As we remember those we’ve lost, we must come together to ensure the rights we treasure as Americans are guaranteed for ALL.
Nineteen years ago today I stood on the streets of lower Manhattan and watched in horror as the twin towers of the World Trade Center collapsed in front of my eyes, and those of our nation.
Out of fear for what else might happen that terrible day, I hired the driver of the car service I regularly used when I traveled to New York City to drive a colleague and I back to Raleigh that night, a 500-mile trip and $2,700 fare during which we mostly sat in shocked silence and listened to reports of other hijacked aircraft, the closure of the U.S. airspace, and who might be responsible for the terrorist attacks.
Our driver was Muslim and dark complected. My colleague and I are white. While it might have been easy to look at each other sideways due to the events of the day, and the differences in our skin color and religious ideology, the gentleman was quick to condemn terrorism and expressed concerns that all Muslims would be seen as complicit in the attack. As the hours went by, he told us of his family and upbringing in Iran and how opportunities in the United States had been hard to come by.
I spoke of growing up in the racially integrated Metro Detroit area and the large Arab American population of the region, including my own brother-in-law. I don’t know if I told him that to build a connection or ease tension as U.S. Intelligence experts began identifying Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda – and by extension, Muslims — as the probable suspects, but the conversation seemed to put us more at ease on the long drive.
As we approached Washington, D.C. and the smoldering Pentagon complex, the National Guard and District of Columbia Police had closed off access roads to the nation’s capital and roadblocks were set up to randomly inspect vehicles. With his brown skin, headscarf and New York license plates, our driver caught their attention and we were asked to pull to the side of the road and he was required to exit the vehicle. After a five-minute exchange, my colleague and I were asked to step out of the vehicle and show identification, as well as vouch for our driver’s story that he had been hired to get us home safely. There’s no doubt in my mind his ethnicity and appearance played a role in our being temporarily detained before we were allowed to proceed.
Upon our return to Raleigh that night, I invited him to stay at my home, as I was concerned about him making the eight-hour return trip by himself. But he declined as he wanted to get back to his own family and adopted city, one that was under siege.
I am reminded of this story on the anniversary of 9/11 for several reasons, one being the obvious and the other because 19 years later, with the threat of domestic unrest and violence on the rise, we aren’t casting sideways glances at those of Muslim faith as much as we are our black and white brothers and sisters.
This week’s Department of Homeland Security report that White Supremacy is the country’s “most persistent and lethal threat” should be a wake-up call to every American that systemic racism and racial intolerance are alive and well, not just 19 years later; or 57 years after the August 28, 1963 Great March on Washington; but 231 years after James Madison first drafted the Bills of Rights with the intent of guaranteeing certain civil rights and liberties to all Americans.
Today, social justice advocates are passionately calling out the disparities in opportunity and equal treatment under the law for black Americans. Change is needed, and the time is now. It is very hard for anyone with open eyes to argue otherwise.
If history has taught us anything it’s this: it is seldom the known enemy that topples a society. We’ve all heard the phrase “the barbarians are at the gate,” but the reality is the Roman Empire didn’t fall because of outside forces, it fell from within. It was those in power showing themselves to be as ruthless toward one another as they were to the enemies they had been fighting for centuries.
Throughout human history it has been proven time and again that people who are oppressed or that have little to lose will rise up against their perceived oppressors. It happened in France in the late 1700s and is on the verge of happening here in the United States if we continue to stoke divisive rhetoric and believe we are above anyone else because of the skin color we were born with.
I was a young child when Detroit was torn apart by the 1967 riots, the result of anger and desperation boiling over within the African-American community. More than 50 years later, the city is still traveling a long road toward recovery.
America was built on the constitutional framework that each of us – without exception – is created equal, with liberty and justice for all. As a society we need to remember those basic tenants and 9/11 is as good a day as any to do so, because it isn’t the enemy abroad that’s now our greatest threat, but the enemy within. If we protect the unalienable rights of all Americans, we’ll triumph over those who seek to divide us.
Chairman & CEO