Jul 22, 2019

Lecture discusses race, connection to religion

John Tehranian, a law professor at Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles, spoke Monday night to about 100 people at the Alice Peters Auditorium about ‘colorblindness,’ the use of Middle-Eastern and Islamic themes to attack President Barack Obama and the current debate on affirmative action and immigration policy.

The event was co-sponsored by the Henry Madden Library and Ethics Center and the Islamic Cultural Center of Fresno as part of the library’s “Bridging Cultures Bookshelf: Muslim Journeys” project.

It was the last event in the series for the project, said Allison Cowgill, head of reference at the library.

“I think we exposed some people to things they didn’t know about Islam,” she said. “I think it was a provocative and interesting talk.”

John Tehranian, an Iranian American, remembers when he was turned away from a teaching job at a law school because of his race.

Except it wasn’t for the reason many would think.

Tehranian said the chair of the hiring committee called and told him that a group of eight faculty members voted against hiring because of his race.

“I start muttering something about discrimination against minorities and he goes, ‘No, John it has nothing to do with that,’” Tehranian recalled. “‘The eight faculty members who voted as a block against you categorically refused to have another white male on the faculty.’

“The only thing I said is, ‘I’m not white at the airport,’” Tehranian said.

In a supposedly colorblind America, Tehranian said the issue of race is still prevalent.

“What we understand as white is not grounded in any science,” Tehranian said.  “It’s a social construct.  It’s about who gets the goodies in society.”

Until 1952, a person had to be white or black to become a naturalized citizen.  As a result, people would appeal to the Supreme Court when rejected to argue that they were white.

He studied how Armenians and Arabs fared in tests of whiteness.

“The real test the courts were using didn’t use skin color,” he said. “It was about who acted correctly. Armenians did well. They were Christian, they married other Christian people and they were educated.”

He said that religion became connected to race. He referenced people’s surprise that the Boston Marathon bombers were white Muslims.

He said religion was used as a way to identify race was how people attacked President Barack Obama’s authenticity as an American during the 2008 and 2012 election.

“Drudge Report would put up pictures of him in what looked like Islamic garb when he was visiting Kenya,” Tehranian said. “They would talk about his early childhood in an Indonesian Muslim school.

“The attacks were not overtly on blackness, they were attacks on Middle Eastern ‘Muslimness’. You have this connection of Middle Eastern to Muslim.”

More recently, Tehranian said the fact that some people believe affirmative action is not only unnecessary, but racist, is counter to the argument the courts are making about race.

He said there have been decisions by lower courts supporting the policies of profiling people who look Mexican near the border, who look Middle Eastern in airports and are black for suspicion of a crime.

“At the same time we have the Supreme Court telling us we can’t discriminate on the basis of race and we have this bold new colorblind America,” Tehranian said.

“We have this very odd disparity in this discourse of what is permissible and what is not in ‘colorblindness.’

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