Focus on Faculty: Erik Love
by Christine Baksi
Assistant Professor of
Sociology Erik Love discusses his work as a civil-rights advocacy
You denounced racial profiling in a March 2012
piece that ran in Al Jazeera. What has been the reaction to
Racial profiling is neither effective nor legal in
my view. As I described both in the Al Jazeera opinion piece and in
a brief I wrote with the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding,
nearly all counterterrorism and criminology studies that have looked into
the efficacy of racial profiling find that it doesn't work. The idea that
Middle Easterners are more likely than members of the general public to
commit crimes or engage in terrorist activity is simply false, and
subjecting innocent people to scrutiny based on their heritage won't
I have received overwhelmingly positive reactions after writing
the policy brief and the opinion piece that touch on these issues. More
importantly, the work done by civil-rights advocates on the issue of racial
profiling has moved forward in recent months. Muslim Advocates, a
civil-rights organization, filed a federal lawsuit against the City of New
York demanding the end of the NYPD's racial-profiling program, because it
violates federal law and the U.S. Constitution. In addition, many
civil-rights advocates are working to move a new bill through Congress to
strengthen legal protections against these kinds of programs.
"Islamophobia" is a word you despise. Why is that?
Taken literally, it suggests that the religion of Islam is at the center of
an irrational fear. In reality, the problem is much more complex. While it's
true that irrational fear of Islam and Muslims generates a lot of bigotry,
it's also true that people of all faiths have to contend with what we call
"Islamophobia." The first person murdered in a hate crime after the 9/11
attacks was Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh American man. Chaldean
Americans—who are Catholics from Iraq—have to deal with "Islamophobia" just
as much as, for example, Muslim Americans or Jewish Americans from Iran.
What we have is a situation where physical appearance triggers
stereotypes, an all-too-familiar pattern of race and racism. Describing
this as a phobia involving one religion is misleading at best. Still,
"Islamophobia" is a popular shorthand and for now we appear to be stuck
with that term.
In 2013, nearly 45 years after Dr. Martin Luther
King's assassination and more than a decade after 9/11, you contend that
civil-rights advocacy has become more difficult. How so?
I've examined publications produced by civil-rights organizations over a
30-year period. I also looked at the overall numbers of certain types of
civil-rights organizations and whether they grow in size or cease to exist.
My results to date support a conclusion that campaigning for civil rights
has become more difficult over the past few decades. One of my most
troubling findings is that since 2001, civil-rights advocates generally
avoid talking about racism—even when it's the main problem they're trying
One of the achievements of the African American
civil-rights campaigners in the 1950s and 1960s was to make racism utterly
unacceptable. But what "counts" as racism has been narrowed, in legal terms
as well as in the public imagination. America's schools in 2013 are
starkly segregated by race, and the typical white family has 20 times as
much wealth as the typical black family. So we have a situation in which
everyone agrees racism is abhorrent, and yet racist outcomes are seen
everywhere. Sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva described the situation as
"racism without racists"—showing that racial inequality persists because
it is built in to American institutions.
Did growing up in suburban Detroit, which by many
estimates is home to the nation's largest concentration of Muslim
Americans, have an effect on your research?
asked why I chose to study civil-rights advocacy among Arab, Muslim, Sikh
and South Asian Americans. Although I began the research that led to my
dissertation while I was in college, I suppose there are some deep roots
that start with my childhood in Detroit. Not only is the Detroit area
proud to have a large concentration of Arab and Muslim Americans, it also
has the unfortunate distinction of being perhaps the most racially
segregated city in the country. In addition to recognizing from a very
young age the profound impact of race and racism on our lives, I
remember learning about Arab and Muslim culture. I feel lucky to have
grown up in a part of the U.S. with this kind of diversity. I'm also
fortunate to have had the opportunity to learn more from great
professors at Albion College, my alma mater. The environment provided by
a liberal-arts college allows for creative discoveries around complex,
seemingly intractable problems like racism.
How can we learn
more about these issues?
I suggest the following for
Suleiman, Michael (ed.). 1999. Arabs in America:
Building a New Future. Temple University Press.
2012. Arab America: Gender, Cultural Politics, and Activism.
New York University Press.
Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. 2009. Racism
Without Racists (3rd ed). New York: Rowman & Littlefield.
Rana, Junaid. 2011. Terrifying Muslims: Race and Labor in the South
Asian Diaspora. Duke University Press.
Bakalian, Anny and Mehdi
Bozorgmehr. 2009. Backlash 9/11: Middle Eastern and Muslim Americans
Respond. University of California Press.
Photos by Carl