Posted on February 07, 1994 in Washington Watch

In his remarks before the Arab American Institute’s National Leadership Conference last month, Georgetown University History Professor Hisham Sharabi noted that while Arab Americans have made real progress in gaining respect and advancing their agenda in U.S. politics, they still have a long way to go. Dr. Sharabi, in particular, cited the absence of Arab Americans in key Administration policy-making positions, and observed:

“Among the ethnic groups in the United States we are, ironically, in some ways, the one that most resembles the Jewish American community. With that community we share many hidden qualities and many more obvious anxieties and concerns. But one notable area where we definitely differ, is in our access to government positions. Whereas Jewish Americans are eagerly recruited to all kinds of sensitive positions in government – for example, in the State Department – Arab Americans are conspicuous by their absence, even in fields and functions for which they are uniquely qualified. I find this difficult to understand or to justify.

“As we grow stronger and more united, we should go beyond, the position we are in now – basically, really, of self-defense – and move to reclaim our rights as Americans, including the right to public service in positions for which we are qualified, and for which we should expect to be routinely and equitably considered.”

On both levels, the praise for the accomplishments and the problems of the Arab American community, Sharabi’s comments were echoed throughout the conference and serve as a important capsulization of the Arab American position today.

Clearly, Arab Americans have made significant progress. During the past 20 years, since the creation of the first national Arab American organizations, the community has made its presence felt in U.S. politics. Over 400 Arab Americans serve as elected and appointed officials throughout the U.S. This year over 40 Arab Americans have already announced their candidacies for elective office in states all across the country.

And, as I have noted before, this year’s National Leadership Conference brought an unprecedented array of Administration officials to address the Arab American community. Vice President Al Gore’s appearance marked the first time that a vice president had ever addressed Arab Americans.

Like Sharabi, Gore praised the advancement of Arab Americans, noting an article profiling Arab Americans in the national magazine Parade:

“To me, there is no better news than I saw when I picked up Parade magazine last week. There is nothing aimed more at America’s mainstream than Parade. It is no minor achievement to see last week’s cover story by Casey Kasem devoted to Arab Americans, with pictures of George Mitchell and Donna Shalala….

“The fact is, the contributions of Arab Americans to this culture have been ignored. The stereotypes you see in movies have been shameful. And the fact that we see this kind of corrective in Parade means that maybe – just maybe – the 3 million Americans of Arab descent will be portrayed with the complexity you deserve.

And the Vice President later added, “As I read Casey Kasem’s article, I was impressed by one remark of Farouk El-Baz, the geologist who worked on Apollo missions, and now directs Boston University’s Center for Remote Sensing. `Racism originates from fear of the unknown or lack of knowledge and is usually alleviated by information,’ he said. That is a remark at once realistic and optimistic. I share his confidence that knowledge is a tool of brotherhood – and sisterhood.

“The Arab American Institute has worked to dispel ignorance. You’ve worked at home and you’ve worked abroad. I hope 1994 sees us in a partnership for peace, working in this country and abroad, working to bring people closer – but always working together.”

Gore also acknowledged the fact that Arab Americans are not a single-issue constituency. And again, like Sharabi, while noting with pride the fact that the Clinton Administration had appointed Arab Americans Donna Shalala, and Greg Simon as his own domestic policy advisor, Gore noted that “that is not enough” and pledged that the Administration would do more.

In her keynote address at the conference’s Gala Awards Banquet, Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala spoke eloquently and proudly of her Arab ancestry.

“How important it is that we keep our heritage, that our children really understand that they really are Arab Americans. For me, it has made all the difference in the world…I am proud tonight to be standing before all of you as a Lebanese American who has made it.”

She also praised the work of the Arab American community, saying,

“My father dreamed of and worked for the day when a room like this would be filled with Arab Americans who were leaders in every aspect of American life and that is the point I would like to make tonight. As a community, our power increases in every aspect of American life.”

Secretary Shalala, too, made the point that more Arab American expertise is needed in government: “Our generation has achieved these breakthroughs, but there is a lot more all of us need to do.” She later added,

“If there is anything that this Administration believes it is that you don’t have to have cookie cutter programs. That it is possible to Arab Americans to keep their heritage, keep special kinds of commitments to their community and simultaneously participate in the wide range of programs available to everyone. It is in trying to make our programs more sensitive to the Arab American community that all of us will be challenged in the years ahead. I believe that the President, and you heard from the Vice President today, are more interested in sensitive programs. I certainly believe that so many members of Congress who are Arab Americans themselves or who have communities they are responsive to are beginning to understand that this country is only strong when it builds on the heritage of so many of our population.”

Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown also spoke of the leadership role played by Arab Americans in bringing issues before the Democratic Party in this country. He spoke of the “turmoil and trauma” the community had endured during its work and how that work represented “not only the interests of Arab Americans, but really all Americans who have sought to be listened to, respected, and for too long had been shut out.”

Brown also praised the work of Arab Americans had done in advancing their agenda. “I want to congratulate your diligence,” he said. “I want to congratulate you for your tenacity. I want to congratulate you for your commitment to constructive change not only in America but all around the world.”

This level reception and recognition of Arab Americans and the success they have had in politics should not be overlooked. That the Administration sent this message to Arab Americans is clear and unequivocal. Democratic Party Chairman David Wilhelm (who managed President Clinton’s 1992 campaign) said it best:

“I am truly glad that you are going to be greeted and briefed by Vice President Al Gore, Donna Shalala, Ron Brown. If there could ever be a statement about the complete inclusion of the Arab American community, I think that is it.”

But Wilhelm went two steps further. In launching the Arab American Advisory Council to the Democratic National Committee (DNC), he created the first ever official link between Arab Americans and that party. This Council will provide Arab Americans not only with direct access to the party, but also with a vehicle through which Arab Americans can be mobilized around issues affecting this Administration.

The creation of this Council comes as recognition of the organizational role Arab Americans played in supporting the Clinton campaign and in organizing grass roots lobbying support to lobby for the President’s budget proposal in 1993.

The White House and DNC are now organizing a special White House briefing and meetings for members of the Arab American Democratic Advisory Council to mobilize the community in support of the President’s health care program. Similarly, Secretaries Shalala and Brown have agreed to establish liaisons with Arab American social service providers and Arab American businessmen to assist the community in presenting its concerns to the Administration.

But DNC Chairman Wilhelm has taken another step, and that is to facilitate meetings between the Arab American Democratic leadership and the White House personnel office to assist the community in securing more appointments in the Administration. And this speaks directly to Dr. Sharabi’s central concern.

Arab Americans have earned the respect and recognition they are receiving. This Administration has responded as no other has before in providing access and recognition. What must now happen is that Arab Americans must follow up on these opportunities and secure positions in government that match their skills, their interests and their experience.

This new challenge is a two-way street. Arab Americans must continue to press the Administration to open its doors, but Arab Americans must accept the challenge of seeking out, in the phrase President Kennedy used, their “best and brightest.” They must see government service as a desirable commitment, and they must recognize that their best service to their country and their community can be realized through service in the broad range of fields in which they have developed expertise.

As the Administration’s consistent message to the Leadership conference shows, Arab Americans are no longer on the outside looking in. But, now that they are on the inside, they must work to make certain to utilize that position for the joint benefit of the community and the country as a whole. The progress achieved over the last twenty years suggests that our community has the dedication, determination and imagination to do just that.

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