In 2005, four years after the 9/11 attacks, the Michigan Daily published an article with the headline “Arab Americans Better Educated Than Most in U.S.” It is a classic American success story: Arabs had come from countries all over the Middle East and North Africa, flourished, and integrated. They tended to be “better educated and wealthier than most Americans” — nearly twice as likely as the typical U.S. resident to possess a college degree, according to Census data, with above-average household incomes. Fully 42 percent could be found working in management jobs, compared to 34 percent of Americans at large. The executive director of the Arab American Institute even praised the Census report for showing “how integrated Arabs are in American life.”
So it is astounding, seven years later, that the Commerce Department is considering a petition to classify Arab Americans as a “socially and economically disadvantaged group” entitled to special business assistance from the Minority Business Development Agency. The petition was put forward by the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, which has previously pushed for the Palestinian right of return, a boycott of Lowe’s for dropping its ad on the television series All-American Muslim, and divestiture from Israel. Its latest cause is to help Arab Americans like me — a Jew of Iraqi descent — gain entry to a racial spoils system for which they have no need and to which they have no claim.
Under MBDA rules, business owners of any ethnicity can file for special benefits on an individual basis. But as the ADC itself notes, the formal designation would “create a presumption of eligibility” for Arab Americans, “thereby eliminating the need for amassing and producing evidence of social and economic disadvantage” on the part of the individual owner. The petition thus begins with a plea to dispense with the need for facts and evidence — a fitting introduction to what follows.
Since 9/11, contrary to the ADC’s hysterical allegation that Arab Americans are now “unable to compete” in the marketplace because of prejudice and legislation such as the Patriot Act, they have actually increased their economic advantage relative to other groups: Their mean individual income is 27 percent higher than that of Americans at large, and their median household income is $59,000, more than 10 percent above the national average. Nearly half of Arabs have a college degree, and Arabs are twice as likely as the typical U.S. resident to possess a Ph.D. The American Arab Chamber of Commerce’s own website states that “large business ownership” and “active political participation” are both “testimony to the power and development of Arab Americans today.” The AACC goes on to say that the Arab American business community has become “one of the most economically and culturally affluent communities in Michigan and the nation.” A Muslim Lebanese-American, Rima Fakih, even won the Miss U.S.A. pageant in 2010. The only arena in which Arab Americans have trouble competing, it seems, is the minority-victim sweepstakes.
In the light of this reality, it is no surprise that the claims in the ADC petition frequently verge on parody. For instance, the petition implies that Arab Americans suffer social discrimination due in part to their “distinctive food dishes,” such as hummus and baklava (both have been well integrated into the American diet), and their “unique music tradition” including “the use of percussion instruments not normally found in American culture.” On one page we are informed that in some localities in the early 1900s Arabs were referred to as “Dago” and “Sheeny,” and on another we learn that three elevator operators in New York were awarded $30,000 in damages because a supervisor called them “camel jockeys.” It is an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink strategy, in which obsolescent epithets and isolated cases of discrimination against Arabs strain desperately to compete with Jim Crow, and generally fall far short of “No Irish Need Apply.”
The ADC also cherry-picks items from historical sources that contradict its narrative. The petition repeatedly cites the book Becoming American: The Early Arab Immigrant Experience, by Alixa Naff, for examples of past discrimination. (These range from name-calling by parochial-school children in St. Louis to, at the very worst, restrictions on Arabs’ attending public schools in Lockhart, Texas, in the 19th century.) Yet the main thrust of the work belies the notion that Arabs could not prosper in America because of prejudice. According to Naff, early Syrian immigrants came to the United States for economic opportunity and discovered an “entrepreneurial Eden.” Naturally, the ADC neglects to mention this.