From MLK to Nablus: Fighting Institutionalized Racism and Ongoing Discrimination

Clare Herceg – This week’s celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day offers us a unique opportunity to reflect on the significance of the Civil Rights Movement, the current situation of race relations in the United States, and some of the parallels that can be drawn between discrimination in the United States and Palestine.

The Civil Rights Movement was active from 1955 to 1968 and used a series of nonviolent tactics and methods of civil disobedience to secure equal legal rights for African Americans.  The movement culminated in the adoption of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination based on race; the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which reaffirmed the right of minorities to vote; and the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which outlawed discrimination in renting or purchasing housing.

While blatant discrimination remains illegal in the United States, American society still struggles with issues of more hidden discrimination.  Education is at the heart of this debate.  The fight to ensure equal access to a quality education for all American children, regardless of race, rages onwards.  Poverty and the low quality of education available to minority groups are inextricably linked.  Statistics from the National Poverty Center illustrate how poverty disproportionately affects people of color, with 27.4% of Blacks and 26.6% of Hispanics living in poverty, compared to 9.9% of non-Hispanic Whites.  Moreover, a 2009 McKinsey Report states that, “On average, black and Latino students are roughly two to three years of learning behind white students of the same age.” The National Center for Education Statistics also asserts that African American students are almost twice as likely as non-Hispanic Whites to drop out of school.  Recognizing the vast disparities in educational opportunities offered in the United States, many Americans are working to reform the education system because they believe that education serves as an equalizer. They aim to realize education’s potential to transform individuals and to enable them to secure a better future.

Similar to the way that racial discrimination manifests itself in the American educational system, discrimination also plagues Palestinian refugees, both within the West Bank and in other host countries. In the West Bank, discrimination exists against refugee camp residents. Notably, discrimination against refugees has never been legally institutionalized by Palestinians in the West Bank as it was against African Americans in the U.S. through slavery and the laws that preceded the Civil Rights movement.  In fact, it is technically against the law to discriminate against refugees. Nevertheless, refugees face additional burdens when seeking employment in the West Bank.  Anecdotal evidence indicates that popular stereotypes of refugee camp residents as aggressive, untrustworthy, and lazy subconsciously push employers to avoid hiring refugees.  (For reference, see Pager’s work on the similar effect of incarceration and race in U.S. employment patterns: As such, discrimination against refugees operates similarly to today’s discrimination against African Americans in the United States; it is indirect and difficult to measure, but a reality nevertheless.

Suhad, TYO’s Psychosocial Program Manager, explained the roots of this discrimination and prejudice among people of her generation: “When my generation grew up, we understood that this [West Bank] was not their [the people living in the refugee camps] home or land.  We learned that they had their own history and they had lost their land by force.  We knew that we should respect these people because the camps represented the injustice of the political situation.  However, over the years, Palestinians began to lose hope that the refugees would ever return back to their homes.”  As such, she was taught two conflicting messages as a child.  The first was that the people living in refugee camps had sacrificed their land and should be respected; the second was that the people from West Bank cities and villages were not allowed to build relationships with children from the camps, because the camps were both temporary and dangerous.

TYO brings children together from the four neighboring refugee camps and two impoverished neighborhoods we serve

Today’s prejudice against refugee camp children stems from a few places.  First, the camps were built on the outskirts of the city, meaning that integration between city and camp people is physically difficult.  Suhad says, “You feel like they don’t belong to you.”  Initially, refugees were purposefully not integrated into the rest of Palestinian society because people assumed that they would soon return home. This separation eventually helped to fuel discrimination.  Second, there is a belief that refugee camp residents are more dangerous than others.  This conception is explained by academic theories that link social exclusion and economic forces like poverty and inequality to violence.  When people live in deep poverty where they lack access to basic services and security, they must assert their power in alternative ways.  Because unemployment is high in the refugee camps, many people are jobless, so they need to assert power or authority through unconventional means. Simultaneously, mainstream West Bank society treats them as separate, and this combination of poverty and exclusion creates an incentive for some members of the refugee population to prove their strength through aggression. With more aggression comes more exclusion and fewer opportunities for authority within the conventions of mainstream society, and thus the process reinforces itself.

Because this discrimination is not legalized, it is difficult to recognize and combat.  Suhad says that the best way to combat these misconceptions and stereotypes would be to bring these children together and have them build relationships with one another.  Integrating schools would serve as a positive solution.  TYO does just this on a small scale by including women and children from two Nablus city neighborhoods and the four area refugee camps in its programs.  However, a school integration program on a large scale would be expensive. Palestinian government institutions are weak due to internal problems and the Occupation, with little money available to fund government initiatives. Additionally, refugee camps are very politically sensitive. Many Palestinians—refugees and non-refugees alike—would consider the integration of camp and city residents to be normalization of a status quo that they find unacceptable. For these reasons, a program of large-scale social integration is unlikely at the national level.

Outside of Palestine, Palestinian refugees are discriminated against in a similar manner to African Americans before the Civil Rights Movement, meaning that they lack equal access to basic legal rights.   Palestinian refugee camps are dispersed throughout the region, and refugees’ rights differ based on their host country—Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, the Gaza Strip, or the West Bank. Palestinian refugees in Lebanon face the most discrimination; those with Palestinian ID cards are restricted from most professions, lack full access to the legal system, and do not have the right to own property. Those without ID cards lack access to all rights and rely solely on UNRWA for basic services.  Refugees in Syria have all of the same basic rights as Syrians, but are not eligible for citizenship, and most refugees in Jordan have full citizenship.

Shatila refugee camp in Lebanon

Securing the legal right to access an equal education was one of the many goals of the Civil Rights Movement. Today, accessing an equal education remains an integral part of achieving racial equality and ending discrimination in all of its forms in the United States.  Similarly, education also remains integral to ending discrimination wherever Palestinian refugees currently live.

Clare Herceg is currently a TYO Fellow as a recipient of the Princeton Class of 1956-81 International Reach Out Fellowship. She recently graduated from Princeton University with an A.B. in the Woodrow Wilson School of International and Public Affairs and certificates in Near Eastern Studies and Arabic language.  Her senior thesis explored narrative promotion in Palestinian education. She spent a summer working with Endeavor-Jordan, an economic development nonprofit, and a semester studying at the American University in Cairo.

From MLK to Nablus: Fighting Institutionalized Racism and Ongoing Discrimination | Palestine Note.

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