Guest Commentary

‘Middle Easterns’ crack shows Independence councilman’s textbook racism

Independence, Missouri City Councilman Curt Dougherty caused quite a stir at a recent City Council meeting when he referred to establishments “owned by Middle Easterns who will sell anything out the back door.” In the days that followed, several community organizations called for his resignation, and two fellow council members publicly rebuked his comment at their next meeting.

I reached out to Dougherty in the days after his comment requesting a chance to enter into dialogue. I am president of the Crescent Peace Society, a Kansas City interfaith organization that seeks to open dialogue among Muslims and people of other faiths, or people with no faith background at all. It is our hope that in getting to know one another, we can appreciate the humanity within all of us.

But first, it’s worth explaining what’s wrong with Dougherty’s statement. His use of the term “Middle Easterns,” like “Middle Easterners,” specifically attributes criminal activity to all members of an ethnicity — a textbook example of racism. It’s also just plain incorrect. “Middle Eastern” encompasses many different ethnicities. The Middle East is populated by Christians, Jews, Muslims and other religions, hailing from enormous regions that include the Arabian Peninsula, Persia and parts of Africa — and that’s just actual geographic Middle Easterners.

The immigrants running the gas stations, convenience stores and smoke shops he’s talking about come from areas that extend far beyond the Middle East, extending into the Indian subcontinent and North Africa. The person acting stereotypically in this case was Dougherty through his use of casual xenophobia, referring to literally billions of brown-skinned people with a reductive, ill-fitting descriptor.

A large component of this controversy is the councilman’s refusal to make a public statement addressing his comment. Instead, at a moment when immigrants have been demonized on the national stage, we are left wondering where Dougherty and the city of Independence stand on the issue of racism. He may have simply made a regrettable mistake, or he may harbor dangerous prejudices against minority business owners and residents.

Dougherty didn’t take me up on my invitation to mutual dialogue. Had he contacted me, I would have pointed out that immigrants — whether from the Middle East or, like my family, from Pakistan — have much to contribute to America and to a city like Independence. A recent study by Kansas City’s own Kauffman Foundation found that “immigrants are almost twice as likely as the native-born to become entrepreneurs.”

It’s not a great economic policy to vilify the immigrant communities bringing businesses, revenue and jobs to Independence. That’s especially true when overwhelming evidence shows that in comparison to native-born populations, “immigrants have a lower criminal incarceration rate and there are lower crime rates in the neighborhoods where they live,” according to the libertarian Cato Institute. Immigrants overwhelmingly benefit the communities they adopt.

At the very least, the immigrant communities living and working in Independence deserve better than to hear bigoted statements made about them at government meetings. These circumstances have provided the city’s mayor and City Council a critical opportunity to publicly affirm that they represent a city that is inclusive and welcoming to all.

In just over a month, we will celebrate with the SantaCaliGon Days Festival, which commemorates the city’s unique heritage as the starting point of the Santa Fe, California and Oregon trails. It is my hope that this year the city — and Councilman Dougherty — will choose to honor not only our historical pioneers, but also present-day pioneers such as the immigrants who left their home countries to settle in this area to live and work in Independence.

Ahsan Latif is president of the Crescent Peace Society, a Kansas City interfaith organization.