The despicable backlash against Ahmed Mohamed: It's nothing new for white America to see the gifted "other" as its greatest threat

When the left and right start sounding alike on racism and xenophobia, history has taught me to listen

By Arthur Chu
Published September 22, 2015 3:00AM (UTC)
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(AP/Reuters/Photo montage by Salon)

For a period of about 24 hours Ahmed Mohamed was a genuine feel-good story, the story of the Internet coming together to help a 14-year-old black Muslim kid who’d been wrongfully arrested for a homemade clock that supposedly looked like a bomb.

But it’s the Internet and the news cycle moves fast--I predicted at the time that the success of Ahmed’s viral story would have its own built-in backlash, as all viral stories do, and that reactionaries trying to discredit him wouldn’t be far away.


And sure enough, within a few days the Internet delivered.

I’m not that concerned by the genuinely deranged people out to make Ahmed into a monster or a terrorist, to claim that all Islamophobia is ultimately justified. Their narrative isn’t going to get much traction.

What I’m concerned by is the supposed well-meaning liberals like Bill Maher and Richard Dawkins chiding us that this case just doesn’t matter that much, telling us we’re becoming overly emotional about it. Maher telling us to “have a little perspective,” saying the actions of Ahmed’s teacher who had him arrested were understandable. Dawkins calling Ahmed a “fraud” because his clock wasn’t built entirely from scratch like some people thought it was, and calling showing the clock to his teacher a “silly prank.”


Both men, of course, aver that it was wrong to handcuff a child and drag him out of school in front of his classmates. But they say that a simple apology to Ahmed for his inconvenience ought to be enough. Why, they ask, must this boy be invited to the White House? Why must he get invited to tours of the campus of MIT, Facebook, Twitter? Why must Microsoft send him a hardware kit, and everyone send him positive and encouraging messages?

Why, they ask, in the perennially assholish voice of the snarky cynical Twitter blowhard suffering from Twitter tall poppy syndrome, does this one boy’s case matter to you? Why does he “deserve” to go viral?

Spend enough time online and one gets used to hearing this. It’s the endless bleat one hears about whether Trayvon Martin’s death “deserved” to get the attention it did, or Mike Brown’s, or Freddie Gray’s; it’s the perennial “What business is it of yours?” that you hear as a non-black person supporting #BlackLivesMatter; it’s the endless refrain of the white moderate” calling for a “more convenient season.”  


Why, for instance, do I care so much about Ahmed Mohamed, a boy whose parents come from a country I’ve never been to (Sudan) and who lives in a state I’ve never been to (Texas) and whom I’ll probably never meet?

I come from an evangelical Christian family, not a Muslim family. My family is East Asian, not African. My skin is relatively pale, not black. My name doesn’t conjure the same terrors that the name “Mohamed” does in a post-9/11 United States. And people who look like me are, in fact, greatly overrepresented in STEM fields, although not in ownership or management positions.


And it’s true. I’m not like Ahmed. I was a troublesome and troublemaking nerdy kid at his age--though a lot less technically gifted than he is--and I never once got the cops called on me. My attempts to show off my youthful intelligence were much more confrontational and disruptive than his--I can recall several incidents of getting in outright shouting matches with teachers over elements of their lectures--but I was never suspended. Hell, I was rarely disciplined for my insubordination--my teachers clearly didn’t want to be the oppressive bad-guy teacher in the movie script about the boy genius. (To be fair, I was always correct.)

But I could be like Ahmed, if just a few things about my life were different. History isn’t static, after all. Things change, and sometimes they change very rapidly.

I have a friend who bristles at people who joke about “Jewish-American Princesses” and the wealth and success Jewish doctors, lawyers and engineers have in America, because she grew up with stories from her relatives about her grandparents and great-aunts and great-uncles being successful doctors, lawyers and engineers in Europe before fleeing with only the clothes on their backs from the Holocaust and World War II. I’ve heard her express amazement at the privilege of people who feel so safe they go their whole lives without a plan to flee the country with all the assets they can carry if the wrong candidate wins an election.


The people fleeing Syria right now--many of whom were happy and successful before they were forced to flee, despite certain Westerners’ surprise that refugees own things like smartphones--are evidence of how fast things can change.

Me? I’ve always been aware that the United States’ welcome for people like me, however warm it might seem, is conditional and revocable.

Look at how 120,000 people who look like me were treated during World War II. The majority of them citizens, many of them doctors, lawyers, engineers, fluent English speakers, loyal Americans since birth. It didn’t matter--when America went to war with the country their parents came from, they became presumed enemy soldiers and prisoners of war.


Those were Japanese-Americans. I’m a Chinese-American. During World War II Chinese-Americans cheered on the internment and benefited from it--the fact that China and Korea were the US’s allies in the Pacific Theatre gave us a PR boost, got the longstanding, honestly-named Chinese Exclusion Act revoked, even briefly got us a Chinese-American superhero. American propagandists hastily constructed a set of stereotypes to explain how dastardly, untrustworthy Japanese-Americans were totally different from the industrious, loyal Chinese- and Korean-Americans they happened to resemble.

But history happens fast.

After the war, the Chinese Civil War re-ignited in 1946 and in 1949 and China “fell” to the communists, which caused all people of Chinese ancestry to instantly go from “our friends” to “our enemies,” and the formerly hated nation of Japan flipped over in the popular imagination to be our stalwart ally against the Red Menace.

I grew up on the story of Qian Xuesen, one of the original Chinese-American immigrant STEM geniuses who changed the world. During World War II he was one of the most honored and beloved of “our friends the Chinese,” a hero of the war who co-founded the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and pioneered advances in what was, in fact, rocket science.


Then, an ocean away, Mao Zedong took power in China and Qian went from national security hero to national security threat. His security clearance was revoked, his application for U.S. citizenship denied, and he was eventually detained and his possessions ransacked for evidence of being a spy.

In 1955 he was deported to the People’s Republic of China. U.S. Undersecretary of the Navy Dan Kimball called it “the stupidest thing this country ever did.” He fathered China’s ballistic missile program with the Dongfeng program--had there been, God forbid, a nuclear war between China and the US the missiles raining down on us would’ve been designed by the man we sent away based on a self-fulfilling prophecy that a man with a Chinese name and face must serve the Chinese government.

Why does it matter that President Obama, Mark Zuckerberg, and other VIPs have joined the #IStandWithAhmed bandwagon? Because this country has a long history of driving away Americans if they’re the wrong kind of American--and, perversely, raining down the most distrust and hatred on the most gifted because they’re seen as the greatest threat.

This story doesn’t end in 1955. For Chinese-Americans in particular it’s ebbed and flowed in sync with geopolitics on the Pacific Rim. When I was 16 years old, in the year 2000, I saw a 60-year-old Taiwanese-American scientist named Wen Ho Lee on the news. He was held in held for nine months without bail in solitary confinement, in manacles and leg irons, on suspicion of spying for the People’s Republic of China. The only crime he was found guilty of was making improper backups of his files on an insecure computer, something he points out many other people have done without being chained and thrown in prison for doing.


The story doesn’t end in 2000, either, nor in 2006 when Lee received a $1.6 million settlement and apology from the government. As we speak there’s two Chinese-American scientists, Sherry Chen and Xiaoxing Xi, just emerging from the nightmare of being investigated on charges of spying that were eventually dropped. Chen, in particular, might see permanent damage done to her reputation and career--because when you’re Chinese-American any sign you might have accessed data improperly makes you a possible enemy of the state. Sharing passwords over email--something that’s a big infosec no-no that’s nonetheless happened routinely at every office I’ve ever worked at--makes you fair game for suspicion of communist ties.

The government’s willingness to jump on a witch hunt of Chinese-American scientists is less immediately newsworthy than a 14-year-old boy being arrested for building a simple digital clock. But it’s indicative of the same trend.

I don’t want to exaggerate. I don’t expect to be rounded up and thrown into Guantanamo Bay any time soon. My plans for fleeing the United States on short notice are much less concrete than the plans my dad made when he first came here for graduate school during the Cold War.

But history happens fast. In 1992 an educated fool named Francis Fukuyama wrote a book titled "The End of History and the Last Man," theorizing that with the end of the Cold War “history,” in the sense of ideological warfare, nation struggling against nation, racial hatreds, etc., was coming to an end. Democracy and capitalism were, for better or for worse, homogenizing the world and soon we’d all be reduced to bland consumers, Nietzschean “last men,” in the global economy.


During that time, despite the ongoing low-level bursts of history happening--America invading Iraq for the first time in 1990, the World Trade Center being attacked for the first time in 1993--it was possible to believe things were getting better for Muslim-Americans. In the year 2000, when Wen Ho Lee was thrown in prison, the year Ahmed Mohamed was born, only 28 hate crimes were reported to the FBI against Muslims nationwide.

Nine years after Fukuyama’s book, history came roaring back with a vengeance. Islamophobic hate crimes in 2001 were quadruple what they were in 2000. The rate of hate crimes against Muslims--and against Sikhs and others who happen, in the eyes of a bigot, to look like Muslims--has yet to go back down to pre-9/11 levels, even 14 years later.

I don’t know for sure, but there’s a chance that a Sudanese-American Muslim child in 1994 would’ve gotten off easier for showing his teachers a digital clock than Ahmed did in 2014. If I’d grown up at the height of the Cold War rather than the Cold War’s end I might’ve gotten in way more trouble for defying my teachers than I did.

And even though the Red Scare based on fears of ideological communism is mostly dead, the Yellow Peril is evergreen (so to speak). Every time infosec people talk about the looming threat of Chinese hackers, every time politicians run a fearmongering ad about future Chinese world domination, every time comedians make jokes about the dystopian nightmare of your company being taken over by the Chinese, I worry. Whatever point the piece is making and however valid that point may be, that piece is also contributing to a very specific, very dangerous history.

I do take it personally, even when it’s not about me. Because it’s my future kids who will have to grow up in the political atmosphere that rhetoric creates. And just like Ahmed’s dad, I worry that if I tell my future kids to reach for the stars, do their best to excel at everything they try, and never be afraid to stand up for themselves I’ll be setting them up to be led away in chains.

History happens fast. Little things, like the OPM hacking scandal or a report of an intelligence leak. Big things, like 9/11, Pearl Harbor, the Chinese Civil War. Things that take America by surprise and drive Americans into a panic. Things that Americans like Wen Ho Lee or Ahmed Mohamed or the 120,000 Americans in the camps have no control over, but will be blamed for anyway.

Ahmed Mohamed’s former high school continues to defend their decision to have him handcuffed and taken away in front of his classmates.

Why? Because their priority, above all else, must be the safety of their children.

Even though it has nothing to do with me personally, I’m livid about Ahmed Mohamed’s case. I’m determined to help make sure these administrators are shamed and punished to the fullest extent possible. I’m determined to name-and-shame any case of institutional racial profiling wherever it shows its face.

For the exact same reason.

Arthur Chu

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