It goes without saying that Americans have had a turbulent relationship with Islam in recent decades. Not only have African-American converts faced direct anti-Islamic sentiment for many years, but in the days following Sept. 11, many in the U.S. — including elected leaders — seemed to reflexively adopt an outright disdain for Arab Muslims (see Rep. Peter King telling Politico that the U.S. has "too many mosques"). The ensuing years, which have included two U.S.-led wars in the Middle East and frequent terror threats against the West, have done little to ease tensions between the largely Judeo-Christian American public and the Muslim world.
Most recently, national anger at Islam has manifested itself as a fevered culture war taking place around plans for the Cordoba House Islamic Center near Ground Zero in Manhattan. According to a recent Pew Research Center study, 51 percent of Americans now oppose the Cordoba House, with just 34 percent approving. Perhaps unsurprisingly, those who most object to the community center are more likely to be Republican, older and less educated. They're also more likely to be white.
Despite having a largely Christian populace that is much less educated than whites overall, the black community actually supports the Cordoba House at rates outstripping the white community's by double digits. While 58 percent of whites "agreed with those who object to the center," just 40 percent of blacks did the same. What's more, while only 29 percent of whites agreed that Cordoba House should be built, regardless of the controversy, 47 percent of blacks believed it should. Researchers cautioned that just 92 blacks were among Pew's sample of more than 1,000, but they also said that the differences between blacks and whites on the Islamic-center issue were large enough to be considered significant.
That in mind, the next question is, Why is the African-American community — which contains a multitude of viewpoints like any other — so much more willing than the white community to support the world's second-largest religion?
Sarah Willie-LeBreton, a sociology professor at Swarthmore College, theorizes that, like almost everything these days, President Obama is having an impact on the black community's willingness to embrace Islam. "I actually think African Americans have been playing a little closer attention to domestic brouhahas because of their support for the president," she says, referencing Obama's sky-high approval ratings among blacks. "They're interested to see what Obama's response is. I think because the president came out and said that this Islamic-center fight is a tempest in a teapot, I think that some of it is a positive response to his response."
Willie-LeBreton also believes that African Americans empathizing with another oppressed culture may be underpinning their feelings about Cordoba House. "Some of this has to be identifying with another marginalized group," she says. "I think there's an appreciation of what it means to be on the outside and misunderstood."
"The presence of Muslims in the African-American community — the fact that some high-profile African Americans have declared themselves to be Muslims — this has made it so Islam has significant historic roots in the black community," says Gilliam. "The bottom line is that I'm not surprised [many blacks support the Islamic center]."
What is surprising, maybe, is the disparity between the number of African Americans who say they know some or a great deal about the Muslim religion (73 percent) and those who say they support the Cordoba House (47 percent). Whereas the numbers seem to suggest that the key to America's tolerance — and eventual embrace — of Islam is to expose more people to the religion and its practitioners, a good number of people apparently disagree.
One wonders what the other 26 percent of self-professed Islamic scholars are worried about.
Cord Jefferson is a staff writer at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.