by Ross Anderson as published in the MN Daily
Racism has a newfound fervor when applied to the state’s largest migrant population: Somalis.
“What? (Expletive) you!” I initially thought.
Recently, the nation’s top law-dog, Eric Holder, our country’s first black attorney general, basically called Americans a bunch of yellow-bellies. We are “a nation of cowards,” he said, referring to our unwillingness to openly discuss race issues. “If we’re going to ever make progress, we’re going to have to have the guts … to have frank conversations about the racial matters that continue to divide us,” he explained.
Okay, Mr. Holder, I heard you, and I write in response to your challenge.
Localize this subject and racism takes on special significance. Minnesota, and especially the metropolitan area, offers a unique and particularly potent brand of racism. Sure, it has a ‘Minnesota nice’ packaging and is mostly tacit and benign, but widespread and consistent nonetheless. Step outside the eternally tolerant collegiate bubble, and Minnesotans are not very welcoming of our east-African immigrant population, particularly the Somali community.
Somali and other immigrants from the horn of Africa are quickly becoming to the Twin Cities what Cubans have become to Miami. Thirteen percent of Minnesota’s foreign-born residents in the 2000 Census were from Africa — a higher percentage than any other state in the country. This number has undoubtedly increased greatly since then. Most Somalis and east Africans who currently live in Minnesota came to the United States as refugees. Roughly one-third of Minnesota’s Somali immigrants came directly from refugee camps; many first settled in other states and then relocated here. Fleeing their war-torn homeland, our east African population has built a large and palpable presence here in our state, and Minnesota constitutes the country’s largest population of Somali immigrants.
Introduce this accelerated immigration pattern to any state or country in the world and there’s likely to be a backlash from the locals, especially when portions of the immigrant population refute the native’s cultural norms. The refusal to handle pork products by some Somalis and the unwillingness of some immigrant taxi drivers to transport alcoholic beverages would be prime examples and have served to stoke racial tensions.
“If they can’t live by our rules, then they should go back where they came from!”
That was a common response from the local community. This sentiment is understandable, for a host country should not be expected to adapt to the norms of an incoming minority.
Beyond these minor disputes, these groups of peoples are intrinsically put at odds without provocation. Human nature tells us that we are instinctually attracted to those who are most similar to us, and it stands to reason that we are most repelled by those who are most dissimilar. Given that difference in physical appearance is the root of racism and our east African migrate population could be no more externally different than our mostly fair-haired, blue-eyed Scandinavian natives, Minnesota presents an especially robust and natural recipe for racism. Apart from these superficial disparities, the generally comfortable socialization of a Minnesota local and the commonly chaotic upbringing of an east African could not be more contradictory, thus lessening the likelihood for constructive connection. And to add a little icing to this uncongenial cake, most east Africans are Muslim, which in a post Sept. 11 world is immediately scary and deviant to many Americans.
Accordingly, east Africans, who seem to all get clumped together as “Somalis” by ignorant white people, are a particularly popular target for the frustrated and intolerant Minnesota masses. I grew up in a suburb north of St. Paul, where racism was more or less tolerated. Though I was never really committed to the idea, I played along and regrettably, was a silent and passive observer of blatant prejudice. After high school I joined the Army, got a good liberal education and traveled the world, washing away any traces of silly bigotry. My high school friends, who more or less stayed put, weren’t so fortunate and still somewhat cling to their indoctrinated racism, though now with much less fervor. While their formerly regular target of prejudice was the black community, it seems that enough experience with blacks has diminished their intolerance, and they are now much less likely to express their disdain for those who are racially different. But this doesn’t hold true when applied to our local “Somali” population; they’re still fair game and are referred to with a level of unprecedented derogatory vehemence. The explanation for this is a mystery; my best guess is that they feel more threatened by Somali blacks than they ever did native ones. My high school friends, like I think every person who is not fond of our east African immigrants, feels vulnerable to a cryptic alien people who seem unwilling to assimilate.
This fear, and the racism that it creates, cannot be wholly contributed to ignorance or blind intolerance. Our east African population also carries some of the blame; their efforts to integrate into American society and coexist seem insincere in light of what attorney general Holder would describe as the “racially protected cocoons” that they have created across the Twin Cities. (Think Cedar/Riverside or parts of Lake Street.) This is no more morally justifiable than the distant racism mentioned above.
Although it is understandable; after all, it’s only natural, just as disliking those who are most different is natural. But the naturalistic fallacy is no excuse for continued division. Both our native population and our east African residents must resist their natural inclination toward separateness. Instead, let’s try embracing the uncomfortable process of getting to know each other.
Ross Anderson welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.