On Race Relations among Muslim Americans

By Dalia Yousef

The horrific killing of George Floyd has sparked continuing protests in the United States and around the world. Floyd’s tragedy is not exceptional; recently, the death of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Rayshard Brooks, and others serves as a painful reminder that racism is a daily fact that cannot be ignored. Although the current wave of anti-racism activism has been triggered by police brutality, it urged different groups to tackle their anti-blackness and acknowledge that no community is immune from racism. Muslim Americans are the most racially diverse faith group in the U.S. Despite their complex demographic composition, the binary of indigenous African Americans and immigrants has shaped many ties and tensions among Muslim Americans. Like Blacks in the general public, one-third of Black Muslims reported that they faced racial discrimination within their faith group.

Many non-European migrants, including Arab and South Asian Muslims, came to the United States without knowing that the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 that “abolishing the race-based immigration quota system” (Barbar,2017) is a by-product of the civil rights movement gained momentum in the 1960s. One of the impacts of that Act was the arrival of diverse immigrant groups in terms of their racial and cultural backgrounds, including their religions. Until the 1970s, blacks dominated the Muslim American population as “the Muslim presence in the U.S. was synonymous with the modern African American experience” (Prickett, 2018). Currently, “the U.S. Muslim community is made up heavily of immigrants and the children of immigrants from around the world. Nearly six-in-ten U.S. Muslims adults (58%) are first-generation Americans [while] Blacks make up more than 20% of the American Muslim population and about half of black Muslims (49%) are converts to Islam, and fully half of Muslims whose families have been in the U.S. for at least three generations are black (51%).” 

Despite the prior existence of the African American Muslims in the U.S., there has been a noticeable disconnection between them and the immigrant Muslim communities on the intellectual and institutional levels. Some views attribute the disconnection between African American and immigrant Muslims to the intersection of race and class and how they shape social inequalities in the US. Su’ad Abdul Khabeer (2016) suggests that immigrant Muslims are adopting the mainstream racial hierarchy in the U.S., placing African Americans at the bottom of the ladder. Consequently, immigrant Muslims tend to disassociate themselves from African American Muslims while they are seeking their opportunities for upward social mobility. Abdul Khabeer emphasizes that immigrant Muslims are not an exception in this respect than other immigrant groups, including Black African immigrants.

In terms of religious authority and representation, Rhys H. Williams (2011) argues that “American Islam” is a product of the second and third generations of post-1965 “new” immigrants; it was essentially carved out by the experience of Muslim student organizations in the U.S. Williams explains how one of the largest American Muslim organizations nationally Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) emerged from the Muslim Student Association (MSA). He claims that the education and the class status of American (immigrant) Muslims make it harder to ignore Islam as a social reality in the American public sphere comparing to what he described as Islam that existed as “an isolated family or locked within racially segregated African American.” Williams’s argument underscores the controversy of linking Islam in the U.S. with the immigrant Muslim rather than the legacy of African American Muslims. But Williams’ thoughts do not thoroughly capture the different sequences of African American Muslim experiences. Sherman Jackson (2005) demonstrates three stages that represent African American Muslim aspirations towards racial justice as well as religious (knowledge) authenticity. The first phase, when the group of “Nation of Islam” introduced an unorthodox version of Islam as a way of constructing a distinct identity in countering White Supremacy. The second phase witnessed the departure from the Nation of Islam and embracing Sunni Islam (a doctrine transcends race and ethnicity). Jackson assumed that this transition might have caused a de-centralization of the African American Muslim role regarding the racial justice issues and more dependence on Muslim majority dominant religious discourse and scholars to learn about Islam. Jackson suggested that steps should be taken towards the third stage (or resurrection) of developing an indigenous African American Muslim intelligentsia who can address both the unique socio-political status of African American Muslims (and African Americans in general) as well as navigate and produce religious knowledge responding to their surrounding challenges.

The changing political contexts have been crucial factors whether in emphasizing the disconnection between the two communities or bridging their divisions. Erik Love (2018) explores why immigrant Muslims used to demonstrate a blind spot on “Race.” He illuminates how political advocacy Muslim American organizations began to emerge in the late 1980s when the ideology of colorblindness was still dominant and emphasized that the “ ‘old model’ of approaching the issue of discrimination and stereotyping of Arab and Muslim Americans as ‘defamation’ rather than racism, fit neatly into the colorblindness mold.” But this whole situation was altered after 9/11, according to Jocelyne Cesari (2004),“ within the post-September 11th context, a new unprecedented form of the racialization of Muslims has been emerging, linked to the policies that aim to fight against terrorism, and which targets immigrants.” Abdul Khabeer argued that after immigrant Muslims experienced surveillance and police abuse (post 9/11), they started to approach the African American Muslim community differently. According to Love, the rising of the right-wing and hate crimes targeting Muslims and those mistaken for Muslims delineated the racial formation of a “Muslim” category. They urged the community-based organizations to navigate American racial politics. Both Love and Abdul Khabeer observed how confronting Islamophobia, and anti-terror laws were shaped by growing discussion about racial politics among Muslim American advocates, especially second-generation activists influenced by African American civil rights rhetoric and mechanisms.

Although awareness about racial injustices, among immigrant Muslims, has increased since 9/11, intra-Muslim racism could be found in presumably inclusive spaces, including mosques. Pamela Prickett (2018) addresses how the Muslim immigrants usually assume that African American Muslims know less about religion because of their histories as converts and ex-members of the group of Nation of Islam. Prickett suggests that these assumptions augmented the African American ‘s inequality and extended it to the religious arenas. Thus, Abdul El Khabir indicates that African American Muslims needs to deal with two systems of hegemony: the white supremacy in the American society and the Arab and South Asian cultural dominance within the US Muslim communities. Ethnic mosques are still part of the American Muslim landscape, and the segregation of African Americans is empirically evident. Tucker and Jennifer Van Hook (2010) examines mosques in 11 metropolitan areas, and results indicate that there is “a large degree of congregational segregation for African Americans in mosques in the US.” Racially segregated religious institutions reinforce the persistent residential segregation deeply engrained in many American cities. Underscoring the enduring problem, Imam Khalid Latif said, “… like Malcolm X said Sunday morning is the most segregated time in this country, Friday afternoon at Jumma prayer is not that different.” 

It is crucial to seize the current teachable moment to develop a constant effort against racism. Mapping Muslim anti-racism initiatives could be helpful in this respect. Here are some examples of adopting creative and multi-level approaches in addressing racism within the American Muslim communities.

Muslim Anti-racism Collaboration 


Inner-city Muslim Action Network

NYU Black Muslim Initiatives 



Abdul Khabeer. S. (2016) Muslim Cool: Race, Religion, and Hip Hop in the United States. NYU Press.

CesariJ. (2004): American and European Muslims after 9/11: What is Different? Stanford University, Frace-Stanford Center for Interdisciplinary Studies. September 12-14 ,2004.

Jackson, S. (2005). Islam and Blackamerican: Looking Toward the Third Resurrection. New York: Oxford University Press.

Love, E. 2018. “Second- Generation Muslim American Advocate and Strategic Racial Identity,” in Kasinitz, P. & Bozorgmehr, M. (eds.). Growing Up Muslim in Europe and North America, Routledge.

Prickett, P. 2018. Complexity Beyond Intersections: Race, Class, and Neighborhood Disadvantage among African American Muslims. Social Inclusion, 6 (2), 98-106. 

Tucker, C. and Van Hook, J. 2010. Racial Segregation in Muslim Congregations: Evidence from 11 Metropolitan Areas Across the United States. (Retrieved from https://paa2010.princeton.edu/papers/101783, last access May 2019)

Williams, R. H. (2011). Creating an American Islam: Thoughts on religion, identity, and place. Sociology of Religion, 72(2), 127–153.

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