World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - United States of America : Arab and other Middle Eastern Americans


Estimated population in (2004): 1.2 million.

Ethnicity: Lebanese, Egyptian, Syrian, Palestinian, Jordanian, Moroccan, Iraqi and other Arab ancestry

First language/s: Arabic, English

Religion/s: Christianity, Islam.

No single term encompasses all Americans of Middle Eastern/West Asian/North African descent, but the official category used by the US Census and other agencies is 'Arab Americans'. These include Americans of Lebanese, Egyptian, Syrian, Palestinian, Jordanian, Moroccan, Iraqi and other Arab ancestry (including Yemeni, Kurdish, Algerian, Saudi, Tunisian, Kuwaiti, Libyan, Berber, Emirati (United Arab Emirates), Omani, Qatari, Bahraini and Bedouin), and the general terms Middle Eastern and North African.

Although Arab Americans share broadly similar histories of immigration and reception in the USA, their origins, faiths, languages and cultures are diverse. Many would not necessarily consider themselves a 'minority', preferring to see themselves as part of the mainstream, but are concerned about recognition of their communities.

In the 2000 US Census 1.2 million Americans (0.42% of the total population) reported Arab ancestry, up from 860,000 in 1990. It is widely believed, however, that the actual number is closer to 3.5 million. The largest groupings were Lebanese (29%), Egyptian (14.5%) and Syrian (8.9%), followed by Palestinian (7.3%), Jordanian (4.2%), Moroccan (3.6%) and Iraqi (3.5%). Forty-six per cent of American Arabs were native US citizens, and 54 per cent were foreign born. They resided across the country, but one-third lived in California (mainly in the Los Angeles area), Michigan (mainly the Detroit area) and New York. According to the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) up to 63 per cent of Arab Americans are Christians (35% Roman Catholic, 10% Protestant and 18% Eastern Orthodox) and just under a quarter are Muslim.

In 2000, about 42 per cent of employed Arab Americans aged 16 and older worked in management, professional and related occupations, compared with 34 per cent of their counterparts in the total population. Another large proportion worked in sales and office occupations (30%). Arab Americans were less likely than the total population to work in construction, extraction and maintenance (5.3% compared to 9.4%).

Historical context

Immigrants from the Arabic-speaking countries arrived in the USA in three distinct waves. The first, between 1890 and 1920, brought over 250,000 people from what was then Greater Syria and other regions, mostly Christian peasants seeking economic opportunity. The second wave came after the Second World War and the creation of Israel, when tens of thousands of Palestinians emigrated to the USA. After 1965, when prejudicial immigration laws were reformed, there was a third wave of Arab immigrants, numbering about 250,000. The second and third waves were about 60 per cent Muslim and often highly educated, constituting a 'brain drain' from Palestine, Egypt, North Africa, Iraq, Yemen and other parts of the Arab world. North African Arab Americans, Muslim and non-Muslim, are increasing in number, and share concerns both with other Arab Americans and with African Americans.

By the late 1980s, the USA cut back the number of Middle Eastern immigrants it accepted. Many recent immigrants are alienated by prevailing attitudes and have limited contact with longer-established, more assimilated Arab American communities. Linguistic barriers have also blocked their social and economic advancement. On average, however, Arab Americans in the twenty-first century are better educated, more prosperous and more politically active than the average American.

In the 1980s, Iran became one of the top ten source countries for US immigration, although by the early 1990s it had become more difficult for Iranians to obtain visas. Many came as students in the 1960s and 1970s, but most arrived after the Iranian Revolution. A large number are Muslims and supporters of the former Shah, but many left because they were members of leftist opposition movements, non-Islamic faiths or oppressed ethnic groups. The total number of Iranian Americans is unclear: the 2000 Census counted 338,266 Iranians but it is widely believed that they number around 1 million. The largest Iranian population centre is in Los Angeles, but New York City and Washington DC also have large communities. The state of Texas also has a large Iranian community. Many of the immigrants were members of the upper classes in Iran, and on average they are extremely well educated. Half the US Iranian population is self-employed. However, many were never wealthy and the process of moving to the USA has caused considerable financial hardship and personal pain. Open hostility between the US and Iranian governments has also raised problems for the Iranian American community. The 1979-80 hostage crisis at the US embassy in Iran, in particular, led to widespread harassment, violence and discrimination. The community has been experiencing a similar backlash following the 11 September 2001 attacks, including, according to the National Iranian-American Council (NIAC), improper workplace background checks, interrogations and surveillances, deportation proceedings and inappropriate recruitment of informants within the community.

Armenians fled in significant numbers to the USA in reaction to the genocide of 1915-23, and immigrants from Armenia and its diaspora continue to arrive. The 2000 Census counted 385,488 Armenian Americans, but it is estimated that there are up to 1.4 million Armenian Americans. Turkey was also a significant source of immigrants in the early twentieth century, and several thousand people came to the USA from Turkey each year after 1960, many of them Kurdish. The 2000 Census counted some 111,575 people of Turkish origin. Other migrants during the 1980s and 1990s, often seeking US refugee status, have included Afghans, Azerbaijanis and Bosnians, of whom only a small portion have been admitted.

Political and socio-economic issues

Middle Eastern immigrant communities are often lumped together by US politicians and the general public as 'Arabs'. Persians and even non-Middle East groups like South Indians and Pakistanis have shared the brunt of widespread anti-Arab (and anti-Iranian) prejudice. Arab Americans and other Middle Eastern people have been the targets of repeated Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) investigation and random violence since the early 1970s, and each US confrontation with a Middle Eastern country is followed by an outbreak of hatred. During the 1991 Gulf War, hundreds of anti-Arab actions, including arson, bombings, assault and attempted murder, took place across the country. In 1985, Alex Odeh, a regional director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) was killed by a bomb trip-wired to his office door, to little government or media reaction. In 1995, when a federal building in Oklahoma was bombed, government officials and media blamed the event on Arabs or Muslims for days, causing a rash of violence, until the FBI charged members of a white anti-government militia. Few attackers have ever been prosecuted for anti-Arab acts.

Since the late 1970s, Arab Americans and Arab Canadians have sometimes been subject to harassment at border crossings, and the USA has repeatedly sought to deport politically active Arab visitors or immigrants as 'terrorist supporters', even though they have not been convicted of any crime. Negative stereotypes of Middle Eastern characters and of Islam are common in US film and television, and in radio and newspaper commentaries. Civil rights groups have drawn attention to these representations, with some success, but the stereotypes persist in popular US culture.

The ADC and several other Arab groups have been highly visible as critics of bias in US foreign and domestic policy, as well as in public life. Many Arab American individuals have achieved political prominence, mostly from the assimilated 'first wave', including members of Congress, senators, cabinet members, state governors and municipal officials. Non-Arab groups have organized more around internal professional, academic and religious ties.

Middle Eastern women are politically and professionally engaged, but in some groups, particularly Muslim ones, their workforce participation is limited by cultural tradition. However, the US government and anti-Arab interests have exaggerated both the 'oppression' of Muslim women and the 'liberation' of American women, particularly as a political tool during the Gulf War. Muslim women have been harassed for wearing traditional dress, and in some schools and other institutions it is prohibited. Middle Eastern American women have complained of marginalization in such debates, particularly in feminist forums, but have gained visibility, for example at the 1994 Cairo Conference on Population and Development and at the 1995 Beijing World Conference on Women.

In 1999, the overall median level of earnings for Arab American men working year-round and full-time was $41,700, higher than the national level of $37,100. However, there were large disparities within that group, with the highest earners being Lebanese men ($49,100 per year) and the lowest earners Moroccan men ($32,800). The median earning level of Arab American women was also higher than the national median, $31,800 compared with $27,200 among the total female population in 1999. Here, too, there were disparities with Egyptian women earning $35,200 per year, compared with $27,100 for Moroccan women.

Around 17 per cent of Arab Americans were in poverty in 1999, compared with 12 per cent of the total population. Around 25 per cent of Iraqis had incomes below the poverty thresholds, while 11 per cent of Lebanese and Syrians were in poverty. As with the general population, poverty rates for Arab Americans were highest among children, at 22 per cent of Arab American children under 18. Iraqi children were the most likely to be poor, with 41 per cent in poverty in 1999, compared to 15 per cent of Lebanese children.

The proportion of Arab Americans under 25 with a high school diploma was higher than that of the total population, 84 per cent compared to 80 per cent, and the proportion of those with at least a Bachelor's degree was even higher, 41 per cent compared to 24 per cent of the total population.

Current issues

Following the 11 September 2001 attacks on the US, Arab Americans across the country have been subjected to harassment and discrimination both in their communities and at the hands of state agencies including arbitrary detention, racial profiling and aggressive checks and detention for questioning in US airports and border crossings. According to a report by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), around 75 men, largely of Arab and South Asian origin were rounded up in the first few days after the attacks and held in secret locations. The number of detainees has since grown, reaching up to 2,000 people. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and state and local fair employment agencies have also documented a significant increase in the number of charges alleging workplace discrimination based on religion and/or national origin since September 2001, many filed by individuals who are or are perceived to be Muslim, Arab, South Asian or Sikh. These charges most commonly allege harassment and unfair discharge.

On the positive side, there has been a reported increase in outreach activities by a number of federal agencies, particularly the US Department of Justice Civil Rights Division and the Department of Homeland Security Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, who are increasingly engaged in dialogue and coordination with Arab American and Muslim organizations.

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