other elephant in the room—how many of their members who do businesses in community’s of color across the country often find themselves in terse situations with other minorities, more specifically us— African Americans.
Indeed, I recall reading an article several years ago that assessed that Sikhs, Arabs and other ‘minority’ entrepreneurs doing business in central cities were at a greater risk of violence than they would be in the war torn countries many of them come from.
Whether that’s true or not, some suggest it was a telling revelation that one of the Sikhs who survived the terrorist attack at their Oak Creek Temple, was murdered a week later by a 16-year-old Black manchild as the Sikh merchant left his grocery store on 38th and Locust Streets. And he was not the first ‘colored’ entrepreneur to fall victim to violence in an American central city. Far from it.
While the FBI reports over 800 investigations of hate crimes against Sikhs, Arabs and other ‘Mid-Eastern-looking’ individuals since 911, there probably is a similar figure available for those ethnic group members for whom ‘hate’ wasn’t identified as the primary motive in the crimes against them.
While most of us won’t admit it, operating grocery, convenience stores and gas stations in the central cities, (businesses dominated by Mid-easterners in American central cities) is dangerous, maybe even nonsensical career choices. Some of us ‘apologists’ will probably say working among poor people carries certain risks, so it’s not about color, or ethnicity.
But the reality is this particular phenomenon is also unique because we’re talking about people of color relationships—or lack thereof—with other people of color. We’re talking about one persecuted ‘minority’ group often at odds against another, a scenario that in other countries would bring about a mutually beneficial cultural bond. Instead, here in American central cities, you can often cut the animosity and distrust with a knife.
(Give me the benefit of the doubt here. I’m hopeful of not painting with too broad a brush, although some generalities are appropriate in this case.
Many Black Milwaukeeans get along fine with Mid-eastern merchants. Conversely, many Sikh, Arab and Asian merchants would say they enjoy working in our community. But that’s not true in a large number of cases, on both sides of the fence.
Without sounding condescending, I have special friendships with several ‘colored’ central city merchants, from whom I’ve learned a great deal. In many respects I admire and envy them for their strong cultural paradigms and equally solid religious foundations. But the reality is, whether Black leadership or laymen want to admit it, many if not most Black Americans have mixed feelings about Mid-easterners, and in some cases there is open animosity, distrust and hostility toward them.
Similarly, I can’t help but assume it’s that way on the other side of the fence. And both sides can easily justify their feelings.
Be honest. How often have you heard a brother or sister complain or question why a Mid-Easterner or Asian person set up shop in the central city? Or heard comments that they ‘couldn’t speak English (which is a tad bit hypocritical given that many Black folks speak Ebonics themselves).
And we must throw in this complex paradigm the underlying reason why Sikhs, Arabs, Koreans and other ‘Colored’ groups set up shop in central cities, versus the suburbs or predominately White communities. Many Black folks, including some leaders and clergy, have openly wondered aloud whether White communities would ‘allow’ other minorities to establish businesses in their communities. You don’t have to be a psychiatrist or psychologist to assume under-girding that question is a sense of animosity that transcends the hypothetical nature of the question.
Being with the Community Journal for over three decades, I’ve seen the transition, including several small stores located within a stone’s throw of this newspaper’s offices on King Drive that have gone from Black owned, to Mid-eastern. During those years, I have heard dozens of stories and allegations about disrespect, poor communications and exploitation (over- charging for goods). It was in a Mid-eastern-owned store that I was repulsed by a drug paraphernalia display that was situated right next to a sign announcing school supplies. That dichotomous sight prompted me to write an editorial that led to two Black aldermen shepherding an ordinance that outlawed the sale of those products.
If history serves me correct, I can recall about a half dozen cries for boycotts, and at least two actual demonstrations outside of ‘Colored’ businesses, prompted by allegations of mistreatment. The Beauty Island (also derisively called “Booty Island”) incident continues to linger in my mind, not only because it was sparked by allegations of mistreatment of a Black customer at the Korean-owned store, but because many Black women refused to honor the demonstration, and crossed the picket line because they thought the Korean weaves made them look better.
Though we never investigated beyond the superficial, this paper has received dozens of complaints about Mid-eastern run stores in which Black folks claim they were sold tainted meats, or ‘forced’ to pay jacked-up prices. Of course, nobody is forced to shop at those stores, but many poor Black folks don’t have transportation or the ability to travel to larger groceries elsewhere.
But that’s just one side of the story.
If we are to reassess our relations with Mid-easterners, and bridge the cultural gap between our races, as I’m suggesting in this column, we need an honest dialogue to not only clear the air, but also to tear down the walls of misunderstanding that separate us.
To get to that point, we need to look at both sides of the coin. And from their side, it’s probably an equally disturbing point of view.
Operating a grocery store in the central city is not for the faint of heart, or those without patience and degrees in behavior psychology. There have been dozens of reported incidents where customers—i.e. Black folks—have berated, cussed out or otherwise verbally attacked ‘colored’ merchants.
Shoplifting is a constant reality. Robbery a daily possibility. There’s a reason—right or wrong—why many, if not most central city grocers, liquor stores and gas stations– have bulletproof glass separating customers from Mid-eastern merchants. A growing number have security cameras. And it shouldn’t come as a surprise why most central city gas stations post signs that declare ‘pay first’ before you can utilize the pump.
Many Black leaders over the years have decried the presence of Mid-easterners in the Black community. Some say they are stealing ‘our’ businesses and taking away ‘our’ jobs. But I’m sure the merchants’ perspective is quite different. Some can honestly say they are providing a much needed service, that they provide credit when nobody else will. That they have extended the hand of friendship and often it has been bitten.
I assume the truth is somewhere in between.
Before you make a judgment on who’s right or wrong, consider the following questions:
Ask yourself why we don’t bond with fellow people of color? And why they apparently don’t bond with us, or participate in ventures and programs intended to give back to the community they serve?
Then ask yourself what stereotypes they must have of us as they venture back to their respective communities after dealing with ‘some of us’ all day? Also ask yourself why they have a community to go ‘back to?’ And before you come to the obvious conclusion, think what our community would look like if we followed their example– economic and entrepreneurial cooperation; reinvestment in their communities, strong cultural tenets; personal responsibility and strong nuclear families.
The reality is that there are more commonalities than there are distinctions between us. We can start with the well-known reality that White Supremacists and other bigots are targeting us with equal intent. And behind that curtain are cultural similarities and world histories that cannot be denied. And, of course, there are economic incentives, starting with a reinvestment in the communities we mutually need to sustain.
I’m not suggesting that a one-session conversation will heal all wounds, or that we all can sing a freedom song and immediately holds hands in universal brotherhood. In fact, I don’t think it will be easy at all. It will take time, and true commitment from both sides. But the rewards are potentially great, and it’s not as much as a Herculean task as some may think.
A couple of months ago I was invited to speak at the Ahmadiyya Community’s annual convention at the Franklin sports complex. I have long standing ties with many members of that Muslim community, including the fact that one prominent member–Muhammad Sabir—is a lifelong friend who was the best man at my wedding. I’ve trained under Sabir for nearly 30 years, and our sons grew up together. The fact that both of us lost our eldest sons to car accidents commits us to a special fraternity.
In any event, I explained during my speech that there are areas of disagreement between African Americans and Ahmadis—religious, cultural and even dietary. But there are an equal number of areas that bond us: We are both believers in the one Supreme God; we are people of color, we share the same hopes and dreams. And, I said, pointing to a confederate flag that was hanging on the wall across the room, we are both victims of stereotypes, prejudices and hate.
Following my presentation, we embraced and again cemented our relationship; adding stones to a relationship that is growing stronger each day.
Two weeks ago, after discovering that many Sikhs in town to attend services for the victims of the terrorist attack at their temple were staying at the Radisson Hotel in Menomonee Falls where, coincidently, we hold religious services for the House of Grace, we invited several to attend our services. At the services, we engaged in a short, but mutually appreciative conversation outside the hotel. They were genuinely moved when co-pastor Clarence Thomas extended our condolences and declared we are brothers under the one God and should start building on that fact.
Rev. Thomas was right. Whether from a cultural, or religious perspective, we should begin a dialogue that will lead to better relations with our ‘Hue-man’ cousins. We should clear the air, purify it and then exhale together.
I seriously doubt if establishing a rainbow coalition is on Michele Obama’s agenda. But whether it is or not, we should take advantage of this unique time in history and circumstance to extend the hand of friendship to the Sikhs, Muslims, Koreans and whomever else has a vested interest in our community and who are colored by the sun and the Son for a specific reason that we’re too blind, prejudiced or jealous to see.