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An American Story

The story of Ahmed Mohamed shows us the best of the modern American melting pot and the worst of America’s racialized fears.

September 18, 2015

What has happened in the past three days to 14-year-old Ahmed Mohamed is a richly American story that can be told in three interconnected acts. The first act introduced us to this remarkable 9th grader who built a homemade clock and took it to school to impress his teacher. The second act introduced us in a very blunt way to the front-line consequences of Islamophobia as it currently is practiced in places like Irving, Texas. And the third act gave us the climax, Mohamed’s swift exoneration, and also the story’s denouement, his burgeoning status as a national symbol of moxie and hope.

The whipsaw story seems to have ended well.  The kid got invited to the White House by President Obama and got an internship offer from Twitter, not to mention praise from scientists all over the world. And since he’s already smarter than the teachers and cops whose paths he crossed this week, adults who evidently couldn’t tell the difference between a working clock and a bomb even after Mohamed showed them how it worked, it is not unreasonable to assume he is destined for a life of achievement and success. Not exactly a rags-to-riches story, at least not yet, more like Walter Mitty.

The first act in this American drama begins with an immigrant family and an over-achieving student. Even if you think Mohamed should have left his clock at home the kid did nothing at school to warrant the treatment he received. He didn’t lie. He didn’t threaten or endanger anyone. All he did was be the earnest, curious, self-starting science geek our political leaders have touted for years. That he is a Sudanese-American young man, and that his family has been striving both to assimilate itself into the American culture and to preserve its own ethnic and religious identity within that society, is a poignant example of the myth of the “melting pot” we teach our kids about.

All of which makes the rash and cruel way in which school officials and the police then treated Mohamed a colossal failure not just of policing and school administration but of something much more fundamental. The second act in our American drama thus involves a familiar blend of overzealous bureaucrats conspiring with the police to deliver swift “justice” to students of color. It is now sadly axiomatic that students of color bear the brunt of school discipline whether they deserve it or not. The headline in this Gawker piece posted Wednesday explains it all: “7 kids not named Mohamed who brought homemade clocks to school and didn’t get arrested.”

This story cannot be separated from race or religion, and it stands as an indictment of anyone who has created or who tolerates the current atmosphere of fear and loathing toward ordinary Muslim Americans. Check out this baffling piece, which posits the whole story is part of some vast secret pro-Muslim conspiracy. Gawker instead also had it right with this piece that made another essential point about this story: If the product of this Muslim-American family is suspicious, then which Muslim-American family is free from such suspicion? This, too, is sadly part of our American story in September 2015.

So the kid shows us the best of the modern American melting pot, and then his swift arrest and suspension shows us the worst of America’s racialized fears. But then the story turns yet again and the kid goes, in a matter of hours, from being a juvenile delinquent to a national hero. Millions of Americans, fascinated by the juxtaposition between Mohamed’s achievement and the school’s response to it, rose to his defense. He’s been invited to Space Camp and to visit Facebook. He called the Massachusetts Institute of Technology his “dream school” and, presto, one of MITs astrophysicists told him on live television that he was “exactly the kind of student we want at places like MIT and Harvard.” And that, too, is a quintessentially America story.

The truth is that there are plenty of clocks in Ahmed Mohamed’s future, plenty of rooms where he’ll be valued and not interrogated, plenty of venues where his talent and creativity will be appreciated and not scorned. I don’t know that he is the Muslim hero America has been waiting for—that’s a bit too much pressure to put on a kid who makes homemade clocks. But he certainly is a much-needed reminder that fear and ignorance in America usually lose out in the end to hope and knowledge.

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.