How Henry Ford’s Dream Pitted Blacks Against Muslims in Urban Michigan
From the black perspective, the Middle Eastern American has undue power and influence. So when Islamophobia skyrocketed after 9/11, black Detroiters were all about it.
Dearborn, Michigan, is famous in the Middle East. Henry Ford went to the Middle East to recruit workers for his Dearborn, Michigan plants. And now Dearborn is made up of people with ties to the many Islamic nations. You already know what that was like for them: Immigrant comes to America to work and live, and is met with white hostility. They encountered issues building their mosques, purchasing homes, accumulating wealth. Fast forward. Now Dearborn has the only Arab American Heritage Museum in the world, halal meat at McDonald’s, mosques like Iraq, and more delicious restaurants than I can visit.
Next door to Dearborn is Detroit. Black Detroit. And the relationship is less than friendly. Henry Ford was vocal about his willingness to hire immigrants, specifically Middle Eastern immigrants, to work in his plants instead of blacks. Middle Eastern Americans were able to use their factory jobs to establish capital and open gas stations, liquor stores and other businesses in an economically failing Detroit. As a result, Middle Eastern people are your Detroit merchant. When Kroger closed all of its grocery stores in Detroit, Middle Eastern people opened the only grocery stores currently in the city, but with high prices and a lot of canned and processed foods. They own the gas stations. You know, the ones with bulletproof glass that you have to yell through. They have liquor shops which boast “liquor sold at state minimum,” and they own the best fried chicken franchises around. They exclusively own and operate the Metro PCS stands, and the bill payment and check cashing centers. They get black money.
Related: My Hijab. My Crown. My Way.
From the black perspective, the Middle Eastern American has power and influence of business ownership without paying their American dues. So when Islamophobia skyrocketed after 9/11, black Detroiters, especially those who are old enough to remember, were all about it.
From the Middle Eastern perspective, black people are menaces. Some Detroiters loiter, sell drugs, fight and, in some instances, murder at their establishments. This became such an issue, the Detroit Police Department created Project Green Light, which livestreams video via CCTV to police headquarters from gas stations, liquor stores, and McDonald’s. You can tell what businesses participate by the green light on top of their signs.
Black Detroit also believes the Middle East community is not looking to spread the wealth. The stores they own are run by other members of their community. So they offer few jobs. Middle Eastern store owners set the prices, which are higher than the chain stores groceries in the suburbs. This could be because of capitalism and small business politics. The consensus is they charge more for food in the hood because they assume people are getting food stamps and not paying for their own groceries anyway. It is a foundation for misunderstandings. And the tensions are real. This year, there was a story where a local black man felt as though he was being refused service by an Arab gas station worker. There was a huge Facebook fallout and a protest. Almost as if black people were waiting. Come to find out the gas station worker was trying to inform the man that the gas had run out.
I also know what can happen when a group of perceived outsiders controls the economic wealth of another. I recall the death of Latasha Harlins and the riot that followed, or the woman who was beaten by the Korean store owners in Charlotte, North Carolina, and the boycott which is ongoing. In both of these instances we have a black customer base and immigrant management who appears to not value the black hand that feeds them.
But it is a tale as old as time. Immigrants come to America and want to distance themselves from the idea of blackness. However, they want our money. They follow us around the store, and speak ill of our children. They make no investments in black youth. They don’t fix up buildings, pavement, or the trash around their establishments. Having the Middle East community run stores in Detroit fills an economic need and creates a social divide at the same time.
With all this in mind, it would appear that petty Islamophobia is the only recourse black Detroiters have. That is right. Black Detroiters are out here looking like Appalachian Trump supporters when they interact with Middle Eastern people. I have seen a woman have her hijab snatched because she took a parking spot at Walmart. I have seen black people yell, “Speak American!” through the bulletproof glass at the Lotto counter. Black people talking about how they feel sorry for hijabi women. My students believe that Islam is a religion the supports terrorism. And when the Muslim ban passed DTW airport was ground zero, black organizations were absent. No NAACP, no Urban League, No black fraternities and sororities. As if they don’t have a dog in the discrimination fight.
I cannot speak for how Middle Eastern people feel about this issue. However, I have described a cycle of misunderstanding in these two minority communities who would be better off working together. We are witnessing the fallout to racist policies that were designed to keep both Muslims and blacks away from white wealth. So everyone needs to release the hostility. If black people have an issue with our treatment, they should take the Raphael Wright approach and open their own grocery. In the meantime, Muslims need to see their black Detroit neighbors as partners rather than money machines and be a bigger part of Detroit’s growth. Because the fact is, neither of us really want to be stopped by a white cop.