9/11 is the critical date in American Muslim history, and it may become increasingly important for Latinos as well. The word “critical” as used here aims to convey a sense of “crisis.” Arguably, the highpoint of crisis in modern Muslim history was the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965. This monument, however, hardly compares to the backlash against Muslims that followed 9/11.
With the country in shock and awe, the world watched with bated breath for news of the culprits. When the perpetrators were identified as extremist Muslims, African Americans breathed a sigh of relief. They fell under the assumption that respite was on the horizon after a three-decade-long onslaught by the justice system; for a moment it seemed that law and society were genuinely frightened by a new boogeyman.
Similar sighs of relief came from Latinos, who, like African Americans, sensed that the country had found a different object of wrath. Latinos had felt the harsh lash of the criminal justice system for several decades running, with imprisonment rates of Latinos ballooning. Mass imprisonment has been a major setback for underclass minority communities in states like California, Texas, Florida, and others holding large Latino populations. The bad luck of Muslims was seemingly good for Latinos like their African-American counterparts — it diverted fear and attention to a new scapegoat.
While they sighed, Muslims gasped, and rightfully so since Muslims would now be subject to policing and criminal justice like never before. Overnight, Muslims were tarred and blackened and were given a glimpse, if a privileged one, of the modern African-American experience. In essence, Muslims have been given a sense of the prejudice and violence that is norm to African Americans.
These perceptions among African Americans and Latinos, however, were short-lived: Latinos became quickly embroiled in border policing politics in Arizona and Texas, facing harsher scrutiny by law enforcement than the rest of the population. In New York, both groups were subject to mass stop and frisk campaigns, and more recently police killings of African-Americans have made it open season on black males, that is, made it business as usual.
For Latinos, the situation may become worse in the midst of claims that ISIS is operating in Mexico and entering the U.S. through the southern border. Although there has been pushback from Mexico and the Department of Homeland Security, therumors persist. If the American public believes that Mexico is indeed harboring ISIS, it would be a big boost for longstanding agendas of border reform. For proponents of beefed-up borders and stricter immigration policy, it would realize longstanding goals that have used vigilante border-patrols and stepped-up law enforcement to curb illegal immigration. These efforts subject Latinos to heightened scrutiny and law enforcement efforts. The more recent claims about ISIS will serve only to fuel the discrimination and oppression.
More critically, the Department of Justice has recently announced a pilot program to counter violent extremism. The plan has been critiqued, most notably because Muslims will be subject to greater scrutiny than other populations, and in particular, the Christian communities of domestic extremists. The claims that ISIS is in Mexico, then, effectively cast Latinos as potential communities for engagement.
However, there is little evidence or intelligence to support the idea that ISIS is actually operating in Mexico or that loyalists are infiltrating the southern border. More likely, statistically speaking, if ISIS is successful in entering the U.S., it will come through international air travel, not through the U.S.-Mexico border; and let us not forget the vast border to the north that affords a number of entry points.
Ultimately, if the American public buys into these claims, it will only add to the discrimination of Latinos. It will tie the plight of Muslims to Mexicans, and categorically implicate Latinos in the War on Terror; it will also become a license for greater brutality at the border. If the story is bought, regardless of its truth, Latinos will face increasing entanglement in the criminal justice system and increasing status as second-class citizens.
This article was first published in Huffington Post on 10/10/14. Read it here.