Persisting in the face of structural racism and Islamophobia

America’s history is riddled with structural racism that has persisted until the present day. Although segregation is no longer legally enforced, it is embedded in the country’s fabric in ways that adversely affect black Americans in all aspects of life. Black Muslims in America live at the intersection of racism and islamophobia, and often experience compounded discrimination and limited social and economic mobility due to these identities. 

According to a recent study conducted by a team of researchers at SUNY Albany, black Muslims are more likely than any other subset of the general population to be adversely affected by the legacy of racialised housing policies. The report, titled “Muslim–Non-Muslim Locational Attainment in Philadelphia: A New Fault Line in Residential Inequality?” uses Philadelphia as a case study to examine “Muslim–non-Muslim disparities in locational attainment” (Friedman). The neighbourhood in which a person lives predicts the types of social and economic resources one is able to receive, and is also associated with negative childhood outcomes, such as impaired cognitive development, delinquency, teenage childbearing, and higher school dropout rates. According to Friedman’s study, black American Muslims are most likely to live in impoverished, predominantly black neighbourhoods with few opportunities for social and economic mobility. 

Philadelphia, a city of historical significance and present-day poverty, offers a drastically different lived experience than its surrounding suburban, middle-upper income neighborhoods. To see the difference, one only needs to peruse Lancaster Avenue, the city’s largest thoroughfare, from its origins in the “Black Bottom” neighborhood in West Philadelphia, through to surrounding Montgomery County, which is one of the richest counties in America. The difference in wealth has created two different lived experiences on either side of the street. On one side, there are subpar schools, high rates of violent crime, and median incomes that do not exceed $17,000 . On the other side of Lancaster Avenue, the median income is $110,414, and violent crime rates are almost non-existent. Philadelphia’s derelict properties, poor neighborhood services and general neglect most often affect low-income minority populations. The city is highly segregated, and blacks and Hispanics are more likely to reside in a neighborhood with substandard housing and other poverty signifiers. This is not an experience that is unique to Philadelphia. Other cities, such as Baltimore, New York, and Detroit, face similar challenges regarding spatial inequality. These conditions were created through local and national policies in the early 20th century, such as redlining, which discouraged banks to make investments in older urban neighborhoods, immigrant communities, and areas with a substantial black American population. These policies prohibited blacks from living in close proximity to whites and contributed to gradual neighborhood degradation, as blacks were restricted from municipal services to improve their neighborhood conditions. 

The lack of general knowledge regarding government-approved segregation and interference in housing markets in Northern cities has led to Black American communities being blamed for issues such as generational poverty and crime, when in reality, the neighborhood conditions that we see today are due to forces largely outside of the community’s control.

        Friedman’s study at SUNY Albany is the first to conclude that black Muslims are severely impacted by the historical tradition of unequal housing policies and gradual neighborhood decay.    Friedman’s study states that black Muslims are at a “double disadvantage” due to their race and religion, and found that these identities restrict locational attainment (Friedman). Basically, this means that black American Muslims experience the most structural resistance when attempting to gain social and economic mobility. Black American Muslims frequently do not have access to “better neighborhoods and better schools,” which are found in predominantly white communities, which, according to Friedman’s study “offer the best access to educational and economic opportunities, and better environmental quality” (Friedman). Black Muslims are often stuck in the cycle of poverty, and both structural racism and islamophobia make this a difficult situation to overcome. 

A Way Forward

Just because Black American Muslims may face more obstacles due to racism and islamophobia does not mean that there is no possibility for social mobility and neighborhood improvement. We come from a legacy of struggle and resistance, and have often triumphed in the face of adversity. There are several examples of black Muslim-led community development initiatives, such as Universal Companies, that are working to shift the narrative of poverty in black American Muslim communities. The organisation, led by founder Luqman Abdul-Haqq, has renovated over 1000 properties in South Philadelphia, including a prominent mosque and a network of charter schools. It is considered one of the largest community revitalisation efforts in the city. Despite the negative outlook presented by Friedman’s study, it is also possible that black American Muslims choose to reside in communities seen as “impoverished” instead of moving to the suburbs due to the social networks, proximity to mosques and halal food options, as well as other resources found in the inner city that cannot be easily replicated in predominantly white communities. Friedman’s study uses survey data from 2004, 2006, and 2008 to make conclusions about present-day issues, which presents potential problems as the data may not be representative of current issues and housing trends. 

In order to create lasting social change and generate physical neighbourhood improvements, it is crucial to leverage the power of the existing community in order to create sustainable neighbourhood solutions. We need to support our own black Muslim-owned businesses and re-invest our own capital in our impoverished communities, instead of waiting for access to white neighbourhoods as a way to a “better life”. Proximity to whiteness should not be used as the baseline by which we measure our success. 

Sadiyah Sabree

Sadiyah serves as the North American representative for Black Muslim Forum, providing stories and updates regarding the Black American Muslim experience. Sadiyah received her Masters degree in Urban Planning in 2018. Her academic research and personal interests revolve around community-led development initiatives in low-income communities of colour, in both the US and the UK.

Sadiyah Sabree: Persisting in the face of structural racism and Islamophobia

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