Easing Tensions over Race, Religion in Detroit

Tensions have existed for decades in Detroit, where the nation's largest community of Arab Americans lives near a predominantly black inner-city. But the two communities have successfully managed to reach out to one another. Jerome Vaughn of Detroit Public Radio reports.

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ED GORDON, host:

I'm Ed Gordon and this is NEWS AND NOTES. Tensions between black and Arab Americans have existed for decades in Detroit where the nation's largest community of Arab Americans lives near the predominately black city.

As Jerome Vaughn of Detroit Public Radio reports recently the two communities are working with each other to mend fences.

JEROME VAUGHN (Reporter, Detroit Public Radio): The relationship between the large African-American and the Arab-American communities in Detroit likely hit rock bottom in May 1999. That's when 34-year-old Calvin Porter walked into the mini mart of a gas station on the cities east side. According to witnesses the African-American man exchanged heated words with a Yemeni clerk. Moments later, Porter was beaten to death by the clerk and another employee. All of this took place in front of Porter's five children.

The outrage was swift in Detroit, which is more than 80 percent black. Protesters picketed in front of the station and local radio shows buzzed with talk of the incident.

Unidentified Man: Here he just passed my interesting note. He said the owner was not there at the time and feels he should not be held responsible for the actions of his employees. That's bunk. If I own a business, I am directly responsible.

Unidentified Woman: I would hope you would be directly responsible...

Unidentified Man: ...for the actions of my employees as they interact with the public.

VAUGHN: Detroit community leaders managed to dampen the anger that erupted after several days of protest. Key to that process at the time was the city's network of community groups. Shirley Stancato is the president and CEO of New Detroit, one of the groups that worked to keep tempers in check in May 1999. She says Calvin Porter's death provided another serious challenge for community leaders.

Ms. SHIRLEY STANCATO (President and CEO, New Detroit): And that just really, really, really tore the communities apart. Detroit over the course of several years, sponsored meetings here where both sides could sit down and talk. But that was really a time where people took pause to look at what we needed to do to keep the lid on, and that's what we do in Detroit is try keep the lid on.

VAUGHN: New Detroit was founded in the late 1960s to bridge the divide between blacks and whites in the aftermath of the city's devastating 1967 riot. The organization plays an equally important role now in bringing together African Americans and Arab Americans. It achieves that goal though activities such as a year long Immersion Program, where people from different cultures get to know each other. It does it by encouraging trips of African American students to the Arab American museum in the nearby suburb of Dearborn.

And New Detroit works to strengthen the relationship between African Americans and Arab Americans through its partnership with other organizations such as the American Arab Chamber of Commerce.

In the central hall of the Arab American Museum in the suburb of Dearborn, a group of about 40 people mingle while munching on snacks. The members and guests at the American Arab Chamber of Commerce meeting have just finished hearing a sales pitch by a local merchant and are taking a few minutes to network before heading home. The attendees are white, black and Middle Eastern, and they're all interested in forging better ties between their respective communities. Many of the members like, Fuad(ph) Askar say they have solid ideas about what their next steps should be.

Mr. FUAD ASKAR (Member Arab American Chamber of Commerce): We need that American Arab business people also to encourage this, that is to help more African Americans to own their own business. And that should be done by having funding facilities, by having training for the people and by doing a lot of things so that African American businessman could be a real businessman in their own community.

VAUGHN: Area businesses are also taking a leading role in changing the dynamic of the relationship between African Americans and Arab Americans. Much of the friction between the two communities occurs at gas stations and convenience stores in the city. That's where much of the interaction takes place in Detroit between merchants of Middle Eastern descent and African American customers.

Chamber Vice President Jumana Judeh says, just as ethnicity is factor in keeping people apart, local businesses are playing a role in bringing them together.

Ms. JUMANA JUDEH (Vice President, Arab American Chamber of Commerce): If we as two communities come together with the interest of good economics, I think we can be very successful, because I think it can be a win/win situation, and we can all succeed. You can safe neighborhoods, safe businesses and everybody is making money, and everybody is happy.

VAUGHN: But the scars from the Calvin Porter beating have not completely healed yet. Here at the gas station on Detroit's East side where Porter lost his life in 1999, the business remains closed, nearly seven years later. The empty hulk is surrounded by garbage and covered with graffiti. Many people believe one incident today could still undue all of the efforts that have been made to bridge the gap between African Americans and Arab Americans and New Detroit's Shirley Stancato says there's still plenty of work to be done in the years ahead before the city can consider itself one community.

Ms. STANCATO: I will know that we have arrived when I go to a social event, let's just say a wedding, and look around and everybody doesn't look like me. And that's where we will know that the gap is really closed, when personal relationships develop after business relationship have developed, and we understand each other, focus on the things that we have that are so very much alike.

VAUGHN: For NPR News, I'm Jerome Vaughn in Detroit.

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