The writer of this commentary, a former Detroit News reporter and press secretary to past Mayor Dennis Archer, is a local political and public relations consultant. Rashida Tlaib responds here.
By Greg Bowens
Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib has a black problem.
Growing up in Detroit after the '67 rebellion, in the political struggle for social and economic equality, you were either black or white. Meaning, you either identified with the black cause for equality, jobs and power or you were with the man battling to hang onto good jobs, privilege and power. Tliab clearly fights on the side of social and economic justice. That’s not the problem.
The snag is that some blacks in her district wonder if she went off to Washington to focus more on the fight for Palestinian rights and immigration rather than turning the lion's share of her attention to pressing concerns in Detroit.
That's a problem, but she could turn that around. Let me explain.
I’m Generation X. We came of age in the '80s. The world was pretty simple racially in 80s Detroit. Black was black, whether you were from the Carolinas or the Caribbean. It didn’t matter much because people saw your skin before they heard your accent.
White was white. English, German or Italian, it was all Greek to us. Gyros (Greek), sauerkraut (German), spaghetti (Chinese actually) or meatloaf (another German invention) – it was all food and we ate it without distinction. Same with the people. If they looked white, they were white. They had to speak with an accent before we knew they were immigrants.
As for the Hispanic folks in Southwest Detroit, by and large, we generally accepted Hispanics as black when it came to the struggle for political power. And when it came to Jews, well, they were traditionally seen as allies in the civil rights movement. Jesus was a Jew. The Holocaust was real. So Israel had a right to exist -- end of story.
Now, being Arab was a little different. In my neighborhood around Schoolcraft and Wyoming on the city’s west side, we called them all Chaldeans. When I was a kid going to Monnier Elementary all neighborhood stores except the pharmacy were black-owned. But by the time we had finished Noble Middle School, all the stores were owned by Chaldeans.
And honestly, we thought all Arabs were Chaldean until we understood that Chaldeans were basically Christian and the greater majority of Arabs around the world are Muslim – which of course, we identified as being similar to the black American Muslim movement, but not the same.
Suffice to say, many blacks don't understand the struggles or the Arabs, and vice versa.
All that being said, when we talk about race we need to examine where Arab/Palestinian, sister-girl Rashida Tlaib stands in relation to her mostly black district, black history and the black diaspora. She holds a seat filled for 52 years by the dean of Congress – John Conyers. He was first endorsed by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Some people grumble she only won the seat because too many black candidates were running and split the vote. There’s some truth to that, but it doesn’t matter. She won the election.
There is a greater emerging truth we all need to watch – Rashida Tlaib may not be the black person we are used to representing the 13th Congressional District, but she could very well be representing the spirit of the black struggle, as illustrated by her current troubles with the conservative Israeli government. It first banned her from entering the country, then did an about-face and allowed her to enter on humanitarian grounds to visit her grandmother in the West Bank. She ultimately declined the invite.
Some blacks in her district may not relate to the Palestinian struggle.
So, Tlaib needs to make that clearer that it's no stretch to believe that her battle for Palestinian rights is something her black constituents should relate to -- the fight for the underdog, a population facing discrimination and a lack of economic opportunities -- not to mention, that there are black Palestinians (also called Afro-Palestinians). She needs to make it clear that she's fighting for an international cause blacks should care about.
Also, we must not forget that Detroiters are willing to take a great interest in struggles abroad like those in South Africa during the oppressive apartheid.
The upside for her so far is that her battles in Washington and beyond haven't hurt her back home, with polls showing her popularity soaring despite (or possibly because) of President Trump's harsh words about her. Blacks like to see her standing up against the man.
Black people can relate to oppression and discrimination like nobody else.
Not that we as blacks can't relate to Israel's desire to be safe and live in peace. Thanks to 9/11 and our country's ongoing battle against global terrorism (except the homegrown white nationalist kind), many of us can identify with concerns about deadly terrorist attacks. So we understand the need for Israel to to protect itself.
It should also be noted that the struggle is not only limited to the Palestinian territories. There are black Jews in Israel, most of whom immigrated from Ethiopia in the 80s, who have some familiar issues with race in their new home (as reported here by The Economist).
It would be wise for Tlaib to connect the dots with the struggles in Detroit, Palestine and Israel – so she can still help the Paestinian cause while reassuring her constituents in Detroit that she's got their best interest at heart.
Yes, she's a congresswoman representing the U.S., but she's also representing Detroit.
If she does that, her problem could be a blessing.