Posted on April 03, 2000 in Washington Watch

Is there an Arab American community and what are its characteristics and shared beliefs?

In the past 30 years, since beginning the enterprise of building Arab American institutions, we have neither asked nor systematically sought to provide answers to these questions. For the most part, we have relied on assumptions and intuitions. But instead of providing answers, these have, more often than not, engendered controversy – since the assumptions have reflected the views of the individuals or groups making them, and not of the community as a whole.

Because the Arab American community is quite complex, representing different generations, different countries of origin, different religious backgrounds, etc., there are a variety of competing assumptions that have been made. Each of these has been a reflection of the particular perspective of the individual or subgroup making them.

This situation is not unlike the story that the Indians tell of the “Four Blind Men and the Elephant”:

As it is told, four blind men were debating among themselves what an elephant is like, when they encountered the elephant. The first blind man, grabbing the elephant’s tail, announced, “I believe that an elephant is like a rope.” The second, putting his arms around the elephant’s leg, declared, “Oh, no, an elephant is like a tree.” The third and fourth, experiencing other parts of the massive beast, made similar observations.

The moral of the story, of course, is that the elephant is not any of the descriptions given by the blind men. It is, in a sense, all of them and much more.

Much the same can be said about the Arab American community. It is complex and diverse. Observing one part of the community, for example, a neighborhood of recent immigrants in Michigan, one could say, “I believe Arab Americans are like this.” While another, attending a dinner for the Arab American Bankers Association in New York City could make an equally false generalization about the character and definition of the community.

In fact, the Arab American community is all of its component parts. And it is the effort to bring together these many parts and to forge out of them a community with shared goals, that has characterized our effort for these past three decades.

It has not always been easy. Tensions in the Middle East and the diverse experiences of different groups here in the United States, have sometimes pulled at the various parts of the community. What we have repeatedly argued, however, is that different perceptions are to be expected and debate can be useful. In addition, it is possible to debate our differences and not divide because of them. The key to securing the future growth of the community is the support our fledgling institutions give to such consensus building and the recognition that our diversity can be enriching as we seek to advance in pursuit of our goal of becoming a strong political force in the United States.

In order to do so, we have needed to know more about our community, its characteristics and its views. We have, over the years, done demographic studies in an effort to learn about the size of the community and its component parts. We have more recently completed an in-depth study of Arab American attitudes which reveals that despite its diversity and complexity, a majority of the community share a number of strongly-held views.

Conducted by Zogby International (ZI) for the Arab American Institute (AAI), the survey was completed in February of 2000. The ZI/AAI study shows that a substantial consensus exists on a variety of domestic and foreign policy issues. Because the study provided an opportunity to measure attitudes not only among Arab Americans in general, but also among the various subgroups of the community (generations, countries of origin, religion, age, educational level and income), the depth and breadth of the consensus could also be determined.

In addition, because the ZI/AAI study was part of a much larger examination of the opinions of six major U.S. ethnic groups (African American, Asian American, Hispanic, American Jews, Italian Americans and Arab Americans), useful comparisons can be made between the attitudes and characteristics of Arab Americans and those of the other groups.

The ZI/AAI study interviewed 501 Arab Americans during January and February of 2000. The poll’s margin of error is + 4.5%. Before examining its findings about those issues that are of special concern to Arab Americans, it is interesting to sketch the portrait of the community’s characteristics that emerge from the study’s results.

Arab American Demographics and Characteristics

Two-thirds of those Arab Americans who were polled reported being born in the United States (this is a lower number than the actual 80% of Arab Americans who were born in the United States). And one-third of all the Arab Americans in the survey reported that they were second, third or fourth generation Arab Americans.

Fifty-six percent of the Arab Americans included in the study originated from Lebanon, 14% from Syria, 11% from Egypt and 9% from Palestine.

Forty-two percent are Catholic, 23% Orthodox and 23% Muslim.
The Arab Americans in the study are quite successful. Thirty percent earn more than $75,000 a year (second only to the Jewish community). The small percentage (22%) that report earning under $25,000 is also one of the lowest of all the ethnic groups surveyed.

Other indications in the study show that Arab Americans, while maintaining a strong sense of community and ethnic ties, are also a much-assimilated group. Over 60% of those who are married chose someone from their ethnic background, and 85% prefer that when grown, their children remain living in their community. This is the highest of any group in the study.

At the same time, Arab Americans and Italian Americans reported living in the most ethnically diverse neighborhoods and having the most friendships outside of their own ethnic communities.
The Arab American community is also quite accomplished and upwardly mobile. Almost one-half of the Arab Americans in the study (48.5%) have at least a college education. Fifty-six percent report that their financial situation is better than it was four years ago and 87% (the highest of all the groups in the study) report that they have an optimistic view of the future.

General Attitudes and Beliefs

Of all the groups in the study, Arab Americans show the highest degree of ethnic pride (90%—tied with African Americans). Eighty percent of Arab Americans report an emotional tie to their country of origin, the same as Hispanics and African Americans, while only two-thirds of Asian Americans, Italian Americans and American Jews report such strong ties.

At the same time, only 40% of Arab Americans report having experienced discrimination because of their ethnicity, while 72% of African Americans and almost 60% of Americans Jews and Asian Americans reported being discriminated against.

Looking within the Arab American community, to compare attitudes of its component parts on these issues, reveals some interesting information. While, as was stated above, 90% of Arab Americans hold that they are proud of their ethnic heritage, it is important to note that this high degree of ethnic pride is shared both by those born in the United States and recent immigrants. As might be expected, those who are recent to the United States feel somewhat more strongly about their heritage. Eighty-four percent of those born in the U.S. say their ethnicity is important, while 92% of those who are immigrants hold this view. It is also interesting to note that Arab American women indicate a slightly stronger attachment to their ethnicity than do Arab American men.

While 40% of Arab Americans claim to have been discriminated against, it is somewhat surprising to note that those born here report experiencing this problem more often than recent immigrants: 41% to 35%, and those who are more educated report a greater problem with discrimination than those with less education: 47% to 21%.

Because the formation of Arab American institutions is relatively new, it can be expected that the “Arab American” identity would also be a new phenomenon. Still, 38% of those polled report using the “Arab American” identification while 43% use their country of origin. Nevertheless, almost 70% of those polled say that supporting other Arab Americans who run for public office is a very important issue for them – an attitude held more strongly by those who have recently come to the United States.

* * * * * *

What emerges from this study is that Arab Americans are in the process of becoming a successful and secure American ethnic community. They are educated and moving toward assimilation, but they remain, for the most part, proud of their ethnic roots.
There are problems, to be sure, but the community appears to be extraordinarily positive about its future success.

This initial sketch of the characteristics of the Arab American community will serve as the backdrop for a closer look at Arab American views toward critical domestic and foreign policy issues, which will follow in this column in the weeks to come.

It bears repeating that the importance of this study is that it provides a measure of an Arab American community still taking shape and a more detailed portrait than has ever before been available of this community’s current attitudes and beliefs.

For comments or information, contact James Zogby