by Madeline Bartos
The single story, specifically of different races and religions, could not be more prominent as it is in today’s political climate. President Trump’s executive order banned people from seven predominantly Islamic countries in order to protect our country from terrorists. The single story of seven countries and an entire religion being comprised of potential terrorists is not only dangerous, but when it comes to banning refugees, it’s untrue. The Office of the President hosted a talk called Racial and Cultural Understanding in a New Era. It was one talk in a series of civil discourse, created largely by President Gormley. There were two panels, “Race and Police: Building Trust in Communities,” and “Muslims, Immigration and the American Dream.” Both were moderated by Ester Bush, president of the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh, and David Hickton, the former United States Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania.
The first panel featured Coleman McDonough, the superintendent of Allegheny County Police and Tracy McCants Lewis, an assistant clinical professor for the School of Law. This panel focused on police bias and brutality. Police officer’s bias that exists driving while black took up the majority of the discussion. However, Superintendent McDonough’s position kept him from being able to kindle a progressive discussion about police bias. Also, the panel only had two people, a white man and a black woman, neither who can tell the stories about bias against black males. Instead of moving the conversation along, the moderators stayed fixated on the story of driving while black. When McDonough was asked if the conversation he would have with his son about driving would be different if he was black, he said he could not answer the question. While this is an acceptable answer as it’s not his story to tell, he couldn’t really answer anything other than what the police force is doing to eliminate this bias. This panel seemed to be running in circles while trying to tell a story that was controlled by the position of power the superintendent holds. He appeared to remain neutral and not take a political stance on how to monitor and control police – for example, he wouldn’t say whether or not body cameras on officers are a good idea.
The second panel featured Imam AbduSemi’h Tadese, MSUS Director of Religious Affairs at Islamic University Center, Lawrence M. Lebowitz, the chair of immigration group Cohen & Grigsby, and Emad Mirmotahari, an associate professor of English and African studies for McAnulty College. I found it to be a bit more productive than the first panel. Perhaps because the power and influence of religion interests me, but I felt that the second panel addressed more, talking about the travel ban to religious intolerance. The discussion challenged the audience, too. Imam AbduSemi’h Tadese in particular told a story that seemed to be relatively new for the audience. The story we’re hearing now from President Trump and his administration is about Muslims who have hijacked the religion for their public agenda – the people Trump wants to keep out of America.
Imam AbduSemi’h Tadese said that everyone wants to pursue happiness and freedom, which proposed an interesting lens to look at religion through. I think it was important to remind everybody that no matter what you think of another religion, the people following those beliefs are just people. It’s so easy to lump people into categories and forget that they’re another race or religion, not a different species. When you alienate entire countries of people, it gets a bit easier to think that maybe they are aliens like the president claims.
This panel discussion prompted me to think about how there isn’t a single story of Islam like the president and his administration wants us to believe. For example, hijabs are a symbol that have been used to create a negative one-sided narrative of Islam. Imam AbduSemi’h Tadese pointed out that Catholic nuns wear something on their heads, too. While it got a few laughs from the audience, it brought to light how when the religious headwear is worn by different people, it becomes odd – like driving while black or boarding a plane while wearing a hijab. Today, it’s easier to make judgements and assumptions based on a person’s appearance rather than their actions. The golden rule of treating others the way you want to be treated gets pushed to the wayside on the grounds of religion and skin color. The current political climate ignores the fact that (not to simplify things) everybody is human. While there are undoubtedly bad humans, projecting their story onto millions of others for the sake of a likely impossible terrorist attack is dehumanizing.
A Duquesne law student who is a refugee asked the audience to put themselves in place of a refugee. Of course I can’t even imagine, but I tried to picture the situation. I realized that there wasn’t only one person feeling this way but millions, and I had projected the single story of poverty and oppression that the news covers onto them. I became aware of the fact that while I have heard several stories of people seeking asylum in America, there still seems to be the single story. The news stories I have read about people being denied entry into the U.S. in the newspapers were not all the stories in the world. I can read an article about families being torn apart by Trump’s immigration order, but when I put down the newspaper, the story is over for me, but not the people living the story. Trump’s executive order takes a single story of an Islamic terrorist (even though there have been no fatal terrorist attacks from a refugee since the Refugee Act of 1980) and projects it onto an entire religion. Trump is a Christian, but I don’t go around and declare all the Christians in my life misogynists and xenophobes.
Overall, the panel was a step in the right direction. It was also a reaffirmation of the majority of the audience’s beliefs, so it could have been more productive. None of the questions challenged the speakers, and the lack of an opposing viewpoint led to little discussion. I was interested to hear how President Gormley would respond if asked about the actions he would take if U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement came to Duquesne. A few weeks before the panel, faculty members had emailed President Gormley and asked him to protect Duquesne students who were immigrants and refugees. President Gormley replied that Duquesne is a private, tax exempt school and taking a political stance might jeopardize their exemption from taxes. The question was asked again during the panel, and knowing the drama behind the question, I eagerly awaited the answer. However, it was interrupted (perhaps purposely) by the introduction of the Duquesne law student. The question was not revisited. If there are more discussions like this in the future I hope that they can address this .