Clash at South exposes rift between Somali- and African-American students

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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.

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.

“It’s a misunderstanding because people don’t know enough about each other,” said Mahmoud El-Kati, a professor emeritus at Macalester who is African-American. This latest conflict, he added, is “laden with mutual ignorance.”

Ahmed Samatar, an international studies professor at Macalester who is Somali-American, agreed. “They are from the same stock in many ways as Africans who are Americans, some of them old Americans, some of them new Americans.

“But outside of that, there is really nothing else,” he continued. “Their language is different even though Somalis are picking up English. Their cultural background is different. Historical background is different. And yet they are in intimate spaces together.”

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.

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. For example, the gathering of scores of Somali men outside a coffeehouse at night in Minneapolis is accepted, but would the same be true if the men were black Americans?

The latest major immigration wave has added complexity to race and cultural relations, El-Kati said.

“Black people are already here. They’ve seen everybody come here and everybody seems to get a break,” 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.

What’s needed to heal the rift is education on both sides and conversations, said Kim Ellison, a Minneapolis school board member who is African-American. “It’s a whole education piece. We need to be talking not just to our kids, but take it out to the communities and to the families.”

In talking with her children last week, she said, “The conversation we’ve been having is if you look back in history, there has always been tension between Americans and the new immigrant groups. When people come here as a group, there have always been these tensions.”

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 country they left was fairly homogeneous. Those experiences haven’t prepared them to know and integrate into the larger, multicultural society.

“The vulnerabilities of being a refugee carry their own burdens and the fragility that comes along with being a refugee as someone stripped out of their historical identity and they have to adapt to a new one,” Samatar said. “That’s a very vulnerable position and your antenna of suspicion — maybe you feel like someone is saying something bad about you — is heightened.”

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.

After the South High fight, leaders from both communities met with the school principal. Bihi said the meeting did a lot to defuse the situation. It was possible because of the fence-mending done over the years, he said.

Tensions were high about six years ago, when Bihi and a group of Somali elders were invited to Salem Baptist Church in north Minneapolis to get to know a group of African-American leaders. “They fed us. They gave us good food — no pork,” Bihi said, appreciating their awareness that the vast majority of Somalis are Muslim and do not eat pork. “They were very nice. They had shown tremendous respect,” Bihi said.

Despite the tensions, interaction between the two groups also has led to some notable alliances. Last week, U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, who is African-American, became the first congressional member to visit Somalia since the United States recognized the new government there last month.

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