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Month: April 2014

Our Streets, Our Stories

Our Streets, Our Stories

Take a walk towards 204th Street and 35th Avenue in Bayside, Queens, and you might notice a street by the name of Salman Hamdani Way.

Streets in America often get named after people whose stories need to be remembered. I have no doubt that the naming of Salman Hamdani Way this week in Queens was the result of consistent and tenacious advocacy by Salman’s mother, Talat Hamdani. I first met Talat in March 2011 when she spoke at the National South Asian Summit hosted by South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT). We had asked our speakers to reflect on the ten-year anniversary of the September 11th tragedy, which was to be commemorated later that year. Talat paid a moving tribute to her son, Salman, a Pakistani American who was trained as an EMT and NYPD cadet. Salman had rushed into the Twin Towers on September 11th to be one of the first responders. Salman lost his life that day.

As his family struggled to endure the pain of losing Salman, they had to simultaneously deal with allegations that Salman was somehow linked to the 9/11 attackers. As Talat recounted the story, each of us was touched in some way. A new mother at the time myself, I couldn’t imagine the pain that Talat had endured. At the same time, I remember feeling angry and frustrated by the injustice that Salman and his family faced.

Talat channeled her anger and pain towards publicly remembering Salman’s legacy, and what it means in a post 9/11 America. As time passed, Salman’s name was cleared and he received praise and recognition from New York City leaders, as well as Rep. Keith Ellison, who memorialized Salman in a moving speech during the infamous King hearings on Muslim radicalization. Talat has continued her quest to have Salman’s heroism publicly acknowledged – including at the 9/11 Memorial where his name is not located with the other first responders – and to eliminate the ongoing assumptions of disloyalty weighed against Muslims and those perceived to be Muslim, as they were against her son.

This week, part of Talat’s quest has been achieved. A street in Queens, on a block where Salman grew up, now bears her son’s name, and hopefully, it will prompt questions from curious children and passers by, seeking to understand who Salman Hamdani was, and what his story means to all of us.


Talat Hamdani with elected leaders at the naming of Salman Hamdani Way on Monday, April 28, 2014 (Picture courtesy of Umair Khan)

Salman represents the often forgotten stories and experiences of many South Asians, Arab Americans, Sikhs and Muslims over the past 13 years. As we build national narratives around the post 9/11 experience, the stories of South Asians, Arab Americans, Sikhs and Muslims – communities affected by targeting and xenophobia in the name of national security – are often underrepresented or forgotten. What happened to the “disappeared” – the men detained and deported off streets and out of their homes in the weeks after 9/11? What happened to the families devastated by the special registration policy that required boys and men over the age of 16 from South Asian and Middle Eastern countries to report to immigration authorities?

When our stories are told, they are sometimes misrepresented, as seen in the faith-based and community criticisms over the depiction of Islam in the National September 11th Memorial Museum opening in May or in the xenophobic rhetoric of some of our political leaders.

Storytelling, documentation, organizing and advocacy grounded in the struggles as well as in the moments of resistance and leadership within our communities can give us a more complete sense of how we have come together – and how we have unraveled – in post 9/11 America. And for that, we need the voices of organizations like the Center for Constitutional Rights that continues to litigate on behalf of detained South Asian and Arab men, of filmmakers like Theresa Thanjan who captured the plight of families devastated by special registration, of groups like Desis Rising Up and Moving which organizes family members of detainees; of national advocacy groups like SAALT, NNAAC and others who move our communities’ experiences into policy and media spaces; and of grassroots efforts like the Bay Area Walking History Tour, which reveals a radical history of South Asians organizing and resisting on the streets of Berkeley, including after 9/11.

And we are indebted to mothers like Talat Hamdani whose love for her son and her pursuit of justice inspires each of us to reach towards her vision of a better America.

The Next 50 Years: Time for Culture Change on Racial Justice

The Next 50 Years: Time for Culture Change on Racial Justice

This week, four U.S. presidents and thought leaders are convening at the Civil Rights Summit in Austin, Texas to mark the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by President Lyndon B. Johnson. The agenda includes discussions around immigration, criminal justice, voting rights and economic inequality from the standpoint of women, people of color, the disabled, and LGBTQ communities. While there has been much progress in addressing civil rights violations in employment and housing contexts over the past 50 years, there have also been regressions (for example, with voting rights) as well as new civil rights frontiers that have emerged. As we look ahead to the next 50 years, we need to develop a racial equity framework that reflects the dynamics taking shape in our country today.

Today’s America looks vastly different from the one that ushered in the 1964 Civil Rights Act. It’s evident that our schools, workforces and neighborhoods are becoming increasingly diverse as America transforms into becoming a majority-minority country by 2040. Yet these demographic changes may not mean much to uplift communities of color without updated anti-discrimination laws, honest public dialogues about the impact of both systemic racial disparities and individual implicit biases, and solidarity building between communities of color. Here are a few starting points to guide the development of a framework that reflects America’s new racial landscape:

From Legal Change to Culture Change. Anti-discrimination laws and policies, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, fundamentally changed the legal responsibilities of employers, educational institutions, and governmental agencies. But a culture change in the way we treat and perceive one another also needs to happen in order to combat racism effectively. As our country’s demographics shift, the level of racial anxiety is also rising. We will likely hear false and divisive narratives such as “We are losing the true America” to “We no longer need to address racial inequity because we are truly post-racial and color-blind.” In order to shift these narratives, we need to change the ways in which communities of color are perceived in society. Our political leaders, including the four Presidents speaking at the Civil Rights Summit this week, can set the tone for such a culture change to occur. They can raise our level of civil and political discourse to one that respects communities of color, and sets expectations about how we treat each other.

Race-Plus, Not Just Race-Only. Traditional race-only approaches and solutions to racism do not reflect the complex ways in which communities of color experience inequity and discrimination. In the post 9/11 environment, for example, Sikhs and Muslims experience profiling because of their national origin and religious status – in addition to race. LGBT individuals of color face discrimination at the workplace because of their race and sexual orientation. Working class women of color encounter greater disadvantages due to their gender, class, and race. Our laws and policies must address the multidimensional ways in which discrimination occurs.

Beyond Diversity to Equity.  Cultural competency trainings and diversity plans have been staples in workplaces and schools for decades now. While these strategies help us better understand each other, they cannot by themselves address systemic racial disparities that exist. We must also confront the root causes of racial disparities, whether they occur at workplaces or whether they keep people of color from accessing health care, education, or jobs. Using racial equity assessments is one strategy to help prevent institutional racism and address disparities.

Solidarity Across Communities of Color. For decades, communities of color have been focused on building our own houses in order to confront the impact of systemic racism. But, we have more in common than we might believe. Successful multi-racial organizing efforts in the taxi driver, restaurant, and domestic worker industries have shown us that we must come together across racial lines in order to secure basic rights for all. In a majority-minority America, preserving racial privilege and constructing racial hierarchies will be detrimental to our ability to build power.

The Civil Rights Summit in Austin this week gives us an opportunity to learn from the past 50 years – and to imagine how racial justice in our country could look and feel, in the next 50 years to come.

Picture Credits: Picture 1, “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,” August 1963,Photograph by Abbie Rowe, National Park Service Photograph. Picture 2, Taxi Fares in New York to Rise by 17%,


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