Protests For Racial Justice Bring Light To Anti-Blackness Within Communities Of Color

Jul 25, 2020
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LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The killing of George Floyd while in police custody sparked a global movement against racial injustice and police brutality. It also prompted some difficult conversations among other communities of color and minority faiths about their complicity and contributions to systemic racism, including non-Black American Muslims.

My next story is about what happened to one prominent family in Minneapolis when a series of old, bigoted social media posts came to light. It happened just three days after Floyd's killing. Posts from years ago - anti-Black, anti-Semitic, anti-LGBTQ. They were written by the daughter of Majdi Wadi, a well-known local Palestinian American Muslim businessman. He's the CEO of the family-run grocery store, restaurant, bakery and a hummus factory called Holy Land.

His daughter Lianne Wadi was 15 when she wrote those posts. Public reaction was swift. Wadi's business was evicted from one location. He had to close two others. He laid off dozens of employees, mostly people of color, and closed the factory.

MAJDI WADI: They're gone - beside the contracts that we lost from the mainstream market and our factory, more than $3 million.

FADEL: That's Wadi. Prior to the scandal, the company was celebrated locally and on national food programs.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: The Holy Land is a little piece of the Middle East in the Midwest.

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GUY FIERI: Thanks to the Wadi family, who...

FADEL: An immigrant success story - today, the business is blackballed. The family received death threats. Wadi immediately fired his daughter Lianne, the director of catering at the company. She issued public apologies. So did her father as CEO. And as Wadi dealt with the fallout of what he called her disgusting tweets, he called Imam Makram El-Amin.

MAKRAM EL-AMIN: I'll say what he said. He called me because he respects my family. He called me because we are one of the prominent African American Muslim families in this city, in this state. He called me because he needed to.

WADI: I said, I know you're busy. I need to see you. There is a situation here. And I need your help, not help to bail me. So I went to his house. And I said, brother Makram, I'm here to learn. Tell me what to do.

FADEL: In those posts, Lianne Wadi repeatedly used the N-word and made other derogatory comments. She used a hashtag implying her family speaks like this. Wadi says they don't. Again, El-Amin.

EL-AMIN: I was stunned. I was hurt. My family has supported his business for many, many years, many years. He had a relationship with my mother, as well, who also called me in the midst of this - was like, what's going on with this?

FADEL: But in this moment, El-Amin saw an opportunity for Wadi and him to begin to tackle anti-Blackness among non-Black American Muslims.

EL-AMIN: I said this is really - at this point in time, you know, this is even bigger than me.

FADEL: El-Amin says his faith teaches redemption. But it also demands accountability. And a racial reckoning, he says, among American Muslims has yet to happen.

EL-AMIN: Not because we don't know that the prophet - (speaking Arabic) - he would say there's no superiority of white over Black or white or - Black over white or Arab. We know that. But it's will to do. Allah says he calls all - (speaking Arabic) - I call all of you equally. We know that. We can quote that. But our lived experience - oh, no. It says something much different, much, much different.

FADEL: So El-Amin consulted with Black and brown Muslim community organizers and with his community in North Minneapolis, a part of the city with the highest racial disparities, then went to Wadi with a memorandum of understanding.

EL-AMIN: That he be a strategic committed partner to bringing these conversations to the Muslim community. You can't be on the sideline. You've got to come all the way in.

FADEL: To use his money and social capital to combat anti-Blackness inside the Muslim community, to invest in El-Amin's organization and other Black-led groups to combat the legacy of redlining, a broken criminal justice system and disinvestment.

EL-AMIN: I.e., create jobs in this community, i.e., help with affordable housing, help start other businesses in this community, - right? - but also to help fund and support the idea of movements that are going to organize for this issue of law enforcement in this community. You have benefited from this community for many, many years.

FADEL: The days for I'm sorry, El-Amin says - they're over.

EL-AMIN: But this is just a microcosm of the whole society. If no real reform or whatever comes out of this here, this is just - you know, we're on a downward spiral.

FADEL: American Muslims are among the most racially and ethnically diverse faith groups in the country. Black Muslims make up at least a fifth of the American Muslim population. Yet they deal with anti-Blackness in non-Black Muslim communities. It shows up in condescension about who knows best, who's chosen to represent. Meanwhile, El-Amin says some immigrant-owned businesses are building wealth in African American communities.

EL-AMIN: You've come here by way of a passage that was created on my people's backs. What are you talking about? This is folks who have, in many ways, benefited from the construct of white supremacy and racism. They weren't the architects, but they've benefited.

FADEL: But people, he says, thought Holy Land in northeast Minneapolis was different. Wadi sits in his office surrounded by awards the business has won for community work. He says it's not an excuse. But his daughter was going through a bad phase, the only brown Muslim kid at her white high school. Lianne wouldn't speak to me but apologized in the local press and on Instagram, saying she's disgusted and mortified that she ever wrote them. They date back to 2012. The incident, Wadi says, has forced him to search his soul.

WADI: When you sit down and you see and you start digging deep - not with Lianne - in general, you say you're not - where did this come from? If I didn't teach her to this, my home value are completely - and faith are against this. Where did this come from?

FADEL: It's a question he's trying to answer.

WADI: So when you started digging deep, you find, you know what? It is in our heart by design without us knowing that we have this as a Muslim Arab community.

FADEL: He thought about a word sometimes used for Black people when he was growing up in Jordan and Kuwait. The word is abeed. In Arabic, it means slaves.

WADI: If you tell me, Majdi, did you ever used it, I would be lying if I said no. But did I use this word to discriminate or be racist, definitely no. I used it because it's a common word and a phrase that I learned. I've been raised to use it.

FADEL: Now, he says, he understands it's akin to the N-word and goes against his family values, especially as a Muslim Palestinian who's faced deep discrimination.

WADI: This country gave me where no nowhere else in the world gave me a home for my kids as a Palestinian, as a refugee.

FADEL: He knows the tweets have caused pain. Now Wadi says he wants to use that pain to grow. He told Lianne...

WADI: I love you. But you did a huge mistake. I'm not sure how you're going to live with this mistake if you didn't do anything about it. Do you want to live with it for the rest of your life? Do you want to be labeled a racist for the rest of your life? Are you ready when your kids going to come and ask you, mom, one day, you said this and this? How are you going to answer them?

FADEL: So Wadi he says now it's his top priority to combat anti-Blackness and be a role model for other Arab Muslim businessmen in Minneapolis. He says the company started a charitable fund to support Black-led organizations. He knows what people will say.

WADI: They say, oh, because you've been exposed now, you're going to start working in this one because you lost business, because you lost Costco. I'm not going to convince you otherwise, definitely.

FADEL: He says they should check that he follows through. He's been writing down his thoughts.

WADI: Because you did something wrong in the past does not mean you cannot advocate against it now. It doesn't make you hypocrites. You just grew.

FADEL: So far, Wadi has not signed the agreement with El-Amin. If it happens, El-Amin says it could be an example of what a path to redemption looks like. If it doesn't, well, he says, he and his community aren't in a space to just forgive and forget.

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FADEL: You can hear more about this story in the latest episode of NPR's Code Switch. Find it wherever you get your podcasts. The episode is called Unholy Land: An Arab Muslim Reckoning With Racism.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC ) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.