Backlash in Post-9/11 America Extends to the Workplace, Too

Racist, anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric is permeating our national political climate. We hear calls from local and national politicians to force Muslims to bear special identification cards, to end refugee resettlement or to impose greater surveillance of Arabs, South Asians and Muslims. What we are witnessing now is part and parcel of the impact of a domestic "war on terror" that characterizes Muslim, Arab and South Asian communities as being worthy of suspicion, discrimination, surveillance and profiling. The current political environment is taking a particular toll on these communities, extending even to acts of violence.

Post-9/11 bias has extended to the workplace as well and includes violence, hostile work environments, denied promotions, hiring discrimination and denied religious accommodations. Indeed, in the 11 years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reported receiving 1,040 charges filed by South Asians, Arabs, Muslims and Sikhs related to workplace discrimination based on religion and national origin bias. In August 2010, for example, Ahmed Sharif, a Bangladeshi taxi driver in New York City, was attacked by a passenger who asked him if he was Muslim. Sharif needed 15 stitches to close a six-inch wound at his throat. The Sikh Coalition continues to litigate cases on behalf of Sikhs who are not allowed to keep their turbans and beards in workplaces, ranging from private companies to the U.S. Army. Groups of workers organizing for better workplace policies also have faced discrimination and retaliation. As recently as last December, for example, a meat factory in Colorado fired 150 Somali Muslim refugee employees after dozens of workers walked out in protest over changes to a prayer policy.

When community members are exposed to misleading narratives, xenophobic rhetoric, backlash and discrimination on the basis of their race, national origin and faith, their ability to live full and meaningful lives is compromised in all contexts, including in the workplace. As the AFL-CIO’s Labor Commission on Racial and Economic Justice has noted, "America’s legacy of racism and racial injustice has been and continues to be a fundamental obstacle to workers’ efforts to act together to build better lives for all of us." That is why organized labor must explicitly address the post-9/11 backlash both in the workplace and in communities around the country by:

  • Acknowledging and validating the experiences of Muslim, Arab, Sikh and South Asian communities as examples of racism and racial injustice in the United States in findings, reports, speeches and internal communications.
  • Understanding and analyzing the impact of post-9/11 backlash in the workplace on members through listening sessions and policy recommendations.
  • Calling on elected officials supported by organized labor to take a pledge to refrain from engaging in anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant and racist rhetoric and endorsing policies that target communities of color, faith communities and immigrants.
  • Holding elected officials engaging in anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant and racist rhetoric publicly accountable for their statements.
  • Integrating policy priorities related to racial profiling, hate violence and surveillance in broader advocacy statements and efforts.
  • Supporting and uplifting the organizing efforts of South Asian, Muslim, Arab and Sikh workers seeking equal wages and labor protections.

As our country becomes more diverse, we can expect to witness an increase in racial anxiety, anti-immigrant sentiment and Islamophobia. Our movements for racial justice, economic dignity and workers' rights must become more creative and collaborative to stem this tide. Acknowledging and including the voices, experiences and policy priorities of Muslim, Arab and South Asian communities is a critical step in our collective efforts to create racially inclusive and equitable workplaces for everyone.

Deepa Iyer is a senior fellow at the Center for Social Inclusion and author of "We Too Sing America: South Asian, Arab, Muslim and Sikh Immigrants Shape Our Multiracial Future." Follow her at @dviyer and join the online We Too Sing America community.