Posted on October 28, 1996 in Washington Watch

In 1985, Mike Guido first ran for Mayor of Dearborn, Michigan a city of 100,000 people, 20,000 of whom are Arab.

As part of his campaign, Guido mailed to every home in Dearborn a pamphlet entitled “Let’s Talk about . . . the Arab Problem.”

In the pamphlet Guido decried the large number of Arabs who were moving into Dearborn. He described them as threatening “our neighborhoods, the value of our property and our darned good way of life.”

Using scare tactics about Arabs was Guido’s way of winning votes.

I went to Dearborn in the midst of that crisis to do work with the community. Our analysis was simple—Arab Americans in Dearborn were vulnerable to attack because they were weak and unorganized. With only 1,100 registered voters, they were easy prey. I said then that with our community comprising 20% of the population of Dearborn, that we were not the “problem” of Dearborn, but “the promise of its future.” It was our responsibility to transform ourselves into that promise.

During the next ten years we organized, registered voters, and mobilized community participation in politics. Today, thousands more Arab Americans are voters, they hold public office, and form a strong bloc in both the Democratic and Republican parties in Dearborn and Michigan, and are among that city and state’s most respected citizens.

So it was no surprise that when AAI held its annual national leadership conference in Dearborn, October 20 – 21, 1996 (the first such conference outside of Washington), Mayor Mike Guido came to our banquet to deliver a warm welcome to his Arab American friends.

What has happened in the intervening ten years? The Arab American community had grown in stature and the Mayor, quite simply, can count votes. It has become important in Dearborn and in Michigan to take the Arab American voters seriously.

Guido’s appearance was but an example of the new Arab American role in politics in evidence at the conference.

The conference, “Decision ‘96: The Arab American Vote” was designed to focus attention on the importance of Arab Americans in both Michigan and Ohio (a state-wide political rally had been held in Cleveland, Ohio the night before the Dearborn conference). Both states are home to large Arab American communities.

Participating in the two day Dearborn event were the state’s Republican Governor, John Engler, both Senators, Republican Spencer Abraham (an Arab American) and Democrat Carl Levin (a Jewish American whose reelection campaign has been endorsed by most in the Arab American community), a number of members of Congress (most notably our own Nick Rahall), candidates for a wide-range of elective offices, leading officials in both political parties and national leaders from both the White House and the Dole campaign.

Before the conference actually began, a summit of Palestinian American leaders met in a nearby hotel to publicly endorse President Clinton. Campaign officials on hand to receive the endorsement thanked the Palestinian leaders and pledged that the President would continue to enforce the Israeli-Palestinian peace accord. The next day’s newspapers featured a bold headline, “Palestinian leaders turn to Democrats—Clinton gets backing in Dearborn.” In another endorsement announcement, a group of Lebanese American businessmen presented the Clinton campaign with their backing for the President ’s reelection. It too, was received with appreciation.

Both cases were a far cry from 1988 when the Democratic nominee for president Michael Dukakis actually rejected Arab American endorsements, or 1984 when the Democratic nominee Walter Mondale returned contributions from some Arab American contributors.

Once again, a clear example of the progress being made by Arab Americans in the political mainstream.

The policy discussions at the AAI conference were equally noteworthy. While significant attention was given to the issues of Palestine, Lebanon, and U.S.-Arab relations, there was substantial discussion about a number of domestic policy concerns. The issues of immigration and immigrant rights, education, and civil liberties were highlighted.

So intense was the discussion on immigrant rights that one observer commented, “I remember when we couldn’t get Arab Americans to discuss domestic issues at our conferences, all they wanted to talk about was the Middle East. Now we can’t get people to focus on the Middle East.”

But that too was a sign of progress. Arab Americans have definite concerns about Middle East issues and as a recent poll shows, there is a deep community consensus in support of the peace process, Palestinian statehood, and Lebanon’s sovereignty. What is new is that Arab Americans today have become articulate defenders of their domestic policy concerns as well—often finding community leaders in the forefront of the national debate on these questions. This represents growth and maturity and political sophistication.

What the Michigan conference made clear is that Arab Americans have crossed the threshold into the U.S. political mainstream. Arab Americans who have labored for years trying to get inside, must now shake off old complexes and recognize new responsibilities and opportunities. This does not mean that there are no problems plaguing Arab Americans—in a democracy every group must continue to remain vigilant, to defend its rights, and to insist on fairness.

We still have powerful foes who seek to weaken us and exclude us—but we also now have powerful allies who will defend us and whom we must now also support.

The lesson we have learned is that complaining and protesting, while useful in some instances, are limited in effectiveness. Organizing and registering to vote and mobilizing that vote, on the other hand, can produce real victories. They can break down barriers and build a community’s stature. What we must do now is continue to intensify our effort on this path and build on the experience of Dearborn’s Arab Americans.

What the past decade has taught us is that political respect is hard won. It requires dedicated and committed community activists and a focus on electoral politics. On this path we not only earn the recognition we deserve, but we achieve the access that will advance our community’s concerns as well.

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