A Conversation about Racism and Violence with my Fellow Armenian-Americans

Boxer Joe Frazier is directed to the ropes by referee after knocking down Muhammad Ali during the 15th round of the title bout in Madison Square Garden in New York on March 8, 1971. (Flickr/Rogelio A. Galaviz C.)

In 1971, I was 12 years old, and Muhammad Ali was all the rage in Tehran. All were in awe of the brash young American boxer who was a sight to behold in and outside the ring. But the mood in my insular working-class Armenian neighborhood was ecstatic when Ali lost to Joe Frazier in the historic fight that year. My friends and I cheered for Frazier. That’s because the Christian Frazier had beaten the Muslim Ali. All we knew was that a few years back Cassius Clay had converted to Islam and had taken the very Islamic name, Muhammad Ali. That was enough for the Armenians to judge the quality of Ali’s character. In our small world, that was enough to decide who to cheer for in a boxing match. There was nothing more to ponder or consider in my ghettoized community on the outskirts of Tehran, where self-awareness was primarily defined by Christianity, the 1915 Genocide and Armenian nationalism. 

In 1974, by forces beyond my control or understanding, I ended up in New York City. I was going to a public high school in the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The student body was 95-percent Black and Latino. The school seemed to be straight out of a scene from the 70s sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter, or should I say, the other way around. Most of my teachers were young progressives committed to their craft; they taught me a great deal. About a year later, I read the Autobiography of Malcolm X. It was the first book I managed to read in English. I struggled, but somehow managed to get the gist of it.

In the short time since I had first watched the Ali/Frazier fight, my life had changed; I had experienced and seen so much. Nixon had been impeached and resigned in disgrace. I had watched on TV the ragtag North Vietnamese, by sheer force of will, expel the humiliated world superpower from their homeland. New York City was bankrupt and yet edgy with an alluring vibe. The color and character of the diverse neighborhoods, which have since given way to banal gentrification, was captivating. Boomboxes blared in the graffiti-covered subway cars that creaked and clanked, that were hellishly hot in the dog days of summer and ice cold in the winter. The city was alive, vibrant.

But, back to Ali and Malcolm X. In high school, it did not take me a long time to learn a bit more about US history. In Iran, I had learned about racism and the scourge of slavery in Western countries, but there was no depth of knowledge. In the US, I came to know more about Ali and the kind of man he was. Against all odds and at great personal cost, Ali had defied, resisted and fought a system that had no qualms about forcing Black men to soldier in Vietnam while perpetuating the racist status quo here at home. His resolve and the simplicity of his message spoke volumes about the man and his character. Of course, Malcolm X had a direct role in Ali’s awakening. Malcolm X spoke powerfully and did not mince words in exposing institutional racism and violence in the US. Like so many other Black leaders of conscience, he too paid the ultimate price for having the audacity to demand the right to live with dignity.

As the years passed, I witnessed first-hand the consequences of deeply rooted systemic physical and economic violence against African Americans. Acts of police brutality, vigilantism and killings are too many to recount. What I will recall that horrified me most was the 1985 police bombing of the MOVE compound in Philadelphia. The compound was in fact a house in the middle of an urban city block. Six MOVE members and five of their children perished in the conflagration. Some 60 houses, almost the entire neighborhood, were burned to the ground. To the establishment in power, these were armed radical Blacks who needed to be dominated and put in their place. But African Americans do not have to be armed and radical to meet death and destruction. In 1921, during two days of racial violence, White vigilantes set to flame some 35 blocks in a prosperous Black community in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The violence killed and injured hundreds of Blacks and rendered thousands of them homeless. American history is replete with such acts of wanton violence and horror against people of color.

This pattern has not ended. In fact, in the past decades, we have seen police forces nationwide become more militarized and aggressive with the sharp points of their bayonets always aimed at the Blacks. The same is true of White supremacists who are armed to the teeth and seem to be itching to unleash terror and mayhem against their perceived enemies.

I should have cheered for Muhammad Ali.

Today is June 9, 2020. The New York Times front page article is headlined, “George Floyd, Whose Death Energized a Movement, will be Buried Today.” The United States is convulsing, once again, in reaction to the shocking repeated acts of police violence and vigilantism against its Black citizens. I am reminded of an Armenian saying that translates to, “The knife has reached to bone.” 

But what does this have to do with me? You may ask what does it have to do with Armenians?

The Armenian national consciousness is marked by the denial of justice for the Genocide, the ultimate crime of violence, committed against our people more than a century ago. We carry that wound and live, every single day, with the generational trauma of that state-sponsored violence. Our national wound will not heal until justice is served. But to deserve justice for one’s own cause, one must support the cause of fellow citizens who struggle for human rights and dignity. If we remain silent and do not actively engage in the movement for social justice, here and now, we will be on the wrong side of history. How could we then expect others to support our just cause?

When I was 12, I should have cheered for Muhammad Ali. But I guess I could be forgiven. It was a long time ago. I did not know any better.

Vahak Khajekian

Vahak Khajekian

Vahak Khajekian is an Iranian-born architect. He lives in Connecticut and works in New York City.

13 Comments

  1. Thank you for standing up for black community & human rights!
    Thank you for your self reflection & explanation! Glad we have progressive Armenians like you, who are not afraid of standing on the right side of history!

  2. I enjoyed reading your article. It was a very insightful reflection. Proud to see that you are standing at the right side of history and for publicly voicing your opinion on the current state of events. We need more brave and conscious citizens like you. 💪🏼

  3. Another Armenian on a guilt trip…..Progressive Armenians have shown solidairity with a host of non-Armenian movements for justice and self-determination for years. I’ve yet to see any reciprocity….

    • Sireli Tlkatintsi:

      I agree.

      And it’s a shame that many of today’s young (and some older) Armenian Americans are being brainwashed by media and schools to be “politically correct.”

      The fact is that while there is a lot of abuse of Blacks and Whites by police, for example, the crime rates of American Blacks is very high, and this is part of the overall context that is rarely openly discussed because then progressives call you a “racist.”

      The following article by an Armenian American is a must read (“A Brief History of My White Privilege”):

      https://mirrorspectator.com/2019/09/11/a-brief-history-of-my-white-privilege/

  4. I take exception to those (mainly progressives) who equate or use the Armenian experience to what is going on now with the black population. There is a huge difference as to how the Armenians were treated in Turkey and how the black population is treated now in the US. Such comparison and relativity only play in the hands of the Turkish government to prove their false interpretation and deny the causes of the 1915 genocide.

  5. Vahak,very powerful story.I really appreciate hearing views from an Armenian that wasn’t born here and getting your views on American issues. Very informative. My Persian Armenian wife loved the article. She grew up in Abadan and says Armenians there were rooting for Ali. Please keep up the good work. Thanks, Phillip Mooradian

  6. Dr. Khajekian,

    Your personal story of immigration, rising, and professional success is universally acclaimed for very good reason, and it is also very familiar to and cherished by the readership. We as one applaud your personal story.

    It is an American story, even though you have not one good word to say about a country that gave you so much. Abris anyway.

    Your knowledge of US history is quite deficient, although your demonstrated deficits in this regard, are now universal, what with two generations of progressive, politically correct school politicians and educrats making sure that Americans know only what is wrong with that history. Vaguely similar to the defamation of Armenians Turkish schools must ladle out to our students there.

    Do you know how bad things were through the 1960’s or give credit to what American people accomplished before your family came here- such things as Brown v,. Board of Education, forcible integration of segregated schools, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act, and state laws such as the California Unruh Civil Rights Act that bar discrimination and allow victims to sue for it? Did you know about segregation throughout the South until 1965? The point is that this country, unlike all others, took major steps to right wrongs. More steps are needed, but there is no denying the nation made progress.

    These achievements were earth-shaking three generations ago. They were supported in their day by just a majority of Americans. Today they are universally supported and are part of our culture except for a handful of marginalized welfare-prone white separatists. Better to compare America to other nations than perfection. Under the shield of law, we have also seen over the last 55 years a rapid and overdue advance in the education and prosperity of African Americans. So, before you condemn America, bear in mind where we started (vicious slavery and rape, Jim Crow and segregation) the path we are on, and the goals we espouse.

    You fall flat on your face when you discuss policing, a subject about which you are wholly ignorant. I am not. I was an officer.

    First, let’s again return to the 1960’s. Americans were appalled then at true, frequent police brutality that was meted out by many departments and officers to all kinds of suspects of every race, but most viciously against the poor and the Black. The problem was so severe that courts were genuinely concerned about coerced confessions, resulting in the Supreme Court ruling in Miranda.

    The public ferment against frequent, open and common police brutality, as was seen by racist officers, resulted in much good change starting in the 1960’s. Chief among these changes was the increased professionalism of the police, with Academies being made far more academic, and the hiring and promotion of minorities in increasing numbers. The major change in the police in your lifetime is professionalization, not militarization, as you claim.

    You implicitly state that the American police are killing African Americans in large numbers, and are doing so for reasons of race. There is comprehensive data that contradicts you. You should look at it before climbing aboard the Antifa/BLM bandwagon.

    First, officers are not prohibited from using deadly force to stop an unarmed person because that unarmed person can easily still present a threat of death or great bodily injury to the officer. According to the the Washington Post, the number of shootings/killings of unarmed African Americans has noticeably declined since 2015:
    “Fatal shootings of unarmed black men — such as the high-profile case in March of Stephon Clark in Sacramento — are among the kinds of killings that have fallen. Criminologists said the downturn in the number of cases and their analysis of the data indicate that evidence of racial bias by police who shoot and kill unarmed blacks has also declined but not disappeared.”Please see: https://www.washingtonpost.com/investigations/fatal-police-shootings-of-unarmed-people-have-significantly-declined-experts-say/2018/05/03/d5eab374-4349-11e8-8569-26fda6b404c7_story.html

    And please don’t believe that all who were killed were harmless. The BLM founding myth is that Michael Brown was innocent, saying ‘Hands Up,Don’t Shoot.” The Obama DOJ debunked that BS because brave and honest Black residents in Ferguson came forward to establish that Brown, who had just robbed a store, tried to attack and disarm the officer. The officer was privileged to conclude that Brown intended to kill the officer.

    Second, A Harvard study showed that there is no racial disparity in the race of persons who are shot by officers. https://scholar.harvard.edu/fryer/publications/empirical-analysis-racial-differences-police-use-force There was a disparity in force used of between 16 and 25 percent with regard to lesser coercion such as handcuffing and making detainees sit in the backs of units. By the way, the Harvard Professor is a standout young economist not likely to fake the data – He is African American.

    Third, you must admit facts are superior to mass hysteria. Today, everyone knows, as Antifa types like to posit, that Black men are being slaughtered en masse by the police. Not so. For the last year in which the FBI kept stats, the grand total of unarmed African Americans who were killed was 10. You can dig the stats out of the Washington Post if you disbelieve this story from the Daily Caller. https://dailycaller.com/2020/06/03/tucker-carlson-police-shootings-genocide/

    You condemn “militarization” of the police. I’m a former officer and I have no idea what that means. Departments went to semi-auto handguns in my time because at the height of the crack wars we were getting outgunned and shot at by criminals armed with
    Uzi’s that held three times as many bullets as out revolvers. We wear vests because they save our lives. What, exactly, is military about the cops today? Helmets?

    Please also remember that there are and have been thousands of Armenian American peace officers. I was proud to be one of them. I never saw any racism. Please remember that in cities with large minority populations, we have had 2 complete generations going back 50 plus years of minority officer and command staff.

  7. Beautifully said, Vahak. You have pointed out our double-standards so well. Last week I wrote something similar after reading ‘United for Human Rights’ by the editors of this publication on this subject: “In many ways, we resemble the Israeli government and its hypocrisy in recognizing the Genocide.” Thanks for speaking out.

  8. Thank you for your words. I’m dismayed reading some of the comments above denying that there are any race issues here in the US. But I’ve come to understand that Armenians have always aligned themselves with white power and white supremacy, precisely because it gives them power. Though, they probably don’t know or don’t want to remember that when Armenians came to America around the 1900s, they were segregated, not allowed to work in all types of jobs, they were not allowed to buy land. They struggled until it was concluded in lawsuits that because Armenians are ‘caucasian’ they should be able to own land. This is the part that Armenians don’t want to acknowledge. The laws changed BECAUSE they were deemed caucasian. That is benefiting from white supremacy. Full stop. Black people, who were BORN in this country, did not have that benefit. Let that sink in. From slavery to segregation to redlining. To simply being denied home loans. Imagine if Armenians were denied home loans? So to deny that Black people don’t suffer in the US at the hands of implicit bias to extreme racism is gaslighting them. The same way Turkey gaslights Armenians by denying anything wrong happened. When Armenians say ‘there’s no police problem’ ‘no race problem’ ‘BLM is a progressive cause’, they are willfully shielding themselves from the realities experienced by a group of people that they consider ‘the other’. Whose history they do not want to learn. Whose suffering they deny. And yet, they benefit from what ‘whiteness’ has given them in this country. That’s the pure hypocrisy of Armenian immigrants. We know injustice. We have been persecuted. You shouldn’t need a dissertation to see when that happens to another group of people. You should be saying “I’m Armenian, and I rise up for all of the persecuted people”. No discussion needed.

    • Chris,

      Your comment deserves a detailed reply. This is mine. Every fact you allege is fiction.

      1. You write: “I’m dismayed reading some of the comments above denying that there are any race issues here in the US.” I did not say that, neither did anyone else who disagrees with Dr. Khajekian. This is the “straw man” form of argument.

      2. You defame generations of Armenians in this country, as if they were supine, subservient sheep yearning to assimilate with odars. Nonsense. Do you actually know any? You write: “But I’ve come to understand that Armenians have always aligned themselves with white power and white supremacy, precisely because it gives them power.” I doubt very, very much that you come from a family, which, like, mine, has been here since the Hamidian massacres. In Fresno, my family suffered actual discrimination which is well-chronicled. But – They were not looking for “white privilege;” like African-Americans (who suffered far, far worse) they simply wanted to be free to pursue their interests without private or government discrimination. So far as “white privilege” goes, it’s a non-concrete, vague neologism, and was not something my family pursued if they even knew what it was. They just wanted to get jobs at the Phone Company, or buy a house in nicer areas.

      3. You write:”Though, they probably don’t know or don’t want to remember that when Armenians came to America around the 1900s, they were segregated, not allowed to work in all types of jobs, they were not allowed to buy land.” If you seek to describe Armenians whose families have been here before the 1960’s, you are wrong to the degree you purport to describe what Armenian Americans know and remember. You also overstate: Armenians in the Valley went to public schools, so they were not segregated there or in other public accommodations as African Americans were (although they were not considered white in parts of the deep south). It was common in the 20’s and 30’s for odar kids to beat Armenian kids up. Trust me though- the Armenian kids fought back, and fought back well. Read here about Victor Maghakian, recipient of the Navy Cross: ttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Victor_Maghakian. When you are done with that, read the Medal of Honor Citation for Ernest Der Vishian, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ernest_H._Dervishian They were proud Americans, just as the Tuskeegee airmen were.

      4. You write: “They struggled until it was concluded in lawsuits that because Armenians are “caucasian” they should be able to own land.” False. The litigation you are thinking about had to do with immigration quotas. In re Halladjian (1900). Armenians were able to buy land, and bought lots of it in the Valley to ranch. They were unable, as were Blacks, Japanese, Chinese, Lebanese, Jews and others, to buy property in the nicer areas of Fresno through restrictive covenants, all of which became unconstitutional servitude on land title following decisions by the Courts in 1948. The discrimination in the Valley did not cease in 1900 as you imply- it eased up after WW2 in part because local Armenian men and women did their part (and more), and several came back as heroes like Victor Maghakian and Ray Melikian, a fighter ace.

      5. You write: “The laws changed BECAUSE they were deemed caucasian.” False. The restrictive covenant decision from the US Supreme Court came in 1948 (Shelly v. Kramer). The Halladjian decision came in 1900, and it related to Asian v. “White” immigration quotas. Those broader quotas you denounce saved saved Armenian lives by allowing 1915-1923 refugees to come here.

      6.”That is benefiting from white supremacy. Full stop. Black people, who were BORN in this country, did not have that benefit. Let that sink in. From slavery to segregation to redlining. To simply being denied home loans. Imagine if Armenians were denied home loans? So to deny that Black people don’t suffer in the US at the hands of implicit bias to extreme racism is gaslighting them. The same way Turkey gaslights Armenians by denying anything wrong happened.” This is nonsense, and garbled nonsense at that.

      If your point is that Armenians do not and have not suffered the racism and violence which African Americans have suffered, you won’t find many odars or Hyes who disagree. If you are claiming that African Americans are harmed by hypothetical Armenians’ allegedly racist attitudes by gaslighting, you are dreaming. Odars barely know what an Armenian is. But due to the Kardashians, and Alexis Ohanian, some African Americans actually see us in good terms. I think you overstate our importance to the odar world, black and white.

      7. You write: ” When Armenians say ‘there’s no police problem’ ‘no race problem’ ‘BLM is a progressive cause’, they are willfully shielding themselves from the realities experienced by a group of people that they consider ‘the other’. Whose history they do not want to learn. Whose suffering they deny. And yet, they benefit from what ‘whiteness’ has given them in this country. That’s the pure hypocrisy of Armenian immigrants.” Again, who are these immigrants you deride, and how do you know they say these things? Moreover, how does this hypothetical immigrant hurt anyone?

      If you are trying to allege that only a racist would criticize BLM, I think you will find valid opposition from every type of non-racist American. For starters – BLM’s “foundation story” is the utterly false claim that Michael Brown was killed while surrendering to an officer in Ferguson (“Hands Up, Don’t Shoot”). The foundation story was disproved by the Obama DOJ in 2014: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/fact-checker/wp/2015/03/19/hands-up-dont-shoot-did-not-happen-in-ferguson/
      Michael Brown had just robbed a store and was trying to seize the officer’s gun. The officer correctly felt his life was stake because those who get officer guns often shoot the officers with the weapons. Michael Brown was not a victim.

      You close by saying “no discussion needed.” In your case study of the facts and your own apparent disgust with your own people, built on cliches, lies and half truths, is sorely needed. Your insult to the readership and all Armenians might delight a Turkish nationalist, and that’s about it.

  9. Vahak, I can personally relate to your experience in Iran because I was 9 at the time and after the boxing match, I had a fight of my own with my best friend at school who was the only kid cheering for Ali that day!
    the reason for my commentary here is however, not the content of your article which I subscribe to whole-heartedly, but the response from our fellow Armenian police officer.
    Yes it is true that there have been watershed moments in recent American history that have impacted the black population in a positive way but it is not enough to assume that because they were treated like animals before and now there are subject to less humiliation, we should all be thankful. Being born an Armenian in America, or most of middle east for that matter, does not give us the slightest idea of grasping the experience of a black person growing up here. My personal experience back in Iran, in the city of Isfahan where I grew up, gave me a hint what racism could be when in certain parts of town, I would be called untouchable if they knew I was Armenian and they would even refuse to hand me food items . Despite the fact that this experience was religious and not race based, it still hunts me to this day when I am reminded of it. We can use all the data and statistics to justify wether police are handling themselves appropriately or not. All I know is that as long as a black man walking down the street, regardless of their status, education or background, can feel that they could be pulled over and questioned by police more often than a white person, the American exceptionalism has failed its promise.

  10. To all who commented,

    I am appreciative that you read the piece and even more so that you took the time to write a response. What matters most is that we have these conversations. Clearly, there are countless layers and dimensions to the issue. Getting closer to the relative truth, requires self reflection and the willingness to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. But I am hoping that we can agree that racism is as much part of US history as is the fight against it. The country, we, will be better for it when the fight is won.

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