The Plain View Project report about racist, violent and anti-Muslim social media posts by police officers from several cities, including St. Louis, was alarming. At the same time, it was uncomfortable to read, because St. Louis was depicted unfavorably. The report may have reinforced a negative perception by some of our city: Ferguson, crime statistics, segregated communities, and now racist social media posts.
I have lots of respect for law enforcement officers. They put their lives at risk to protect communities. When we run away from danger, they run toward it to abate it. I have found police officers to be polite and professional. About 5% of the police force was identified by the research organization as associated with these objectionable posts. For law enforcement agencies even 1% is too many.
Since 9/11, Muslims have seen an increase in Islamophobia.
When I heard the candidate Donald Trump’s infamous call for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country's representatives can figure out what is going on,” I chalked it up to his divisive rhetoric, but was shocked to see so many of his supporters cheering his proposal.
Muslims, Jews, African-Americans, Latinos and many minorities have seen a spike in bigotry, racism and hate crimes in the last two years. The images of the 2017 march by white supremacists in Charlottesville were a stark reminder that a segment of our society harbors these malevolent ideas.
Were the police officers associated with these prejudiced social media posts exercising their first amendment rights? Or as enforcers of our laws should they hold themselves to a higher standard? I believe the latter.
The defenders of these reprehensible posts are implying that these social media interactions do not carry over to professional duties. This may be true in some cases but Injustice Watch, a nonprofit group based in Chicago, found that more than 100 of the Philadelphia officers identified for their posts had also been accused of civil rights violations.
Most police in the country carry out their duties with honesty and professionalism. But we have seen mistrust of law enforcement agencies by minorities. The reports of the social media posts may reinforce the negative impression of the police in these minority groups. St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kimberly M. Gardner stated, “When a police officer’s integrity is compromised in this manner, it compromises the entire criminal justice system and our overall ability to pursue justice.”
The increasing intolerance is disconcerting. But, I would be amiss if I didn't acknowledge and thank those who have stood against bigotry, discrimination and held our hands. I still get teary-eyed thinking about thousands of people who gathered in cold weather at airports around the country to protest against the Muslim ban. Many lawyers offered their service free of charge to Muslims entering the country.
These are the majority in this discussion about “us versus them,” but the majority voice may be drowned by hateful rhetoric.
People who espouse bigoted ideologies against any group usually don’t believe that they are racists. Lack of knowledge can lead to fear, hatred and violence.
Education is the best weapon against ignorance. Muslims are not “new arrivals” in America. By some accounts there may have been Muslims who landed with Columbus. Authentic sources trace the presence of Muslims in the U.S. in the 18th century. Thomas Jefferson had an English translation of the Quran in 1734.
According to Pew Research in 2007, 13% foreign born Muslims in this country held graduate degrees compared to 9% of the general public. About 19% of foreign born Muslims have household income of more than $100,000 compared to 16% of the general public. Many are physicians, attorneys, engineers, journalists and many serve in military.
Every ethnic group strengthens our society. Every ethnicity brings different strengths to the society; expertise in science, IT, arts, sports, music and many more.
The xenophobic are losing the spirit of our constitution, that all humans are equal. We — the majority — have to hold hands to root out bigotry from our societies. We have encountered these negative forces in the past and have overcome them. We can do it again.
Hayat heads the public relations committee of the Islamic Foundation of Greater St. Louis. She is a regular Faith Perspectives contributor on STLtoday.com.