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Give Me That Old Time Racism


I can still remember in the 1950s when, in Rapid City, South Dakota, a black African diplomat tried to get served in a Rapid City restaurant.  He was asked to leave.  After the newspaper reported the story, the owner of the restaurant said if he had known the guy was a diplomat, he would have served him instead of throwing him out.

When we think back, it wasn’t that long ago that blacks were not allowed to sit in restaurants, but were, instead, asked to go around to the kitchen to get served out of the back door.  That was a time when blacks were not allowed to buy homes in white neighborhoods.  I spent part of my youth visiting my older sister and her family in West Virginia.  There, blacks were told they could only sit in the balcony of movie theaters, a place expressly reserved for them should they want to enjoy a film.  There were white only drinking fountains in public places, such as bus stations.  And, of course, we all remember who had to sit in the back of the bus.

I have not yet heard anyone on television making the comparison between how blacks were treated in the god awful days of segregation and how Muslims are being treated by some of our political leadership today.

I remember when the Cold War came to an end.  That was when the Zionist movement lost an enemy–the Soviet Union–and had to look around for another group to hate.  That’s when the demonization of Muslims–and Arabs–began.  The pro-Israeli propagandists, aided and abetted by the mainstream media, leaned heavily into the Arab and Muslim population, making them the villains.  It was easy then, as the Arabs, either in the Arab world or in the United States were not well organized, so they didn’t fight back.  That failure to resist has cost them, as has the actions of some–Al Qaeda for example–which made it easier to hate them.

Those of us who have read some history also know what happened to the Irish when they first came to America.  We also remember how Jews were assaulted, both in the press and in person, until the remainder of the country put a stop to it by making it unpopular to isolate a community so they could be demonized.

Now, it’s the turn of the Arabs and the Muslims to receive the same treatment that blacks, the Irish, and the Jews did before that treatment became unpopular.

How similar is the assault on the Muslims and Arabs when compared to what happened to other ethnic groups in our shady past.  Where the similarity ends is how the media is treating the entire “mosque” at ground zero.  The proposed building is neither a mosque, nor is it at ground zero.  It is a community center that, among other activities, includes a prayer room.  I know of no one who would build an eleven-story mosque, and I know of no mosque that would allow a swimming pool and recreation center to be built in it, or even above it.

So what we have here is a political football that leaves it open for the gaggle of demagogues and hustlers —  I’m thinking  specifically of Newt Gingrich, Rick Lazio and Sarah Palin — to try to reap some kind of political popularity from denouncing the project.

It used to be that both political leaders and the media would denounce this kind racism, and that such denunciations would soon bring such demagoguery to an end.  But not this time.  Most of the media, MSNBC being the major exception, has ducked its head, being content to just report on the onslaught against the Islamic Center, but not denouncing the demagoguery.

So far, this has resulted in someone setting fire to the construction of a real mosque in Tennessee.  This usually follows acts of violence against Arabs and Muslims in different parts of the country.  We’ve seen it before.

All this won’t stop unless and until all the political leaders–now silent–come down hard on what is happening, when the haters begin themselves to feel isolated.  Cheers to President Obama and to Mayor Bloomberg, who have tried to lead the way, but who lost Howard Dean and Harry Reid in the process.  The rest of the political leadership–both Republican and Democratic–predictably are in hiding.

JAMES ABOUREZK is a former U.S. Senator, who practices law in Sioux Falls. He is the author of Advise & Dissent: Memoirs of South Dakota and the US Senate. He can be reached at

James Abourezk is a former US senator from South Dakota. He is the author of: Advise and Dissent: Memoirs of an ex-Senator.

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