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Race and Visibility:

by M. Shahid Alam

When I crossed the border into United States in 1988, after living in Canada for two years, I had the curious feeling that my wife, my son and I, still brown-skinned and dark-haired, had somehow become invisible.

We walked the streets of Hamilton, a small university town in Central New York, or nearby Utica and Syracuse, each of them immaculately white, without attracting any unwanted attention. The motorists did not gawk at us while we waited at the curb for the walk signal. At restaurants, there were no heads turning in our direction. The cashiers and shoppers at stores did not greet our entry with a quizzical, perplexed look, following our very steps. Even our neighbors left us alone.

I was relieved at this loss of visibility. It was a signal change from my experience of living in Canada, both in the recent past and several years earlier, when I was attending graduate school in London, Ontario. The only time I felt comfortable stepping outside the campus was in the cold winter months, when bundled in jacket, hood, scarf and gloves, I became nearly indistinguishable from every one else. In summer, when I had to shed these sartorial covers, I ventured out only at night, under the cover of darkness. I had no wish to invite racial slurs from teenagers, whether sane or drunk, driving by in their convertibles, pickups and jeeps.

I enjoyed this invisibility even at my teaching job at Northeastern University. Yes, there was a little edginess when I first entered a class, a mild dismay, anticipating the strange accents and manners of ‘another Indian professor’. For the most part, I managed to lay these fears to rest, and week after week, my students would concentrate on what I had to say, undistracted by who said it. But this invisibility proved to be fragile.

When I began to depart from the scripted texts, drawing attention to the ideological intent of economics, its Eurocentric biases, and its disregard for facts, not a few of my students began to take a harder look at me. Over time, as I elaborated my critique, it made me more visible. My ethnicity and origins, my brown skin and dark hair, their density and opaqueness, began to obstruct the view. I became proof of the absurdity of my critique. I felt like the Negro carpenter whose comments on the uxorial problems of white clergy invited a sharp rebuke from the philosophic Kant. He declared, “this fellow was quite black from head to foot, a clear proof that he was stupid.”

Then, all of a sudden, September 11 introduced a new dynamic. The nineteen hijackers of Arab and Muslim background, their planes crashing into the twin towers, had unleashed a fury that would overthrow many governments, abridge many liberties, and rearrange many lives, here at home and abroad. This first massive attack on Americans on American soil had shaken America. And America shaken was America united-in grief, anger and indignation-against anyone connected to the perpetrators of this undeserved and ‘unprovoked’ act of violence. Almost instantly, I could sense from my little corner of the world, that this anger, volcanic and intense, would reorder the world in a hurry.

And so it did. Almost as soon as I walked into the Attleboro station to catch the 6:30 AM train, I noticed a change. One by one, the heads, the eyes, the glances turned to me, as they would towards a suspect, towards a face you recognize from a poster for the most wanted. The commuters, many of whom had taken this train with me for years, now felt uncomfortable at my presence. In their new-born sense of insecurity, they had sensed a connection between me and the hijackers. My Pakistani ethnicity was indistinguishable from the Arab background of the nineteen hijackers. A crust of visibility began to thicken around me. I was back in Canada.

The events since have revealed a rigorous working out of the logic im-manent in the attack of September 11. The world was quickly painted in two unmistakable colors, white and black-no shades of gray tolerated. George Bush had enunciated a new doctrine. ‘You are either with us or you are with the terrorists.’ Ergo, if you are not with us, you are black-and that makes for great visibility. This would be a global war, a Manichaean contest, between United States, symbolizing infinite justice and enduring freedom, and Osama, with his global terrorist network, commanding the evil hordes of Islamic totalitarianism.

Instantly, Pakistan was given “a second chance” to prove itself-and, without losing a moment, the military generals took up the challenge. The attack on Afghanistan was soon unfurled: the mightiest concentra-tion of military power in human history deployed against a war-ravaged, famine-stricken country. The smart bombs, the cluster bombs, the daisy-cutters, the bunker-busters began to descend on Afghanistan. And not a few fell on villages, hospitals, mosques, and Red Cross warehouses.

Two additional fronts were opened up. The Al-Qaida network would have to be starved of funds. Two lists were issued of political parties, financial institutions, charities and individuals suspected of links to Al-Qaida: their assets frozen. More ominously, America began a descent into a Hobbesian state: where the liberties of some Americans and all aliens are being quickly traded against the security of other Americans.

The attack of September 11 led to an instant boom in racial targeting directed against persons of Arab, Pakistani and other Islamic ethnicities. This has produced a growing number of arrests and detentions; but when their numbers crossed 1000, the count became a state secret, unavailable to the public. New laws and edicts were passed allowing the FBI to tap phones, to enter into homes without notice. Now aliens, both legal and illegal, could be held without trial for as long as a year. Any person suspected of terrorism could be tried in secrecy by military courts, and hanged without a unanimous jury.

I am thankful in these dangerous times to be on sabbatical-away from my students, who would be spared, at least for a while, all my talk about the toy economies that falsify reality, abstract from history, and elevate the interests of particular classes and particular nations (USA, among others) to the category of the Universal Good. My sabbatical had freed me at the right time from the unpleasant task of curtailing my own speech. Cloistered in my academic cell, I could become invisible.

I did, however, in the first weeks after September 11, put up a red, white and blue flag on my office door. The inspiration for this came from my wife when she began plastering the front door, windows, mailbox and her car with six-by-ten flags. When a colleague commended me for my patriotism, I answered that I was only exercising my right of free speech-or what was left of it. It was a comic gesture, attempting to regain the invisibility that I had lost in the aftermath of September 11. CP

Shahid Alam is a professor of economics at Northeastern University.

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