Paint It Black: Post-Mortem on a Sort-Of Race Riot

We noted here the confusion that was engendered in local media by a melee at South High School in Minneapolis between Somali immigrants and native-born black students. It was hard to make the usual narratives fit. So today, the Minneapolis Star Tribune enlisted two Macalester College professors in a further effort at explication:

The brawl between Somali-Americans and black students at Minneapolis’ South High School caught the outside world by surprise, but not the people who walk the tense line between cultures.

But wait! Aren’t Somali-Americans black too? This is so confusing!

Across town in St. Paul, two Macalester College professors — one Somali-American, the other African-American — know well the culture clash that sometimes flares between two peoples who share the same race but not the same story.

Somalia is in Africa, obviously, so why isn’t the first professor also an African-American? And if they “share the same race,” then why aren’t they all black? Maybe the key phrase here is “not the same story.”

Many Somalis came here with “very negative perceptions” of African-Americans, their notions based on movies that cast African-Americans as drug addicts or killers, said Abdirizak Bihi, a Somali activist.


Mahmoud El-Kati

For their part, some African-Americans feel the disrespect and perceive that the new Africans are getting a bit better treatment from the larger community. …

“Black people are already here. They’ve seen everybody come here and everybody seems to get a break,” [Professor] El-Kati said. “They see how other people are celebrated when they do the slightest good thing.

“Black people have done many good things in this country for which they’ve never been saluted,” he said, noting especially the forced labor that helped build America’s material success.

Well, he has a point. We certainly haven’t heard much about slavery over the last 148 years.

Ahmed Samatar

[Professor Ahmed] Samatar, who came to the United States as a college student in the 1970s, said most Somalis who have settled in Minnesota came here as refugees.

The article doesn’t mention it, but Professor Samatar recently ran for President of Somalia.

They also had little clue about America’s slave history, he said.

“African-Americans have paid a heavy price through the generations for civilizing the United States in that direction. The Somalis are not aware of that because they are not educated in American history and the struggle that has taken place in this country for generations and generations.

“For the African-Americans it becomes disrespectful, in not understanding what has taken place and what’s still taking place,” he said.

“Still taking place”? What does that mean? I think what Professor Samatar is getting at here is that the Somalis have not yet figured out that the way to get ahead in America is to declare yourselves a victim group. The Star Tribune would never put it that way, but this seems to be at the heart of the conflict that led to the lunch room riot. Don’t worry, though: Professor Samatar and others will see that the Somalis get the word.