Matthew Jaber Stiffler, 37, is research and content manager at the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn. His father is white. His mother was born in America and is of Lebanese descent. Stiffler said he was raised as, and thought of himself as, a white child. Other than noting that he was once followed around a mall for wearing a high school letterman’s jacket that signaled that he lived in a working-class white neighborhood, not a rich one, Stiffler said he has never been the target of discrimination. That is, he said, until he reveals his heritage, where he works, or shows support for Arab causes.
In order to improve race relations, is it more important to focus on what different racial and ethnic groups have in common, or what is unique about each?
Stiffler: Tough one. I think trying to build common ground sometimes is easier for the majority population because they feel better when they’re told how everybody is like them. But it actually can do more harm to minority populations who are made to feel that they are only valuable in that they reflect the majority population. So I would say a starting point is rather to be more educated about the differences and where they come from and what they are.
Does the country need to continue making changes for blacks to have equal rights with whites and, if so, are you skeptical that such changes will ever occur?
Stiffler: Not skeptical they will occur, but skeptical about the timeline. We’ll probably get to black-white equality at the expense of other minorities, increased xenophobia against immigrants especially from Muslim countries, I think. Whenever you have an enemy or a perceived enemy in a majority population … it’s a shame there always has to be some sort of scapegoat.
Are race relations better now than in 1967?
Stiffler: No, they’re not. I’m a historian. I deal in narratives. I’m not from (Michigan) but I’ve been here for the last 12, 13 years. I hear people talk about what Detroit used to be like mostly from a white perspective. “Oh, we used to go to Detroit on Saturdays and go shopping and eat at these restaurants and then all of sudden we couldn’t go anymore.” They mourn that as a loss. Unfortunately, they mourn it as a loss because they think it was taken away from them by black people and black people’s inability to manage the city or, you know, play nice. We applaud revitalization of Detroit, the idea that progress is through new freeways, progress is through new investments in certain industries that only reach a small section of the people, not thinking broadly about the region. I see a really bad trend where we’re at now in the so-called revitalization of Detroit that allows people to capture this nostalgia for what Detroit was in the pre-1967 -- or what they think it was pre-1967 -- and they think the movements we have now happening in the city will somehow get us back there.
What will get us back there, to a more vibrant and prosperous Detroit?
Stiffler: There’s a palpable racism that operates now that assumes the population living in Detroit right now could not possibly fix it on their own. The story should be we need to give the residents that are there, the residents that have stuck it out, give them the tools and the abilities to prosper instead of letting them die out so that land speculators can come in and buy up entire neighborhoods for future potential use.
So racial attitudes haven’t changed?
Stiffler: No, I think people are still in this idea that it’s black people’s fault that Detroit is the way it is and only through reinvesting in certain industries that are run by a small cadre of people is how we’re going to get to the Detroit they think they remember from pre-’67.
Where do we go from here? How do we get honest dialog? Are we even having dialogue?
Stiffler: I think honest dialogue is happening with what people call the movable middle. The portion of the people that either haven’t formed an opinion yet or have formed an opinion, but with accurate information are willing to alter that opinion. You’re never going to reach the hard liners through dialogue. You might not ever reach them in any capacity.
How do people achieve progress in such a stratified community?
Stiffler: You have to be intentional about it. That’s the problem with our school districts, our school districts are based upon tax revenue so the nicer the area, which tends to be the whiter the area, the better the schools and those people don’t interact with other ethnicities. You see that in Dearborn. Fordson High School is like 98% Arab American; those kids don’t hang out with African Americans and Latinos who live just across the street in some cases. As a society you have to be very intentional about fighting through the structural racism boundaries and barriers that are enacted. I don’t think it’s racist to want to hang out with people that have the same experiences as you. The racism comes in when you think that everyone else is inferior.