After the September 11th terrorist attack in 2001, New Yorkers of Arab, Muslim and South Asian descent endured a level of discrimination that only now is coming to light:
"I got fired,” one said, “and, before that, my boss used to call me Osama Bin Laden."
Of almost a thousand New Yorkers surveyed by the City Commission on Human Rights, some 69 percent said they felt subjected to discrimination or harassment due to their ethnicity. Only 17 percent of these people sought help from a government or community agency to help deal with the incidents. According to a recently-released report of the survey results, most were either fearful of making a report, convinced that nothing would be done about it, did not know where to go to file a complaint, or simply felt that the incident was not worth reporting.
The survey was conducted between October of 2002 and April of 2003. "Following the attacks on the World Trade Center, we knew people were afraid to come forward," said Commissioner Patricia L. Gatling, "so we went into these communities and asked if their lives had changed since 9/11 and how."
The largest group of incidents, 37 percent, consisted of bias-related harassment, primarily verbal but also menacing, threats, and physical assault. "Several people were spat upon and a number of women stated that they had their hijabs pulled off," the report said. "Others described their neighbors putting garbage in front of their doors and damaging cars by scratching or burning them, breaking windows or slashing tires. One person was assaulted on a train for reading an Arabic newspaper."
The study found that 26 percent experienced employment discrimination, including being told not to wear traditional headdresses to work. A "large number" encountered difficulties looking for work. Some were harassed on the job by employers, others by customers.
One-quarter of the respondents reported incidents at public accommodations, including from teachers and administrators at schools. And 11 percent experienced housing discrimination, including landlords who openly said they wouldn't rent to them "because you are a Muslim." One landlord locked a Muslim tenant out, put all his belongings on the street, and would not accept rent. Some just were subjected to a reduction in services.
The bias was spread out amongst the boroughs, with most of it taking place right where the respondents live and work. Some people who can "pass" as non-Middle Eastern hear "people you thought were cool, reasonable, and sane exposed for their racism and ignorance," making comments about "others" right in front of them.
The picture isn't entirely bleak. A Jordanian man said that when another customer in a Manhattan cafĂ© was harassing him, the owner asked the perpetrator to leave. "It was in the night and all the people around us in the place, Americans and other ethnicities, acted against the intruder and asked him to leave and I believe this is the best response that I can imagine." And a Muslim mother sounded a note of defiance: "People look at you like you are a terrorist, but let them look because I know who I am. They are the ones with the problem."
In terms of solutions, the commission report notes that the agency could have investigated many of the incidents recounted in the surveys, but that formal complaints were not made. In the course of disseminating the surveys, the commission worked to educate the affected communities about the Human Rights Law and its protections. And working on the project created many new connections between the agency and these communities.
The Commission on Human Rights concluded the report with five recommendations, saying it "encourages the following for government agencies and community organizations:"
1) a climate of tolerance and respect in the city;
2) interfaith and community integration through activities that involve all members of the community;
3) participation of people from the Muslim, South Asian, and Arab communities in civic and political activities (e.g., police councils, block associations, school leadership teams);
4) media campaigns to promote understanding and discourage discriminatory behaviors;
and 5) the entrance of South Asians, Arabs, and Muslims into public service positions (e.g., police and fire fighting).
Copies of the full report are available by calling the 311 Citizen Service Center.
The 2000 census found 71,000 Arabs and 216,000 South Asians living in the five boroughs.
Hearing On Domestic Partners Bill for City Contractors
The biggest civil rights debate in the City Council this year will come on November 13 when the first public hearing will be held on Intro 271, the Equal Benefits Bill, before Councilmember Robert Jackson's contracts committee. This legislation, sponsored by 36 council members (In PDF Format) but opposed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, would require those with city contracts of more than $100,000 to offer the domestic partners of their employees the same benefits that they offer the spouses of their workers. While there has been little public notice of this bill, it is bound to incite controversy, especially when it comes to religiously affiliated contractors.
The Salvation Army has indicated that it is likely to give up its contracts rather than comply with a law that they say would make them compromise their disapproval of gay relationships. The Catholic Archdiocese of New York, historically a voice against lesbian and gay rights in the city, has not indicated how it will deal with the pending legislation, though the San Francisco Archdiocese found a way to comply with the 1997 law out there. The Episcopal Diocese of New York is part of an 80-group coalition seeking to pass the legislation.
Proponents of the bill say that those receiving city funds to perform public services must treat all of their employees fairly, including people in domestic partnerships. Some contractors who do not yet offer domestic partner benefits said that the bill's passage would help compel more insurance carriers to offer policies that include domestic partners. California's outgoing Governor Gray Davis just signed the first statewide equal benefits bill in the nation, another development that may boost the prospects of the New York City bill.
Andy Humm is a former member of the City Commission on Human Rights. He is co-host of the weekly "Gay USA" on Manhattan Neighborhood Network (34 on Time-Warner; 107 on RCN) on Thursdays at 11 PM..