Rhetoric of racism, from Ferguson to Palestine

The black and Palestinian experiences of marginalisation and exclusion have many parallels.

Michael Brown was shot and killed by police in the US town of Ferguson on August 9 [AP]

During the recent unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, I was struck by the similarities in media narratives of the black and Palestinian experiences. There is nothing new about the nature of these stories, but perhaps the parallels seem more striking given that the fatal shooting in Ferguson and the recent devastation of Gaza happened concurrently. And, no doubt, social media has played a role in opening space for mutual solidarity in ongoing struggles against violence and oppression, which brings people closer and weaves their stories together.

When news about Michael Brown made headlines, he was introduced as a “black teenager“: no name or photo was needed as young black men are better left invisible to society. When a photo of Brown did appear, it depicted him in the framework of the usual stereotypes: an image of the “thug”, who probably deserved what happened to him. Then, as if to justify his killing, a video was released by the Ferguson police department purportedly showing Brown shoplifting from a convenience store.

There is little room for empathy for young black men in the American psyche. They have been repeatedly dehumanised and their stories conveniently deleted from mainstream media, thus allowing an “othering” process that denies them a voice in the public space. This kind of media coverage perpetuates implicit biases and feeds into a fear that allows a brutal system of incarceration and criminalisation to plague our society today.

The Palestinian narrative unfortunately faces a similar challenge of invisibility and othering in the US. Whether it’s in the media, academia, or government, the Palestinian cause is consistently excluded. Sympathy for Palestine is equivalent to political suicide. The systematic censorship of any Palestinian perspective or story that humanises Palestinians renders them invisible to the public. Palestinians are often described as “terrorists” – the Palestinian equivalent of “thug”, bearing its own set of racist stereotypes. Like young black men, Palestinians are muted out of the media, and the behemoth pro-Israel PR campaign guarantees that this status quo is preserved.

In the most recent Israeli offensive on Gaza, Hamas was portrayed as the archenemy in a black-and-white image of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Then the entire Palestinian population was reduced to Hamas, as if no Palestinian exists beyond this political entity. Moreover, many headlines would focus only on Hamas rockets, thus making it seem as though Israel was actually fighting against a viable military power. This storyline assumes a false symmetry in power structure: Hamas is a political party that has been under siege, along with the entirety of the Gaza Strip, for the last seven years and under Israeli military occupation since 1967.

Headlines from such news outlets as The New York Timesrepeatedly positioned Israeli concerns first and foremost, ignoring the mounting Palestinian death toll. The disproportionality of the violence left over 2000 Palestinians dead, the majority of whom were civilians, and 70 Israelis, 64 of whom were soldiers. All of these Palestinians who were killed have names and stories, yet the US media overwhelmingly sympathised with the Israeli claim to victimhood. This narrative obfuscates the facts on the ground and absolves the perpetrator, the Israeli state, of any responsibility for its war crimes.

The historical ‘other’

These processes of othering have clear historical roots. Both the US and Israel were founded after brutal ethnic cleansing campaigns of their native populations. In the case of the US, European settlers founded the country after decimating the Native American population and then used slave labour to build the foundations of their new state. The heritage of slavery and ethnic cleansing continues to plague US society today through segregation and various discriminatory policies against non-white communities.

Rebel Architecture – The architecture of violence

Similarly, Israel was founded after a systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Palestinian population which continues until today. In fact, the ideology of Zionism, upon which Israel was founded, negates the Palestinian identity entirely and has made no advances toward including the Palestinian population in its narrative of existence; on the contrary, Israel continues to construct walls, checkpoints, and draconian laws to displace, erase, and segregate the Palestinians.

Although the histories of the US and Israel have different contexts and circumstances, the parallels of the historical and ongoing exclusion of these narratives have shaped and dictated how society views the “other.” The process of othering has roots that run deep into the foundations of the state and impacts how the stories of the other are communicated today.

In looking at the portrayal of Michael Brown and the Palestinians in the last few weeks, one can clearly see the fear and bias that has been integrated in the state building process. This fear suffocates empathy and encourages society to approve of militarisation and the use of force against the imagined threat of the other. Providing military aid to Israel and military equipment to police across the US only exacerbates the fear and intensifies segregation.

How can we dismantle this fear and anxiety and move toward equality and justice? The first step is awareness: recognise the fear, recognise the bias, find its source, and challenge its essence.

The narratives and process of othering must be unmasked. The further we move away from one another and segregate ourselves from our own interconnected realities, the further we entrench ourselves in this imbalanced, broken system that serves the interests of neither you, me, the US or Israel.

And until we confront our own failure at dismantling structural racism, the ghosts of our past will haunt our present and threaten our future.

Nadia Barhoum is a researcher at the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at UC Berkeley and a National Executive Board Member of the Palestinian Youth Movement.