06/26/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

America's Image and Race Beyond Black and White

On the night that Barack Obama captured enough delegates to become the Democratic nominee, a lot of commentators and supporters of both him and Hillary Clinton could not help but acknowledge the significance of his candidacy. It was the first time in this country's history when a major party had nominated a black American as its nominee.

But throughout the primaries, people talked about how they thought electing a black president can completely transform America's image abroad because, as one citizen said, the world "will see that we aren't so horrible." It was undeniably an indirect reference to this country's original sin of slavery.

There is no question that slavery was a dark stain on this country's legacy of idealism, freedom and equality. But as someone who was born in Iran and lived in Tehran until well into high school, I never considered America's treatment of its own citizens in the past the reason behind most of the world's grievances with the United States. And even the teachers in my public elementary school who were trained to evoke every argument possible to instill a sense of resentment toward the United States government in students almost never mentioned slavery. In fact, racial prejudice against African-Americans are tragically strong in all continents, including Africa, as counterintuitive as it sounds.

But I think that while there are many reasons that make Obama simply the best person to run for office, the notion that his election will automatically help America's image is misguided. The world's grievances with the United States have very little to do with its past racist history against Americans of African descent. But rather, as far as interracial injustice is concerned, most of the world has recently been more concerned with how America treats other ethnicities, beyond black.

Following September 11th, the Bush administration and its Republican allies have used the excuse of national security to implement some of the most reprehensible institutionalized racial profiling against persons of Middle Eastern decent in history.

Shortly after the attacks on the World Trade Center, the Bush administration publicly condemned terrorism while failing to define the term or contemplate its causes. Instead, he called three countries that had nothing to do with 9/11 as part of an axis of evil. This is what Iran got after its former president Khatami became one of the first leaders to condemn the attacks in 2001.

The United States' failure to define "terrorism" was by no means an innocent oversight. It was rather rooted in the understanding that any definition of terrorism would have been likely to be applicable to the past actions of some of the United States' closest allies. During the 1980s when Ambassador Edward Peck was appointed by President Reagan as the head of White House Terrorism Task Force, he was asked to generate a definition for terrorism that could be used consistently throughout government. The effort proved inconsequential because every time a definition was offered to the administration for consideration, President Reagan rejected it because he feared that the definition would apply to an action United States was engaged in.

Perhaps that fear was justified in light of the fact that the same administration was selling weapons to two of the countries called by the Bush administration as part of an axis of evil -- Iran and Iraq -- in order to illegally fund paramilitary operations in Nicaragua and mining their harbors with the partial goal of targeting "soft targets" -- a soft term to refer to civilians. I still remember the Reagan-supplied bombs Saddam would drop over Tehran as we ran to our underground basement to take refuge.

This legacy of American exceptionalism among the hardliners in the U.S. has brought us to where we are today: we have a Republican nominee who uses vague terms like "radical Islamic extremism" that is only specific enough to conveniently exclude terrorism done by all religious fanatics except Muslims.

But perhaps the group that has been most discriminated against and profiled are not Muslims, but persons of Middle East decent in general. Following the U.S. invasion, our military engaged in some of the most reprehensible tactics on war prisoners at Abu Ghraib, taking their clothes off, piling them up naked in distressed positions, forcing them to simulate sexual acts and terrifying them with dogs.

Back in the Western hemisphere, Guantanamo Bay became another symbol of America's institutionalized racism -- not against blacks, but against persons of Middle Eastern descent. As of today, the administration has held hundreds of captured individuals from Afghanistan, Iraq and other parts of the world and incarcerated them conveniently outside of the boundaries of this country indefinitely without charging them with a crime or respecting their rights to file habeas corpus to challenge their detention. How can we spread democracy thousands of miles away if we cannot spread our justice ninety miles off the coast of Florida?

And when the Supreme Court comes out six years late and demands that the administration allow these individuals to challenge their "enemy combatant" status in civil courts -- a kind of a right that any American would take for granted -- such mainstream figures in the Republican Party as its nominee, John McCain, shamelessly condemns the decision. To the likes of John McCain, the whole judicial review and justice is an inconvenient luxury. If the army captured any living thing and called it an "enemy combatant," that's good enough for John. Otherwise, how can he so righteously call prisoners "terrorists" if there has been no such judicial judgment?

But profiling is by no means nonexistent here in the United States. I don't find it a coincidence that on more than one occasion, I have been double-searched at the airports with no reason for suspicion. And I know that my situation has by no means been the worst. Highly educated people of Middle Eastern and South American descent are constantly harassed and profiled in the airports, at the borders, on the roads, in stores and public places and in government buildings.

But this excludes all the subtle discriminations that many non-black minorities experience in the post-9/11 world. Performing basic acts like reaching for something in your jacket's breast pocket or for a book in your backpack while on the Metro can instantly result in suspicious looks if not done "the right way," a friend told me recently. And if you look like Abraham Lincoln, one of this country's most greatly cherished presidents -- with brown hair and unkempt beard with no mustache -- the Metro car you're in will be likely to be half as full as the other cars.

When the world's citizens look at all of these elements of discrimination and prejudice, they don't see them as isolated incidents but as a pattern.

During his race speech in Philadelphia, Senator Obama asked the country to begin a conversation about race. But despite the speech's many positive elements, it did not draw enough attention to the recent history of discrimination against other races, beyond black and white. It is true that the world sees this country's sin of slavery as abominable. But in context, what ails millions of people around the world frankly is not what America did with its own African-descending citizens two hundred or fifty years ago. It is rather the way America has been treating other races and ethnicities, and ultimately, its contemporary policies.

When I speak with my liberal friends about this, they're too quick to blame the Bush administration. There is no question that the administration and Republican Party have been the main culprits of institutionalizing racism. But as far as our own everyday behavior towards minorities is concerned, we are all guilty to various extents, not always consciously, but rather because of the prejudices that have been instilled in us through our experience. So as far as this election is concerned, Barack Obama does have the potential to fix America's image abroad. But if he does, it will not be instantaneous and it won't be because he's black; it will rather be because he will abide by a sense of justice and fairness that is not only color-blind, but also ethnicity-blind, religion-blind and border-blind.

As far as eradicating subtle racial prejudice against persons of Middle Eastern descent is concerned, it starts with you and me today.