Afro-Americans and Arabs: An Alliance in the Making?

VOL. 10


No. 2
P. 50
Afro-Americans and Arabs: An Alliance in the Making?


It has been reported that:

Polling some 3,200 Black people in Harlem, Bedford-Stuyvesant and East Harlem (New York), in 1974, the newspaper [Muhammad Speaks] found that 71 percent support the Arabs while only 29 percent sided with Israel or had no view [relative to the October War]. This marked a significant change in view from 1970, when a similar poll revealed that 40 percent agreed with the Arabs while 38 percent were sympathetic to Israel.... 65 percent of the Afro-Americans interviewed felt that the Palestinians should have the right to reclaim the land and property taken from them by the Israeli state. [1] 

Because we do not know how rigorously this data was gathered, we must be somewhat cautious in our interpretation of this report. However, while the percentages may not be as scientific as we would like, the trend indicating a growing sympathetic sentiment for the Arab cause between 1970 and 1974 on the part of Afro-Americans is no doubt accurate. Even more, should such a poll be replicated today the trend would likely indicate a continuing increase in the extent to which Afro-Americans support the Arab cause. How do we explain the trend pointed out by the poll cited above? Further, what is the importance of that trend for the situation of Afro- Americans? And more central to the discussion here: what is the relevance of that trend for a relationship between Afro-Americans and Arab Americans, presently and potentially? Hopefully, the answers to these questions will provide some explanation of the growing affinity between Afro- Americans and Arab Americans and suggest some bases for a potential alliance.

Much of the answer to these questions must be found in the history of the struggle of Afro-Americans for justice and equality. On the other side of the coin we must address the history of the Arab struggle against colonialism and for self-determination. More than is commonly assumed these struggles are intertwined. Since the primary concern is with the connection of these struggles, the concentration here will be on the development of the Afro-American struggle and its growing relationship to the Arab cause.

Prior to World War II, Afro-Americans all over the US were faced with severe racial discrimination and exclusion. In the South (the states of the old confederacy), Black Americans faced an apartheid-type situation of very rigid segregation. Such segregation was required by law and enforced at every level of life. In the North, the segregation was not as rigid but differed primarily in appearance. The phenomenon known as the "job ceiling" which severely restricted employment for Blacks was a generally accepted fact, North and South; the most unrewarding jobs, both in terms of desirability and pay, were deemed by custom to be "Negro jobs" while all other employment was reserved for Whites. Both in the North and South, there were restricted housing and educational opportunities. In the South, Afro-Americans, for the most part, were prohibited from voting. These were the conditions which led to the perception that Blacks were "second class" citizens.

It was this restricted opportunity structure which defined the status of Afro-Americans. On the other hand, there was an increasing rejection of and resistance to such limitations. This resistance culminated in two significant events: the 1954 Supreme Court Decision, which laid down the legal framework for the subordinated status of Black people, and a mass movement based on non-violence led by Dr. Martin Luther King which addressed the issue head-on. These two events were pivotal in the history of Afro-Americans, since they established the civil rights movement along with its inherent assumptions. The goal of the movement was an end to segregation and "second class" citizenship, along with the establishment of an integrated society, united as a common people toward the glorious goals of a rich America.

The importance of this background for our purposes is that it suggests the boundaries of the civil rights struggle. The assumptions of that struggle lasted until the mid to late sixties, when a new struggle and a new set of assumptions became necessary if the movement was to address a new understanding of the situation of Afro-Americans. As the previously cited 1974 report from Muhammad Speaks suggests, the consciousness of Afro-Americans is not static. More importantly, the various twists, turns and thrusts of the struggle of Afro-Americans relative to numerous issues will affect how Blacks feel about Arabs. Consequently, if we are to understand a relationship, or the potential of such a relationship, between Afro-Americans and Arab Americans, an understanding of the changing goals of the Afro- American struggle is essential. Since the theory of struggle should be rooted in knowledge gained from practice, we must assume that the changing goals result from changing perceptions of an objective reality.

Another aspect of the importance of this history is that its dynamics, or dialectics provide some concrete, or objective, basis for an alliance between Afro-Americans and Arab Americans. In other words, "the movement" has to be understood in the context of a certain set of conditions and in its relationship to other aspects of the social structure, including those forces that would tend toward merging the interests of Afro-Americans and Arab Americans. It is from this dialectical perspective that an understanding of these commonalities might best be understood. Maurice Cornforth has summed up dialectical development as follows:

1. Dialectics does not regard nature as just an agglomeration of things each existing independently of others, but it considers things as connected with, dependent on and determined by each other.... Nothing can be understood taken by itself, in isolation, but must always be understood in inseparable connection with other things, and as conditioned by them.

2. Dialectics considers everything as in "a state of continuous movement and change, of renewal and development where something is always disintegrating and dying away." Consequently, we are not only concerned about interconnectedness and interdependence but also from the standpoint of their movement, their development, their coming into being and their downfall.

3. Dialectics does not regard the process of development as "a simple process of growth," but as a development which passes from incremental quantitative changes to open, fundamental qualitative changes which occur abruptly, taking the form of a leap from one state to another. In other words, their development is an onward and upward movement....

4. Dialectics holds that the process of development from the lower to the higher [state] takes place... as a disclosure of the contradictions inherent in things... as a struggle of opposite tendencies which operate on the basis of these contradictions. [2] 

These are the forces, dynamics, conditions, etc., which help us to understand the bases of the possibility of an Afro-American/Arab alliance.

Having provided some background as to why the 1950's become a relevant starting point for this analysis and the analytic framework to be employed, let us now turn to a further elaboration of the development of the movement. As stated earlier, in the period just after World War II the assumptions which guided the consciousness of Afro-Americans were based on Blacks being separated from Whites and therefore from the same opportunities as Whites. The tactic for altering that status was non-violent civil disobedience. The purpose of this tactic was to disarm the violence of Whites, or at least expose their baseness in all of its crudeness as exemplified by the dogs and firehoses of Birmingham, Alabama's "Bull" Connor.

The ideology of this period was liberal, which was consistent with non-violence. This ideology facilitated coalitions with other liberal causes and groups, so that the civil rights movement became the cutting edge of the liberal movement. This was a struggle against discrimination and for individual rights. More, the ideology of the civil rights movement questioned the status of Blacks in the system but never questioned, in any basic sense, the system which produced that status. The major supporters of Dr. King and that mass movement were organized labour, particularly the UAW (United Auto, Aircraft and Agricultural Implements Workers of America), and the Jewish community which had a long history of fighting discrimination. During this period the alliance between Jews and Blacks seemed to have its basis in nature. In fact, two of the three civil rights workers murdered in Philadelphia, Mississippi in the summer of 1964 were Jewish.

Given the ideology of this period, which restricted the struggle of Afro-Americans for full citizenship and full participation, there was little view of Black opportunity being passed other than upon those rights which might be granted by Washington, as had been the case of the 1954 Supreme Court Decision. That limitation was probably best exemplified by the march on Washington in 1963 which was a pressure tactic to pass what eventually became the 1964 Civil Rights Act. This period found Blacks looking only at the domestic scene and trying to have precisely the same privilege as Whites in this society. Given the ideology of the struggle at this period and the support of Jews for this struggle, we can assume the support for Israel was considerable.

In view of the basis just discussed, how do we account for the changing trend from the support of Israel to the support of the Arab position? One of the primary factors is that the North and West were contexts of greater freedom for Blacks. Consequently, a number of the basic assumptions which seemed valid in the Southern context tended not to hold outside the South. While non-violence may have been logical in a context where Whites literally had the licence to kill Blacks without fear of retribution, in the North such behaviour on the part of Whites would likely bring immediate retaliation, or a race war. Secondly, Malcolm X, a Black Muslim minister who embraced the same Allah as did the Arab world, began to chide Blacks for turning the other cheek and not recognizing that Washington itself was the problem. Finally, these two threads of the movement also gave rise to a challenge to the most central assumption of the civil rights movement - its assimilationist bias. In fact, the influence of Malcolm X and the Black Muslims strongly suggested that assimilation was a self-denial: that is, to extol the desirability of whiteness denies the appropriateness of blackness. More concretely, the eruption of Watts in 1965, after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the voting rights legislation of 1965, pointed out the impotence of the traditional civil rights movement. Consequently, by the latter half of the decade the issue was no longer assimilation, but Black Power or Black Nationalism (see Killian, 1968; Edwards, 1970; Geschwender, 1972).

In describing the movement at its critical turning point from "integration to control," Helmreich states:

The years 1964 to 1968 were perhaps most characterized by a dramatic increase in the overall militancy of the Black Movement. Indicative of this shift in emphasis was the wave of urban riots that began engulfing the country from coast to coast. The issue of community control became a rallying cry for large segments of the Black population. Black Nationalism and identity became dominant themes of the movement along with a general tendency towards revolutionary ideology, as increasing numbers of Black people, especially the young, began to question..." the system." [3] 

As Helmreich suggests, Black Nationalism and identity were a part of a more revolutionary ideology than its liberal predecessor, the civil rights movement. Rather than assimilation and inclusion, this Black Power ideology sought independence and self-determination. Consequently, heretofore liberal allies found themselves at odds with each other. Apart from the internal split in the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) which found Jews resigning as it abandoned integration as a goal and endorsed separatism, one of the first public displays of a schism in the liberal coalition was the "confrontation at Ocean Hill-Brownsville." This struggle was between Blacks who wanted community control of schools and the predominately Jewish United Federation of Teachers in New York City. The teachers won, and community control was defeated.

Essentially, Black Power or Black Nationalism were the causes of a major redefinition of relationships, as exemplified by the school struggle mentioned above. They were a call for group rights, not simply individual rights, and for self-determination. More importantly, Black Nationalism was inter- national in its view. Consequently, the interests of nation-states of the African continent became the interests of Afro-Americans. With the adoption of this new ideology, not only were the relations of America's Jews and Afro-Americans strained on domestic issues, but on the international level these groups, particularly relative to the Middle East, supported different sides of the fray. Because the Muslims were the cornerstone of this Black Nationalism, the unity with Africa was not only with the Sub-Sahara but the Northern Arab states as well.

To this point it has been suggested that the basis for an Afro-American/ Arab alliance has its roots in both the growing strain of relations between Jews and Blacks as a result of their interests diverging and Blacks' positive identity with Africa and Islam. Also, the different sets of assumptions of the civil rights and Black Power movements show that the goals of Blacks have changed as a result of their changing conditions. While what follows is a fuller discussion of these developments, we must assume that as the objective conditions of Blacks continue to change, the ideology of Black struggle and its attendant interconnectedness will change. However, for the forseeable future, as the following analysis should suggest, the affinity of the objective interests of Blacks and Arabs is likely to continue to grow.

In about 1903 W. E. B. DuBois, an intellectual giant who is not fully understood by Blacks and more often than not unrecognized by Whites, made the following prophecy: "The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the colour line." While that statement is often misinterpreted, the DuBois prophecy was profound. The statement is often misinterpreted because DuBois was a very complex person. He was an organizer of the Niagara Movement, out of which grew both the Urban League and the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People). He called the first Pan-African Congress. He fought the white chauvinism of the Communist Party and the white supremacy of the Ku Klux Klan. He collaborated on sending Marcus Garvey to jail. Finally, he died a communist in exile in 1963. For people who do not understand the complexities of the man and choose to follow only one facet of his ideas, it is easy to distort what he meant by his prediction. In fact, most people believe the DuBois prediction to be simply a comment on race which suggests that Whites are the problem. Nationalists, likewise, use the quotation as a confirmation of their position that Whites per se are the enemy.

From another vantage point, particularly taking the internationalist orientation of a DuBois, it is more reasonable to assume that DuBois was not restricting the problem simply to one of colour, but saw a world of white European colonizers on the one hand and a colonized world of colour on the other. While his "colour line" was racial, it was more than that - it was an issue of foreign domination, the exploiter versus the exploited, in short, imperialism. More, "the problem" was to be the working out of the contradiction inherent in such an order, or what we now see in the form of liberation struggles from that foreign dominance. Because the history of Afro-Americans is inextricably tied to that imperialism, it seems little wonder that Afro-Americans tend to side with those struggles of the Third World against European and American domination; or even more, the extension of that Americo-European dominance in the form of Israel. In fact, it was this anti-imperialist sentiment which was one of the main currents which led to Afro-American organizations speaking out forcefully in opposition to Zionism.

As Weisbord and Stein have noted, Black Nationalism, with its own concept of internationalism, has provided some basis for an Afro-American and Arab unity. They suggest:

... There is a common psychological plight: [Afro-Americans and Arabs] sense an oppression by powerful and often uncontrollable forces, either White or financed by Whites. The American Black man has long felt the imprint of the White man's boot; the Arab perceives that his brother has been dispossessed from his homelands by an expansionist Israel. [Consequently]... Afro-Americans and Arabs have a natural bond in that they see White America (and its Zionist counterpart) as their common oppressor. [4] 

This common "psychological plight" manifested itself as a part of the Black movement's ideology, which serving to guide both action and rhetoric. Consequently, much of the movement's thrust was anti-Zionist. With the bedrock of Black Nationalism being Islamic (through the Black Muslims), there should be little wonder about where the basis of the "common plight" was situated. In fact, Malcolm X suggested to C. Eric Lincoln that one of the implications of Israel's creation was to perpetuate "its continued aggression against our brothers in the East." [Emphasis added.] [5] 

From Malcolm X, the anti-Zionist gauntlet was picked up by the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee. As the head of the SNCC in 1967, Stokely Carmichael attacked what he termed the "Zionist aggression" of Israel, as well as the "trickery of Zionism" and the "evil of Zionism." He attempted to show not only a close relationship between the United States and Israel, but how the plight of American Blacks and Arabs was linked in that "the same Zionists that exploit Arabs also exploit us [Blacks] in this country" (cf. Weisbord and Stein, 1970). One of the most powerful demonstrations of the Black Power movement's anti-Zionist thrust was a conference which had been billed as the conference on "New Politics." The conference was called for the activists of the civil rights and anti-war struggles. The Black delegates to this conference formed a caucus (as was typical in this transitional stage from civil rights to Black Power) and demanded, among other things, that the conference condemn Zionism.

While a growing ideological unity was being forged between the Afro- American struggle and the Arab struggle, there continued to be increased tensions between Blacks and Jews. The change in SNCC and CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) from interracialism to Black self-determination found many Jews spurned and their continued participation in these organizations unwanted. Apart from those internal and often personal cleavages, there were two major public turning points: the Conference on New Politics previously mentioned and the confrontation at Ocean Hill- Brownsville. The Ocean Hill-Brownsville struggle was generally viewed as a Black-Jewish battle in that the desire for Black community control of schools was being thwarted by a predominantly Jewish teachers' union.

More recently, the strain between these former allies was tested even more with the court case of Alan Bakke. In this case Alan Bakke, a White male, charged that he was a victim of "reverse [racial] discrimination" in his being denied admission to medical school at the University of California at Davis, as a result of an affirmative action programme which guaranteed the admission of sixteen minority students. Almost all Jewish organizations from the liberal Anti-Defamation League (ADL) to the most conservative sup- ported Alan Bakke's claim in opposition to almost every Black organization.

Those tensions which tend to unify Afro-Americans with Arabs, and at the same time estrange them from Jews, continue to mount. In the international arena two major events made such a contribution. One was the "Zionism is racism" resolution adopted by the United Nations General Assembly with overwhelming Third World support. While there were some detractors such as Bayard Rustin, the resolution had considerable Afro- American support. The other glaring example of Jewish-Black tensions, which tended to bind the relationship with the Arab world, was the Andrew Young affair. The fact that Young lost his ambassadorship as the result of a conversation he had with representatives of the PLO was considered by Blacks to be a direct result of Jewish pressure. The schism between Blacks and Jews was heightened considerably as a result of the resignation. An example of how incensed Blacks were was offered by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference as they flaunted their pro-Palestinian position in the face of America's Jews and Israel.

One other facet of this anti-imperialist struggle which leads to support of the Arab cause by Black Americans is the apparent link between Israel and the Union of South Africa. [6] Since Black Americans continue to oppose the racist regime of South Africa, any friend of South Africa is likely to be an enemy of Afro-Americans. However, since the full extent of this relationship is not public knowledge, it is not possible to ascertain the effect of the relationship on Afro-American-Jewish relations.

In conclusion, we can note that as the various interests of Black movements shift, the groups to which Blacks ally themselves will change as well. The "liberation movement" of Afro-Americans is not isolated, but very much connected to the situations and aspirations of others.

During the civil rights struggle Jews saw a commonality between the Black condition and theirs. The struggle, as mentioned before, was for individual rights, and a unity between Afro-Americans and Jews could be struck on that basis. Jews at that time tended to be liberal and a major tenet of their ideology was that no individual should be discriminated against or denied opportunity because of birth or belief. On the other hand, group solutions to such discrimination are generally opposed by Jewish organizations, as is the case with affirmative action, particularly when this involves designations such as quotas.

The various twists and turns of the movement are indicative of the fact that it is not static. In fact, its successes and failures affect the course of the movement and its content. As Afro-Americans began to realize that the assimilationist model which did not take into account the exploitative nature of the capitalist system had severe limitations, the thrust of the movement changed. The new direction began to question "the system" itself. Further, the new ideology began to take on a more and more international character and lead to an increasingly anti-imperialist struggle, uniting Afro-Americans with more and more of the Third World. Because Zionism is perceived to be an extension of imperialism, the relationship with Jews has become more strained while at the same time increasing unity is being perceived with the Arab world, including the Palestinian cause.

The important lesson to be learned from these changing relationships is that they result not so much from the posturing of a single leader but from a shift in the objective conditions and interests of a people. In other words, the growing bases for an Afro-American and Arab alliance are rooted in a set of objective conditions, not the least of which is the world order and our respective places in it.


Research and scholarship requires investment. Generous contributions from people like you allow us to provide invaluable resources as a public good. Make a tax-deductible donation today!



Robert G. Newby teaches Sociology at Wayne State University in Detroit.

1 Cf. Karen Farsoun, Samih Farsoun and Alex Ajay, "Middle East Perspectives from the American Left," in Arabs in America: Mytbs and Realities (Wilmette, Ill.: The Medina University Press International, 1975). 

2 Materialism and the Dialectical Method (New York: International Publishers, 195 3), pp. 71-72. 

3 William B. Helmreich, Black Crusaders: A Case Study of a Black Militant Organization (New York: Harper and Row, 1973), p. 12.

4 Robert G. Weisbord and Arthur Stein, Bittersweet Encounter: The Afro-American and the American Jew (Westport, Conn.: Negro Universities Press, 1970), p. 91.

5 In C. Eric Lincoln, The Black Muslims in America (Boston: Beacon Press, 1963), p. 166. 

6 See Richard Stevens and Abdul-Wahab Elmessiri, Israel and South Africa: The Progression of a Relationship (New York: New World Press, 1976).