Arabs and Arab Americans

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Arabs and Arab Americans





Within one week of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., law enforcement authorities in the United States received 96,000 tips about the allegedly suspicious behavior of persons who fit a racial phenotype associated with Arabs. For at least the next three years, Arab Americans experienced collective revenge for the attacks from the U.S. government and public alike in the form of assaults, harassments, mass arrests and deportations, denials of civil and political rights, media vilification, employment discrimination, and invasions of privacy. Public opinion polls taken after 9/11 revealed wide support for restricting the civil rights of Arab Americans, requiring Arab Americans to carry special identity cards, and subjecting them to special security checks before boarding planes. These suspicions and punishments were related to the Arabic origin of the 9/11 hijackers, but they would not have been imposed on Arab Americans if Arabs had not been previously racialized as a monolithic group with an alleged predisposition to violence and hatred.

Prejudicial attitudes and discriminatory behaviors toward human groups based on their alleged racial traits are certainly not new in American society. Indeed, they lie at the foundation of American society and characterize the historic experiences of Native Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans, and Latinos. Receiving such treatment, however, was relatively new for Arab Americans, who had spent more than half a century in the United States as a comparatively advantaged group. When one compares the Arab American experience in the first half of the twentieth century to that of the second half, one finds that Arab Americans have been racialized in a process similar in form but different in pretext and timing from that of other historically racialized groups. Arab Americans have historically been afforded some of the benefits and protections of whiteness, and their exclusion from the social and political perquisites of whiteness postdates the historic experiences of other negatively racialized groups. It is therefore not perfectly tied in its genesis to ideas about race and the superiority of whiteness that have existed since the founding of the United States. Instead, the racialization of Arabs emerged from the rise of the United States as a global superpower, and particularly from its perceived foreign policy interests.


Arabs who migrated to the United States in the first decades of the twentieth century held structural positions and faced barriers of prejudice and discrimination largely similar to those of white ethnics. Using legal rights concerning property ownership, voting, immigration, naturalization, residential and marital patterns, and employment experiences as primary indicators of their social status at the time, early Arab immigrants and their American-born children—numbering some 100,000 persons by 1924, according to Philip Hitti (1924)—largely fit into a marginal white category, a position similar to that of Italians, Poles, Slavs, Jews, and Greeks in America. Although Arabs were barred from a broad range of institutions run by mainstream whites, they settled without documented restrictions in urban and rural areas, ran businesses, traveled freely about the country as traders, worked as unionized laborers in manufacturing, built community institutions, flourished as writers, and held offices in state and local governments. They achieved a degree of economic success, experienced upward social mobility, and led social lives that were intertwined with members of white ethnic groups, often resulting in intermarriage.

Of course, there are meaningful exceptions to this broadly simplified history, and there were specific localities where the right of Arabs to become naturalized was challenged. During the era of widespread nativism that characterized the United States between 1910 and 1924, Arab whiteness was contested by specific local court clerks and judges seeking to block their naturalization. Such incidents occurred in places like Detroit, Buffalo, Cincinnati, St. Louis, and parts of Georgia and South Carolina. In the words of the historian Helen Hatab Samhan, in some places Arabs were “not quite white” (Samhan 1999). These disparate experiences around racial location underline the notion that race is socially constructed, and that Arabs sat at a disputed margin of whiteness. This marginality is graphically illustrated in the boundaries of the Asia Barred Zone, a map attached to 1917 legislation passed by the U.S. Congress that erected geographic barriers to immigration and included small sections of the Arab world. The inclusion of parts of Yemen provided ammunition for those who opposed Yemeni naturalization.

These contested racial experiences were neither universal nor representative of the early Arab American experience, and they were counterposed by the widely documented and largely unfettered freedom of movement experienced by Arabs engaged in commerce, which was as true of Christian Arabs as it was of Muslim and Druze Arabs. The existence of variations around race in the early Arab American experience highlights the notion that racial projects are given meaning as they are embedded in local social relationships. Overall, in the early part of the twentieth century, Arab Americans experienced levels of social and political inclusion and economic mobility largely reserved for whites and denied to negatively racialized groups, such as African Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, and Latinos. Their experiences were also vastly better than what Arab Americans have faced since the late 1960s. Since that time, substantial evidence indicates a widening social distance between Arab Americans and all other Americans. This social distance is measurable, and it is manifested in government policies, mainstream cultural representations, public perceptions and attitudes, discriminatory behaviors, physical insecurity, and social and political exclusion.


The differences in experience between past and present Arab American generations are due in part to religious factors. The earliest Arab immigrants were more likely to be Christian than Muslim, while the reverse has been the case since the 1980s. But reducing historical changes in the Arab American experience to a Muslim-Christian dichotomy is not as analytically useful as it may appear to be. Anti-Arab sentiments were common in the United States decades before Muslim Arabs outnumbered Christian Arab immigrants. Additionally, since their formation, beginning in 1968, all major pan-American Arab organizations have been staffed by members of both religious groups and share the same objectives: reducing discrimination, stereotyping, political exclusion, and ethnic vilification. Persons with Arabic-sounding names, whether Christian or Muslim, report experiencing job discrimination and anti-Arab comments, and persons with the “Arab-Middle Eastern” phenotype have been physically attacked regardless of religion. It is not clear that the American public has a differentiated view of the Christian versus the Muslim Arab, for the utter simplicity of monolithic, anti-Arab messages has succeeded in precluding thoughtful distinctions. The negative experiences around which Arab American organizations have mobilized preceded by decades the 9/11 attacks, but they laid the groundwork for the collective backlash that followed.

The deterioration in Arab American experiences over time also cannot be explained by economic factors. The earliest Arab immigrants were predominantly uneducated Lebanese, Syrian, and Palestinian farmers and workers, while Arab immigrants since the 1950s have included highly educated Egyptians and Iraqis, predominantly entrepreneurial Jordanians and Yemenis, and better-educated Lebanese, Syrians, and Palestinians. In 2000, According to the U.S. Census, the proportion of Arabs in the United States with high school diplomas and bachelor’s degrees was higher than that of the total U.S. population, and this applied to every Arab nationality group. Arab men and women working full-time had higher median incomes in 1999 than did the total U.S. population, a characteristic that applied to all Arab nationality groups except Moroccans and Iraqi and “Arabic” men. (“Arabic” corresponds here to persons who described their ethnicity on the Census form as Arab, Arabian, or Arabic. It differs, therefore, from the collective Arab category. Analysis of census data for metropolitan Chicago showed that, among Arabs, Palestinians were the most likely group to use this term.) At the same time, Arabs had higher poverty rates than did the total U.S. population (17% versus 12%), although this difference is largely explained by recently arrived Iraqi refugees and, to a lesser extent, Palestinian immigrants fleeing continuing deteriorating conditions. While many newer Arab immigrants have low levels of education and job skills, the overall social class background and human capital of Arab immigrants has certainly not lowered over time.

The theoretical construction that best captures the Arab American experience over time is racial formation, as elaborated by Michael Omi and Howard Winant in Racial Formation in the United States (1994). The structural exclusion of Arab Americans from a wide range of social institutions has evolved from a plethora of “racial projects” (e.g., in the media, arts, news, pedagogy, academia, civil society, political organizations, public policy, and popular culture) in which social constructions of the essential differences of Arabs (and later Muslims) were put forth so extensively as to be widely accepted as common sense, as evidenced in public opinion polls.

Arab Americans have been racialized using dominant discourses about their inherent violence, which are propped up with confirming images (such as angry mobs) in a process tied to the rise of the United States as a superpower and its foreign (not domestic) policy interests. This stigmatization threw Arab American communities off their previous course in American society, for it re-created them as “Others,” as people who stand in opposition to Americanness because of their alleged inherent values and dispositions. Palestinian opposition to the Israeli military occupation of their homeland was thus constructed as illegitimate, and Arabs were cast as not only violent but also racist and anti-Semitic, in opposition to core “American values.” The Palestinian case exposed the racialized nature of these discourses: Whereas the Soviet, Cuban, and Sandinista enemies were governments and political ideologies, the Arab enemy was the Arab people, men and women supposedly imbued with innate cultural dispositions to violence and hatred. Media fascinations with questions such as “Can Arabs be democratic?” followed, again positing that Arabs, by nature, hold values that clash with the essential values of the United States.

Thus, in their history in the United States, stretching over more than 100 years, the social status of Arabs changed from marginal white to a more subordinate status that shares many features common to the experiences of people of color. Just as one can document and measure the process of becoming white (see Roedigger 1991; Ignatiev 1995), a downgrading of the social status of Arabs in America through processes identified as “racial formation” is also measurable and can be seen in public policies; mainstream representations; social patterns of discrimination, separation, and exclusion; and even self-identification. By the late 1970s, pollsters found that American attitudes toward Arabs were “close to racist” (Lipset and Schneider 1977) and that “Arabs remain one of the few ethnic groups that can still be slandered with impunity in America” (Slade 1981). M. Cherif Bassiouni, a law professor at DePaul University, documented systematic efforts to deny Arab Americans their civil rights in a 1974 monograph titled The Civil Rights of Arab-Americans: The Special Measures. Jack Shaheen’s 1984 examination of portrayals of Arabs in American television found pervasive and persistent negative stereotypes, including in children’s educational programming. In his 1991 study of Arab portrayals in comic books, Shaheen found that out of 218 Arab characters, 149 characters were portrayed as evil. Ronald Stockton’s 1994 analysis of anti-Arab images and themes appearing in newsprint caricatures pointed out their similarity to earlier images that showed blacks as inferior and subjectable, Japanese as savage and subhuman, and Jews as socially hostile with “thought processes alien to normal humans.” Laurence Michalak, the author of Cruel and Unusual: Negative Images of Arabs in American Popular Culture, found that negative representations of Arabs could be located across a broad spectrum of American popular culture, including songs, jokes, television, cartoons, and comics. In his research he found “overwhelming

and undeniable evidence that there exists a harshly pejorative stereotype of Arabs in American cinema” (Michalak 1983, p. 30). These and other scholarly studies offer substantial evidence of measurable levels of negative structural discrimination and a dramatic widening of the social distance between Arab Americans and all other Americans.

Indeed, the most important pan–Arab American organizations founded since the 1960s—the Association of Arab-American University Graduates (AAUG), the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), the Arab American Institute (AAI), and the National Association of Arab Americans (NAAA)—have had as their primary organizational objectives the reversal of these conditions of inequality and the dismantling of the propositions of innate cultural difference that lay at their root. One of the first historic studies of Arab American communities commissioned by an Arab American organization (the ADC) noted:

At a time when the United States is more receptive to cultural pluralism, and ethnicity is no longer socially unacceptable, Arab Americans remain primary targets of defamatory attacks on their cultural and personal character. Thus, much of the activity of the Arab-American community has been directed at correcting the stereotypes that threaten to produce a new wave of anti-Arabracism in the United States and endanger the civil and human rights of the Arab-American community. (Zogby 1984, p. 21)


The racial-formation processes experienced by Arab Americans cannot be perfectly tied, in their genesis, to ideas about race and the superiority of whiteness that have existed since the founding of the United States. Rather, the fall of Arabs from the graces of marginal whiteness is traceable to the emergence of the United States as a global superpower. This sociopolitical relationship, although not framed in racial terms, is acknowledged in some of the earlier scholarship on Arab Americans. For example, Baha Abu-Laban and Michael Suleiman note in Arab Americans: Continuity and Change that the source of bias against Arabs in the United States relates “more to the original homeland and peoples than to the Arab-American community” (Abu-Laban and Suleiman 1984, p. 5). In the same 1984 ADC report, domestic “images of greedy oil sheiks and bloodthirsty terrorists” are tied to political and economic events in the Middle East (Zogby 1984, p. 21). More to the point, Fay notes that “the source of today’s defamation of Arab-Americans might be described as the domestic counterpart of the Arab-Israeli conflict” (Fay 1984, p. 22).

The domestic transformation of Arabs from marginal white to structurally subordinate status was facilitated by the flexibility of whiteness and the historic and “observable” racial liminality of Arabs (a concept that can be extended to South Asians and Latinos). But, at its core, the social and political exclusion of Arabs in the United States has been a racial formation process. Arab inferiority has been constructed and sold to the American public using essentialist constructions of human difference, resulting in specific forms of structural isolation. The seemingly race-neutral lens of essentialized cultural differences became useful after blatant racism had lost its power as an effective hegemonic tool. Nonetheless, the components of racialization were there, including the assertion of innate characteristics held by all members of a group and the use of power to reward, control, and punish based on these determinations.

Because race remains one of the fundamental tools for claiming rewards and organizing discipline in American society (and because this is something Americans know and understand), these notions of essential human difference have been corporealized, as if they were about color. The corporealization is evident in the actionable but sloppy phenotypic category of “Arabs, Muslims, and persons assumed to be Arabs and Muslims.” Without these terms and this categorization, analysts could not accurately describe the victims of hate crimes and verbal assault in the United States after the 9/11 attacks. In August 2005, for example, some New York legislators called for baggage checks of persons entering New York subways who fit the “Middle Eastern” profile. But “Middle Eastern” is an artificial construct created in the West, and it has varying definitions. For some, the Middle East ranges from North Africa through Muslim South Asia; for others, it is the Arab countries in Asia; and sometimes its geographic area is left undefined. Very few persons from “Middle Eastern” countries identify with the term. In Census 2000, only 2.4 percent of Arab respondents gave their ethnicity as “Middle Eastern.”

Because the racialization of Arabs is tied to larger American global policies, the domestic aspect of this project differs in some ways from that of historically racialized groups in its focus on the manufacture of public consent needed to support, finance, and defend these policies. For this reason, the most noted features of Arab exclusion in the United States are tactical. They thus include persistent, negative media representations; denial of political voice; governmental and nongovernmental policies targeting Arab American activism; and distortions of Arab and Muslim values, ways of life, and homelands. All of these actions are tied to the delegitimation of Arab claims and the disenfranchisement of dissenting voices in order to assert an informational hegemony. Arab Americans have maintained their economic successes despite the context of political and social exclusion, in part because they tend to work as professionals and entrepreneurs, occupations that are largely peripheral to power and the corporate mainstream.

Since the “darkening” of Arabs began in earnest after the beneficiaries of the U.S. civil rights movement had been determined and the categories of “nonwhite” and “minority” had been set, Arabs have experienced the double burden of being excluded from the full scope of whiteness and from mainstream recognition as people of color. They are therefore still officially white and ineligible for affirmative action programs. Therese Saliba notes that while Arab Americans have been victims of racist policies, their experiences are rendered invisible by dominant discourses about race. The political exclusion of Arab voices in mainstream civil society has been reinforced by issue control, through which organizational leadership silences any discussion of issues that challenge U.S. policies in the Arab world (e.g., Palestine, Iraq) if asserting them may frustrate other organizational objectives. In pedagogy, prior to 9/11, Arabs were generally excluded from race and ethnic studies textbooks, and when they were mentioned they were often treated differently than other groups by being held responsible for their own stereotyping (see Cainkar 2002).

The exclusion of Arab Americans and their organizations from mainstream vehicles of dissent left them with few powerful allies after the 1960s, despite efforts to establish ties with other ethnic and racial groups in order to forge antiracist alliances (although they have had some measurable local successes). This allowed their challenges to hostile media representations, textbook biases, and selective policy enforcement to be ignored without repercussions (see Fay 1984). Because they stood virtually alone, discrimination and the production of negative images flourished, pointing to the importance of strategies that ensured Arab American exclusion from civil society groups. The perpetuation and reinforcement of stigmatized views, as well as political isolation, allowed Arab Americans to be open targets for collective punishment after the 9/11 attacks on the United States.

SEE ALSO Aversive Racism; Hate Crimes; Institutional Racism; Racial Formations; White Racial Identity.


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Louise Cainkar

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Arabs and Arab Americans

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