Telling anyone who would give up a sunny spring afternoon to attend a forum on prejudice that hatred is alive and well in post-Sept. 11 America is a bit like preaching to the choir, acknowledged Rep. Elijah E. Cummings.
"But you have to tell someone about it. ... You have to do something about it," the Baltimore Democrat told an audience yesterday.
The forum, titled "We Are One Community," aimed to encourage people to do just that.
Held at Howard Community College and sponsored by a variety of groups including Maryland State Police and the U.S. Department of Justice, the event was designed to raise awareness but mainly to encourage people to act against racism and bigotry.
About 80 people attended the four-hour session, which consisted of two panel discussions and several presentations.
Much of the dialogue focused on Arab-Americans. While hate crimes in general have risen nearly 12 percent since September's terrorist attacks, according to a Department of Justice official, many of the most notorious crimes, such as the killings of turban-wearing Sikhs, have been directed against people of Arab or South Asian descent.
Many panelists feel that Arab-Americans and Indians, especially those who wear traditional garb such as head coverings, have been targeted by the government and the general population. Some have not been allowed to fly on planes and several thousand have been detained and questioned by the FBI.
Poor treatment and physical attacks "seem to be increasing in severity," said panelist Leila Laoudji, legal adviser with the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.
While some panelists bemoaned the poor treatment of other groups such as gay men, lesbians and African-Americans, all agreed that Arab-Americans seem to be especially targeted. Panelists said racial profiling against these groups by everyone from the FBI to airline screeners left many feeling vulnerable and afraid.
When asked how to combat such prejudice, panelists offered a variety of options.
All stressed that outreach is the key. "Our greatest challenge is to increase communication to break down stereotypes," said Lobna Ismail, executive director of Connecting Cultures, a Silver Spring company that offers teaching material about Islam.