SHIFTING ARAB-AMERICAN DEMOGRAPHICS AND HISTORICAL NARRATIVES: THE IMPLICATIONS FOR RELATIONS WITH AFRICAN AMERICANS

Rosina Hassoun, PhD. (Rhassoun@svsu.edu)


ABSTRACT

The challenges to the relationship between Arab-Americans and African-Americans include critical matters, including the history of Arab involvement in African slavery, Arab racial discrimination against Africans in the Middle East and the US, lack of understanding of Arab culture in the African American community, and the conflicts surrounding the Arab and Chaldean-owned gas stations and convenience stores in the Midwest. However, a little-known fact is the deep and longstanding relationships between the NAACP and other national African American organizations and the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC).  Few people are aware of the role that African-American organizations played and continue to play in helping Arab-Americans create and maintain their main national civil rights organizations. The relationship between African and Arab-Americans appears to have improved since 9/11, with common concerns over Islamophobia and profiling. Dr. W. Montague Cobb, as a past president of the NAACP, would have been both interested and concerned about the relationship between African-Americans and Arab-Americans and therefore this discussion is apropos. 


The demographic and identity narratives of Arab Americans impact the relationship with African-Americans, partly because of the nature of the popular image of Arab Americans.  The commonly projected shallow success narrative of Arab-Americans as a White model immigrant population that has high education and income levels acts to separate African and Arab Americans. However, with recent shifts in Arab-American demographics and the added scrutiny of Arab Americans after 9/11, questions have arisen about the inclusivity and depth of the Arab American narrative. In the meantime, researchers continue working to expand and explore the Arab American narrative.

The Development of the Arab American Narrative

The Arab American narrative has largely been a narrative of the Lebanese Christians. However, the shifts in the Arab American demographics over time have consequences for the Arab-American identity and impact their historical narrative.  The demographics of Arab Americans have shifted, especially since the 1960s, with changes that brought more Muslims, more refugees, and a more diverse Arab population by country of origin (Suleiman 2005).  The first Arab-American historical and identity narratives were constructed by the early “Syrians”. When the early Syrians (mostly people from the Mount Lebanon area of Greater Syria, then living under Ottoman rule) began arriving in the United States after the 1870s, they were mostly poorly educated, Christian, rural village agriculturalists escaping ethnic strife and a crippling Lebanese feudal system (Khater 2001). The Ottomans had not provided public education and many of the Syrians (as they called themselves then) had very low reading skills and inadequate knowledge of the world and even Arab history (Hitti 1924). They naturally told their stories of who they were and how they came to America.  They sincerely believed they were the first people from the Arab-speaking region in America. When the Syrian/Lebanese American historian, Phillip Hitti wrote his book, The Syrians in America (1924) he solidified an ethnocentric perspective of the Arab Americans. This is ironic, because Hitti saw the Syrians as a “mixed Semitic race” that were not specifically Arabs. According to Hitti, the first Syrian to arrive in the US was from the Mount Lebanon area and was Antonius Al-Bishally  in 1854 (Ibid 1924).  As the predominant group of Arab Americans by their sheer numbers, the Lebanese narrative became the main Arab-American narrative.

Recent historical research has added a decidedly different perspective to the Lebanese success and assimilation narrative. At the turn of the 1900s and in the late 1800s, Orientalism in art and literature was rampant (Edwards 2000).  It is hard to believe that the early Syrians would have been easily embraced by White mainstream Americans, except as exotic and foreign. Arab culture places a great deal of pressure on Arab men to be the main providers and defenders of their families. This is true of both Muslim and Christian Arabs. There is also extreme pressure in the culture to succeed. Early Lebanese Christian immigrants that were largely poor village agriculturalist that pooled their family money in many cases to come to the US, would have lost face had they written home that America discriminated against them and they were consequently struggling. Therefore, many of the struggles of the early Lebanese are not on record.  However there are exceptions.  Arab American writers like Abraham Mitrie Rihbany, in his autobiography, A Far Journey, wrote of the hardships of being an Arab immigrant in the late 1800s (Rihbany 1914).   In addition, Rev. Mansur in a series of articles written in 1927 for the Syrian World, an Arab American magazine, is one of the few Arabs  to publicly complain about the discrimination faced by Arab American youth (Mansur 1927).  In the “Problems of Syrian Youth in America”,  he wrote, “I sympathize with Syrian-American youth because I know the meaning, suffering, and consequences of race prejudice”.   The general prejudice is also evidenced by numerous newspaper articles and public statements like the following:

“ The Syrians are nearly all peddlers if they are anything. There are very few of them in the South End outside of Oliver Place.  Next to the Chinese, who can never be in any real sense American, they are the most foreign of all our foreigners. Whether on the streets in their oriental costumes, or in their rooms gathered about a Turkish pipe, they are apart from us….”
                                                                  Associated Charities of Boston, 1892, Robert Woods, editor, The City of Wilderness pp.36-37.

The South end of Boston near Oliver Street was where Kahlil Gribran, the writer, poet and artist grew up after immigrating with his mother and siblings to America.  The words above seem tragically prophetic. While some Arab Americans acquired the privileges of Whiteness thorough assimilation and name-changes, many Arabs were never fully embraced as White.  But the Arab-American population was never completely homogeneous.  Hence, there is the feeling by some Arab Americans of being a “not quite white” population (Samhan 1999, Haddad 2004). The darker complected Arabs and the more foreign-looking immigrants had a much harder time in America. This is evidenced by the history of immigration laws and cases. Arab Americans are one of the few immigrant populations to have been excluded twice by immigration law- once from 1924 to 1952 under the Immigration Act of 1924 and then again with very restrictive informal and arbitrary restrictions after 9/11.

The legal discrimination against the early Arab American began in the late 1800s in a series of immigration cases where race was a significant factor in granting American citizenship. Gualtieri (2009) points out that while the early Syrians were a very small number of the immigrants in that great wave of immigration to the United States in that era, they were disproportionately represented in the immigration courts between 1909 and 1923, where just under a third of all those cases involved Syrians.  We can only speculate that there was a consorted effort to draw the line of Whiteness at Gibraltar.  It appears that the Syrians were given an ultimatum by the immigration courts: be White or else you have no right to be here at all.  Some Lebanese were able to obtain American citizenship, in part because of their religion. After all, they were Christians from the Holy Land and if they were non-White, then Jesus was non-White as well, a statement no racist Southern judge would have made in that day (see Samhan 1999).

But not all the early Arab Americans were Lebanese, even at the turn of the previous century in the early 1900s.  Among the early Syrians were Lebanese, Palestinians, Syrians, Jordanians and other Arabs that found their way to the US in the late 1800s to early 1900s,  including a number of Muslim Yemeni.   Some Yemeni even served in the first World War.  But the story of the Yemeni Americans went largely untold in the larger Arab-American community until researchers in the early 1980s began to study the Yemenis living in Dearborn, Michigan and working in the automobile factories in the Detroit Metropolitan area (Abraham and Abraham 1982).  Mary Bisharat’s documentation of Yemeni farm workers in California added another page to the Yemeni in America (Bisharat 1975, 1982). She stated that the first Yemeni in the US arrived after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1860 (Bisharat 1982). Through Mary Bisharat’s work and the newspapers of the day, we know the story of Nagi Daifullah, the Yemeni farm worker and union organizer who was killed for working with Ceasar Chavez.  The Yemeni American experience differed markedly from the Lebanese American experience.  Yemenis have done some of the most labor-intensive jobs in the US- in working in the foundries of the car industry and in picking fruits and vegetables. They have worked exceedingly hard and yet many struggle financially due to the nature of the pay for their work.  Yemenis also experienced a longer struggle for citizenship than the Syrians. The last immigration case to exclude a Yemeni from American citizenship was in 1942.  The immigration judge in Detroit asked Mr. Ahamd Hassan to take off his shirt in the courtroom. Because he was Muslim and too darkly complected, the judge decided to deny American citizenship (Guatieri 2009).  The judge’s remarks were that he was  “undisputedly dark brown in color” (Gualtieri 2009: 157).   Gualiteri wrote that “Hassan’s physical appearance  rendered him at a disadvantage from the start” (Ibid 157).  Decades after the Lebanese won the right to citizenship, the Yemenis would finally win their case. But this was only after decades of working, mostly as legal migrants in the US.

 

While Arab Americans have not suffered discrimination to the same degree as African Americans experienced as a result of slavery, Jim Crow, and racial discrimination. Arab-Americans have had a major activist assassinated (Alex Odeh) and there was at least one documented lynching of an Arab American store owner in the South. The paradox of Arab American settlement patterns was not that the largely village agriculturalists chose to abandon farming and seek work largely in America’s Midwest and East Coast where there were job opportunities and customers for peddling, but rather why so few settled in the Deep South in Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi. Perhaps the lynching, discussed in the Arab American press of the day may shed some light.  Nola Romey was lynched by a White mob inspired by the racist Klu Klux Klan (KKK) in Lake City, Florida in 1929 (Gualtieri 2009 provides a much more detailed account from primary sources like local and national newspapers that goes beyond what is possible here). The lynching occurred after Romey’s wife had been killed by the Chief of Police. This Lebanese family had initially been driven out of Georgia where the father, Nola,  had been targeted and flogged by the KKK. Florida did not turn out to be the safe haven for the family either.  Other than the large numbers of African Americans, Italians and Asian Americans were immigrant groups that also experienced lynchings.

This illustrates that it is blatantly false that anti-Arab discrimination only first began after 9/11. Hate crimes against Arabs, those perceived as Arab, and/or Muslims have been increasing in the US  or decades prior to 9/11. The adage of “fear of flying while brown” encapsulates the experience of harassment at airports that long pre-dated 9/11. The visible pattern of hate crimes against Arabs and Muslims occurs as a series of spikes over time that begin with an incident in the Middle East or terrorism like the bombing of the Murray Building in Oklahoma (perpetrated by a non-Muslim non-Arab White racist). While the number of hate crimes may decline after an incident, there has also been a steady increase in hate crimes targeting Arabs and Muslims and those mistaken for them. 

 In addition, the large number of arrests, deportations, questioning of hundreds of Arab young men, and the intense surveillance experienced by Arab Americans since 9/11 is unprecedented (See Louse Cainkar’s book, Homeland Insecurity for a more extensive discussion).  Many African-American Muslims have also experienced more hate crimes and surveillance after 9/11 and they share that fear and anxiety with Arab Americans. While Muslim Americans, especially women who wear hijab experience greater harassment and job discrimination (see Hassoun 2001), there is an inability by the perpetrators of these crimes to distinguish Arabs from Sikhs, South Asians, or African Americans. Specifically, Arab-American Christian males do not look significantly different from Arab-Muslim Arabs and therefore are also subject to potential attack.

Arab American Demographics Today

The demographics today indicate that the Lebanese are still the single largest Arab-American sub-group in the United States. However, the designation of Lebanese today includes both Muslim and Christian Lebanese. The data (Arab American Institute) illustrates that there is a growing number of other Arab Americans.  However, caution must be exerted in using these statistics. The major source of demographics on Arab Americans available is the US Census, which grossly undercounts Arab Americans. Arab Americans are not considered a minority population in the US and their numbers are normally folded into the White category. One can be a North African America, born on the African continent with a dark complexion but officially classified by the US Census as White. Many Arab Americans check the Other box. In addition to counting Arab Americans, another problem is who is considered Arab. The inclusion of certain groups of people as Arabs in the data collection is usually not inclusive of all the 22 countries (including Palestine) that are members of the Arab League. Somalia is a member of the Arab League, but most Somalis do not self-identify as Arabs. Are the Aramaic speaking Christians like the Assyrians and Chaldeans considered Arab? It is obvious that the definition of who is Arab and who is not is beyond the purview of this discussion. But this points to the necessity to examine which groups of Arabs are included  in each data set and how they have identified themselves. With this in mind, the current demographics and income levels begin to tell a more complex story of which groups contain more refugees and working class (See Figures 1 and 2).

Figure 1: US Census 2000 and Arab American Institute.

Figure 2

 

In Figure 2, it is apparent that there were small, but relatively steady streams of Yemeni and also Egyptians. Other groups of Arab immigrants include Saudis and North Africans, mainly from Algeria and Tunisia.  According to the Migration Policy Institute, the fastest growing groups of immigrant from the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region from 2000 to 2009 were the Saudis (with an increase of 105%), Yemenis (up 99%) Sudanese (up 98%) and Iraqis (up 63%).  There was a small but steady migration (13% of all new immigrants form the MENA) from 2000 to 2009 from Lebanon (see Kayyali 2014). But these numbers can be deceptive due to the overall small volume of MENA immigrants allowed to immigrate to the US during this time period. MENA immigrants comprised only 2.2% of all immigrants to the US. As Figure 2 illustrates, executive orders by President Clinton began restricting the number of immigrants from the MENA region in the 1990s. People from the MENA region were restricted from coming to the US from 1914 through 1952  (the first exclusionary period), received the lowest quotas of any region from 1952 to 1965 and now face tightened immigration and an informal exclusion of people, particularly from war-torn Muslim countries since 9/11. Increasing numbers of Arabs coming to the US after 1965 have been refugees and increasing numbers since 1965 were Muslim. Many of the Sudanese immigrants that came from 2000-1009 were from what is now Southern Sudan (not a member country of the Arab League) and may not self identify as Arab. Somalis do sometimes interact with Arab Americans.  In Lansing, Michigan, Somali were invited to and attended local Arab American picnics and events.

 The data illustrate a creeping change in the demographics of Arab Americans.  Lebanese still predominate, but there are now a small but significant numbers of North Africans, including Egyptians.  Iraqi and Yemeni numbers are also increasing. Since the first Gulf War, Iraqi victims of war and refugees were allowed to come to the US at an initial rate of approximately 3000 per year. Due to this increased diversity in Arab Americans, the historical narrative of Arab Americans inevitably must change to be more inclusive. The historical experience of Yemenis in the US is very different from the Lebanese and Iraqis. The economic conditions in the US after the Recession of 2009 and post-9/11 discrimination does not bode well for a rapid or easy rise of these newest immigrants into the middle class, in spite of higher education levels. While African American may perceive these new immigrants as a threat to jobs, African-Americans can also empathize with the experiences and the plight of these immigrants, especially the refugees.

The Arab American Narrative Today Post 9/11

Statue of Estivanico by El Paso artist, John Houser

Statue of Estivanico by El Paso artist, John Houser

Theresa Saliba described the paradox of racialization still facing Arab Americans today as the “ between the racial classification of Arab Americans as white”  versus their “lived experiences”  in summary as:  “Arabs and Arab Americans remain victims of racist policies, even as they are rendered invisible by the standards of current racialized discourses”. (Saliba 1999:305, see also Jamal and Nabors (2008).  Among the Arab Americans I encountered in my own research, I find conflicting views: confusion by some, and anger by others concerning Arab-American racial classification. There are those among the older generation, who adamantly insist that Arab Americans are White and should not seek minority status. On the other hand, there appears to be a majority of the younger generation of Arab Americans who have grown up since 9/11 who clearly identify as a minority population.  From comedians like Dean Obeidallah, to hip-hop artists and writers like Amer Zahr, and Suhair Hammad (author of Born Palestinian, Born Black 2010), there is a younger generation expressing their lived experiences as a minority in America. As with Hammad, some of this generation identify more with the African Americans, Asian Americans, and Latinos in the United States than with a mainstream White population. Since 9/11, that certainly has been their reality.

Ramifications of These Shifting Narratives on African American and Arab American Relations

In the Mid-West, there have been shootings of African American youth in convenience stores and killings of Arab storeowners during robberies that have been characterized as racial conflict.  The location of the stores, the cleanliness of the stores, the quality of the food, expired food, local crime rates, socioeconomic disparity,  and sales of alcohol and cigarettes to under-aged children are all variables related to Arab and Chaldeans stores. (Chaldeans are Iraqi Christians from the area of Northern Iraq and are Aramaic speakers).  What is not widely known is that we encounter some of these same problems in the stories in the Arab community, such as giving Arab youth single cigarettes and the selling of expired foods.   It is also clear that  “two wrongs do not make a right”. Teaching a course on Arab Americans in universities and colleges in Michigan for over a decade, I have routinely brought up the problem of the stores, asking students about their experiences in the stores. These universities in Michigan have a predominately White student body, but my African American students also had mixed experiences in the stores: some positive, some negative, and some they classified as normal or average experiences.  Over time, the number of violent encounters in the stores appears to have lessened. In some cases, a younger generation of Arab Americans have taken over the stores from the older generation of immigrants. The younger generation is better educated. There is hope for change.  Racism and prejudice exists in Arab communities, but so do forces of change.  These regional issues cannot be swept aside.

Photo: Hassoun 2012: The Yemeni Mosque Dix Ave. South Dearborn, Michigan

Photo: Hassoun 2012: The Yemeni Mosque Dix Ave. South Dearborn, Michigan

At the same time, African American and Arab Americans have common problems to address.  African-American novelist Ishmael Reed wrote, “Within two weeks after the World Trade Center and Pentagon bombings, my youngest daughter, Tennessee, was called a dirty Arab, twice” (Reed 2001).  Sadly, this indicates that the problems of 9/11 have come back to haunt both Arab and African Americans. It binds and ties us together. The side effect of having the common problems of the post 9/11 backlash, as well as profiling and targeting is to draw the Arab- Americans and African- Americans (particularly all Muslim Americans) together to address these issues. The Arab American community is quite small in the United States and has been restricted in its ability to immigrate for a large portion of our history in the United States. Many of the new immigrants have come from countries that do not allow freedom of speech, as witnessed in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.  In addition, Arab culture tends to be quite insular, although this seems to be changing with the younger generation. African American activist can and have helped Arab Americans learn how to negotiate the American system. There is evidence of greater rapprochement of African American and Arab Americans post 9/11. One could wish it was under better circumstances. 

The shifting demographics of Arab Americans, particularly with the inclusion of more North Africans, means that Arab Americans and African Americans have an over-lapping history.   Morocco was the first country to recognize the United States and in return the United States promised not to enslave Moroccans. However, the Spanish made no such promise. The story of the Moroccan,  Mustafa az-Zammouri (named Estebanico or Estivanico by the Spanish that held him as a slave) illustrates this.  Az- Zammouri is considered to be both the first African American and the first Arab American (Arabic speaker and he may have also been a Berber) in North America.  He was brought to the Americas circa 1528 as a slave and was part of the expeditions of the conquistadores Navaez and Cabeza de Baca, among others (see http://www.arabamericanmuseum.org/client/virtualtour.asp?p1=CTAgallery).  The story of this remarkably gifted man that acted as translator in encounters with Native Americans and as a healer is on display at the Arab American National Museum. How many more Arabic speakers were brought in slavery to the United States?  This is a subject of research by both scholars of Arab American and African American history. 

Conclusions

The shifting demographics and the lived experiences of Arab Americans before and after  the tragedy of 9/11 have begun to reshape the historical  and identity narratives of Arab Americans. Arab Americans, until they are recognized as an official minority, are a White-designated ethnic population whose experience has been that of being treated as a “not quite white” population.  Efforts apparently were made from the late 1800s through the early 1900s to exclude the early Syrian immigrants from the United States completely. The Lebanese Christians among this group won their right to stay in the United States. However, the Arab American population is not homogeneous and sub-groups like the Yemenis have experienced greater discrimination in the United States and faced more economic challenges.  While many of the Arab Americans did succeed in America and were able to achieve middle class or better economic status, today there are Arab American communities with sizable refugee populations. Today, the Arab American population also contains more Muslims than ever before.  Small, but significant numbers of North Africans are also now a part of the Arab American population in the United States. While serious issues still exist in the relations between African Americans and Arab Americans, dialogue and understanding is critical to the joint issues we face. The changing demographics and the discrimination facing both Arabs and African Americans in the wake of 9/11 appear to be drawing the two groups closer together in their efforts to address issues of prejudice, targeting, and profiling. ***

Dr. Rosina Hassoun is currently an Assistant Professor at Saginaw Valley State University. She obtained her PhD in anthropology from the University of Florida, Gainesville. 


References

  1. Abraham, Sameer Y., and Abraham, Nabeel. 1982. Arabs in the New World: Studies on Arab-American Communities. Detroit, MI.: Wayne State Univ. Center for Urban Studies.
  2. Bisharat, Mary. 1975. “Yemeni Migrant Workers in California.” Arabs in America: Myths and Realities, 202–9.
  3. Bisharat, Mary. 1982. “Yemenis Abroad: A Study of Farmworkers in California.” California State University, Sacramento.
  4. Cainkar, Louise A. 2011. Homeland Insecurity: The Arab American and Muslim American Experience After 9/11. New York: Russell Sage Foundation Publications.
  5. Digital, I. I. P. 2011. “Mosques of America: Ross, North Dakota.” In Brief. http://iipdigital.usembassy.gov/st/english/inbrief/2011/07/20110729165008su0.1452557.xml. July 29. http://iipdigital.usembassy.gov/st/english/inbrief/2011/07/20110729165008su0.1452557.html#axzz3I9uRbeXW.
  6. “Demographics | The Arab American Institute.” 2014. Accessed November 28. http://www.aaiusa.org/pages/demographics/.
  7. Edwards, Holly, ed. 2000. Noble Dreams, Wicked Pleasures: Orientalism in America, 1870-1930. 1st edition. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
  8. Gualtieri, Sarah M. A. 2009. Between Arab and White: Race and Ethnicity in the Early Syrian American Diaspora. 1st edition. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  9. Haddad, Yvonne Yazbeck. 2004. Not Quite American? Publisher: Baylor University Press. Baylor University Press.
  10. Hammad, Suheir. 2010. Born Palestinian, Born Black: & The Gaza Suite. Brooklyn, NY: UpSet Press.
  11. Hassoun, R.  et al.  2001. The Greater Cleveland Arab American Needs Assessment Final Report. Cleveland: The Arab American Community Center for Economic and Social Services in Ohio (ACCESS-Ohio).
  12. Hassoun, Rosina.  2005. Arab Americans in Michigan. Ethnicity in Michigan series. East Lansing:  Michigan State Press
  13. Jamal, Amaney A., and Nadine Christine Naber. 2008. Race and Arab Americans Before and After 9/11: From Invisible Citizens to Visible Subjects. Syracuse University Press.
  14. Kayyali, Randa A. 2014. “The People Perceived as a Threat to Security: Arab Americans Since September 11.” Migrationpolicy.org. Accessed November 29. http://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/people-perceived-threat-security-arab-americans-september-11.
  15. Khater, Akram F. 2001. Inventing Home: Emigration, Gender, and the Middle Class in Lebanon, 1870-1920. New Ed edition. University of California Press.
  16. Reed, Ismael. 2001.  “Civil Rights: Six Experts Weigh In,” Time, December 7.
  17. Rihbany, Abraham Mitrie. 1914. A Far Journey. Boston and New York: Houghton and Mifflin.
  18. Saliba, Therese. 1999. “Resisting Invisibility: Arab Americans in Academia and Activism.” Arabs in America: Building a New Future, 304–19.
  19. Woods, Robert Archey. 1898. The City Wilderness: A Settlement Study. Houghton Mifflin.
  20. US Census. Arab Households in the United States 206-2010.  American Community Survey. http://www.census.gov/prod/2013pubs/acsbr10-20.pdf
  21. Zahr, Amer. 2014. Being Palestinian Makes Me Smile. Simsim Publishing.

Download the PDF of this article! >

Cobb Lab