Politics & Policy

Are Arab Americans Disadvantaged?

Whatever the Commerce Department decides, the answer is No.

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.

#page#Nearly every social and economic achievement of the Arab American community is either brushed aside or, incredibly, treated as evidence of bigotry. So the ADC concedes that Arab Americans are “relatively well-educated,” but on the very same page declares that Arab Americans are “undereducated.” They are undereducated, we learn, because Muslim prayer times and the month of fasting are “not respected” in American schools, and students are not presented with “educational materials” that cast Arabs in a positive light. In another remarkable passage, the ADC states that the large number of Arab-American small-business owners is actually “convincing evidence of the discrimination against Arab-Americans.” Business ownership is not a indication of success and access to capital, the ADC would have us believe, but a mark of failure that demonstrates the prevalence of workplace bigotry. Presumably, whether Arabs are underrepresented in small business or overrepresented, in either case the ADC would argue that it is proof of racism: win-win.

As evidence for rampant Islamophobia in modern America, the ADC cites data from the FBI that show a surge of hate crimes against Muslims in the wake of 9/11. But as the ADC is surely aware, only a quarter of Arab Americans are Muslim; 65 percent are Christian. Most are light-skinned descendants of immigrants from the Levant, which is why they usually have been subsumed under the “white” racial category. (It was a revelation that Steve Jobs — one of the most successful businessmen of all time — had a Syrian biological father.)

Furthermore, if we are to use hate crimes as a proxy for “disadvantage,” then Jews would have to be the considered the most disadvantaged group in the country. Despite a significant uptick in “anti-Islamic” incidents in 2010, Jews remain the faith group most likely to be targeted. The nearly 900 “anti-Jewish” incidents in 2010 account for a full two-thirds of hate crimes linked to religion: nearly six times the number of anti-Islamic incidents, despite the fact that Jewish Americans outnumber Muslim Americans by a factor of only two and a half.

Finally, even if there were discrimination against Arab-American firms in areas such as contract procurement, which seems unlikely, it would be exceedingly difficult to measure because Arabs make up such a small fraction of the population — less than 1 percent by the ADC’s own estimation, and just 0.5 percent according to data from the 2008 American Community Survey.

The ADC’s appeal for preferential treatment is obviously unjustified. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that the MBDA will see it for what it is: a farcical attempt to hitch already-advantaged Arab-Americans to the nation’s ethnic gravy train (this just in: Elizabeth Warren has long, dark eyelashes). As the ADC is quick to point out, the list of groups that receive special benefits from the MBDA is already comically long: African-Americans, Puerto Ricans, Spanish-speaking Americans, American Indians, Eskimos, Aleuts, Hasidic Jews, Asian-Pacific Americans, and Asian Indians.

Several of these groups, such as the two Asian categories, were included for historical reasons and surely don’t qualify as “disadvantaged” by any sensible measure today. And one can debate whether the MBDA, a legacy of the civil-rights era created under Nixon, is still necessary today, when affirmative action is widespread in both the public and private sectors. Especially at a time of fiscal crisis, the MBDA should be looking for ways to save money instead of extending its reach to another non-needy minority. The facts are plain enough; it is merely a question of whether the agency acts on them, or chooses to ignore them.

— Alexander Kazam is a summer intern at National Review.

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