Leah Vernon, who runs a popular Instagram account that celebrates being “fat, black and Muslim”, never formally studied Arabic but, growing up in Detroit, she learned the word abeed: the Arabic plural for slave, a derogatory term used to describe African Americans. Sometimes she heard the word while she and her mother were in attendance at predominantly Arab mosques in Detroit’s neighboring city of Dearborn. Other times, she heard it at “party stores”, small corner shops that dot Detroit and are almost always staffed by Arab cashiers, who often sit behind inches of bulletproof glass.
“Honestly, I heard it my whole life,” Vernon said. “I was called abeed so many times I never thought anything of it until a Somali friend, who speaks Arabic, explained to me, ‘No, they are calling us slaves.’ I have even heard it from 11-year-old kids.”
In some ways, talking about race in America has become easier. It wasn’t that long ago, in the late 1990s, when I was a graduate student in public policy at UCLA, that a professor asked me to disband a study group I co-founded for students of color because it was “divisive”. Twenty years later, I am back again in graduate school, this time for creative writing at the University of Michigan, and I am floored at the extent to which campus officials now encourage students of color to assemble, sometimes picking up the tab when they do so. But while there is, at last, a greater space in which to discuss institutionalized racism, too often conversations about race are limited to a white/non-white binary. As a result, prejudices within communities of color, and in particular the problem of anti-blackness within immigrant communities, routinely goes unchecked. The subject of these tensions comes up whenever I report from Detroit, especially once I turn off my recorder.
Part of the reason is demographics. Detroit, where 79% of 670,000 residents are African American, is the blackest city in America. Next door, Dearborn is home to the highest concentration of Arabs in America; 30% of 95,000 residents are of Arab descent (unofficial numbers are much higher). Detroit is also the third most segregated city in America, and has one of the worst transit systems in the country. According to Nasser Beydoun, a gas station owner and the chairman of the Arab American Civil Rights League, this means that “interactions between Arabs and African Americans are usually only transactional and rarely social, which often leads to flash points.”
At November’s Arab American book awards, Safia Elhillo, the first-ever Sudanese American poetry winner, spoke openly about the conflict and its impact on her person. “There has always been a tension for me around the fact that I find community with other Arabophone people while always being made aware of the relative blackness of my body in those spaces,” she said in her acceptance speech. “So many atrocities have been committed in the pursuit of Arab identity and the erasure of identities that do not fit within it, namely to try and discard Africanness and blackness with a lot of trauma as the cost.”
Complicating the issue, of course, is that “Arab” and “African American” are not neat categories. Chaldeans, who are Christians from Iraq and own many of the party stores in Detroit, speak Arabic, but, given that they’ve increasingly been targeted by Muslim extremists in the Middle East, no longer tend to identify as Arabs (and some are now fervent Trump supporters). Yemenis, who have historically identified as people of color and traditionally lived in black neighborhoods in Detroit, are often shunned by other Arabs for being darker-skinned. Lebanese and Syrian residents, regardless of whether they are Muslim or Christian, might define themselves as white, and some members of the Sudanese community identify as both black and Arab. In short, contrary to popular belief, there is no Arab monolith in this corner of Michigan.
Meanwhile, on US Census forms and many college applications, Arabs are still directed to classify themselves as white, despite decades of activism by Arab Americans demanding a separate category for individuals from the Middle East and North Africa. Reality doesn’t match those documents. It is fear, Beydoun told me, that animates daily life for many Arab Americans; even opening up a bank account, or booking airline travel, can be a humiliating experience, he said. Beydoun himself was on a no-fly list, which crippled his ability to do business until he successfully sued the US government to remove himself from it. And this fear can lead to animus.
In 2013, Dawud Walid, the executive director of the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, launched a campaign to ban the term abeed called “Drop the A-Word.” Walid believes that hostilities stem, in part, from a failure of immigrant communities to understand what African Americans faced, and continue to face, in Detroit, particularly in regards to housing discrimination. He also said that the problem has “less to do with religion or race than it has to do with class” and that “abeed is pretty much the one Arabic word that all black people in Detroit know”.
The government and police have only contributed to strained relations; Orville Hubbard, the mayor of Dearborn from 1942 to 1978, was an open segregationist whose motto was “Keep Dearborn clean”. Sally Howell, the director of the Center for Arab American Studies, told me that earlier generations of Arabs who came to Dearborn – beginning in the late 1800s, to work in the auto industry – often saw themselves as white, blue-collar workers, and “sometimes adapted the prejudices toward African Americans that some white, blue-collar workers have”. But, Howell added, “the new awareness of the severity of white nationalism has made everyone feel like they are coming up short. I see alliances forming, in response to Trump, and I do feel a bit of optimism”.
I heard it again and again: that Trump’s presidency is bringing people together who were once at odds and provoking increased and more nuanced reflection. Detroit native Reverend Horace Sheffield called for a boycott of Arab businesses in the city in early 2001, after an African American man, Kalvin Porter, was beaten to death by two Yemeni immigrants at a gas station; they were acquitted in 2000 by a jury with only one African American on it. Now, he said, “I have come to realize that the real issue is that we need more black ownership. It’s not about being anti-Arab. It’s about being pro-us. As black people, we have some unhelpful attitudes as well toward Arabs, like this notion many black people have that Arabs get free money from the government to start their businesses or this idea that Arabs are the only business owners in Detroit who don’t live in Detroit.”
Beydoun, of the Arab American Civil Rights League, is of the same mind. “African Americans have to benefit economically. We can’t, as Arabs, say, ‘Let’s sit down and talk,’ and yet not hire African Americans in our businesses. What I would really love to see is Arabs and African Americans opening businesses together,” he said.
One such business already exists: The Bottom Line coffee shop in Detroit is owned by Noura Ballout, a Lebanese American, and two African Americans, Al and Pat Harris. One of the ways they have encouraged community building is by holding an open mic every Friday night. On the evening I attended, an African American poet spoke about gentrification in Detroit and how he is often made to feel unwelcome in his hometown: “Walk into a gas station/And an Arab or Chaldean man says to me/You are all animals.”
News broke, as the event was ending, that former president George HW Bush had died. Several Iraqi Americans in the room fought back tears as they shared stories of how their parents were displaced and forced into refugee camps during the war Bush led against Iraq. Later, another black writer spoke about about how people of color disproportionately serve in the US military.
The Bottom Line’s slogan is “A lot can happen over a cup of coffee in Detroit”. There’s truth to it, I think. That night, there seemed to be, between attendants, a shared understanding: that their problem is not so much with each other as it is with the US government and its record on race and foreign policy. When the café closed, we stood in the street, swapped contact information, made plans to see each other again. Then we drove off to our own – segregated – Michigan neighborhoods.
Zahir Janmohamed has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, Foreign Policy and other publications. He previously worked as a senior foreign policy aide in the US Congress and as the advocacy director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International. He is now an MFA student in fiction at the University of Michigan.