A Landmark for Arab Americans--deeply honored by President Biden and Recognition from across the Country
By: John Mason / Arab America Contributing Writer
This is a banner week and month for Arab Americans, what with President Biden’s letter and proclamations from around the country honoring the place of Arabs in the social and cultural fabric of America. National Arab American Heritage Month is the result of years of effort to recognize the vibrant contributions of Arab Americans to our nation. Here we review the buildup and impacts of this heritage month on the Arab and other American lives.
President Biden celebrates Arab American culture, heritage, and contributions to American Society
At 4:20 PM, Sunday, April 25, the Arab American Foundation released a White House letter from President Joe Biden congratulating Arab Americans on the celebration of National Arab American Heritage Month. President Biden also congratulated and expressed warm wishes to the Arab America Foundation.
In his letter, Biden expressed congratulations and best wishes “to all those celebrating National Arab American Heritage Month.” The President underscored that “the Arab American community is essential to the fabric of our Nation” and that he was honored to be a part of a celebration that “recognizes Arab American culture, heritage, and contributions to American society.”
This important recognition of Arab Americans by President Biden stressed that “diversity is one of our greatest strengths, and it is essential that we continue celebrating, promoting, and educating others about the myriad ways that the Arab people have advanced human civilization and contributed to the well-being of our Nation.”
Arab America and the Arab America Foundation expressed elation on behalf of its membership at Biden’s letter, saying, “this is the first time a sitting US president has recognized Arab Americans in celebrating their heritage and their contributions to America’s rich diversity.”
Governors, Federal Agencies, Cities, and Organizations Proclaim and Resolve to Honor National Arab American Heritage Month
Fully 43 States have issued proclamations, resolutions, and statements to date (including 36 Governors including the District of Columbia) honoring National Arab American Heritage Month (NAAHM). The U.S. Department of State and the Department of Homeland Security have also proclaimed their recognition of NAAHM. Several cities, associations, and organizations have joined in commemorating the heritage month and Arab American accomplishments. In total, 119 such statements have been issued so far. Arab Americans across the country joined teams in promoting support of the aims of NAAHM. Besides governors, these teams reached out to other state officials, legislators, mayors, and county executives. The response has been heartening.
The Arab America Foundation has formed a national advisory team, which consulted with the 24 state teams comprising over 250 Arab Americans. In addition to the outreach among governors and other state officials, these teams also worked at the grassroots level in communicating NAAHM objectives with mayors, city councils, county executives, and school boards. These teams’ toolkits included an educator curriculum kit, to disseminate to school districts nationally as part of celebrating our heritage month.
While Arab America focuses during the month of April on Arab American heritage, the promotion of an accurate narrative on Arab Americans is a yearlong effort. This narrative is carried on the website, social media platforms, and a series of events throughout the year. The Foundation itself is a “non-profit educational and cultural organization that promotes the Arab heritage in the U.S., educates Americans about the Arab heritage and identity and connects Arab Americans.”
National Arab American Heritage Month – a culmination of decades of effort
As we make our way to the end of April, Arab Americans have been busy celebrating their origins, their language, and their contributions to American life. NAAHM is the month dedicated to praising and paying tribute to Arab Americans and Arabic-speaking Americans. From the 1990s on, this heritage was celebrated irregularly in some states, but mostly in schools. Only recently, in 2017, was a national initiative developed to coordinate through what became NAAHM. While a bill introduced in Congress to recognize NAAHM has not yet passed the House, as noted earlier, critical U.S. Departments of State and Homeland Security have recognized this month dedicated to Arab Americans. A culmination of movement towards this landmark moment is President Biden’s generous letter.
Celebrating Arab American Heritage Month
The United States welcomed Arabs from the time they began immigrating here. Arabs started to come to America in the 1800s, culminating in the first big wave arriving around 1875. By the 1940s a second wave settled on the shores of the U.S. By the 1960s, an average of 15,000 Middle Easterners arrived each year, comprised mostly of Egyptians, Jordanians, Palestinians, and Iraqis, and by the 1970s Lebanese flocked here because of the civil war in their country. Around four million Arab Americans reside in the U.S. today. The largest group is Lebanese, followed by Egyptians, Syrians, Palestinians, Jordanians, Moroccans, and Iraqis. Almost half of the Arab American community was born in this country and most families are comprised of married couples.
While Arab Americans have occupied many different professions in the U.S., from doctors and scientists to politicians and entertainers, their depiction in the mainstream media is stunted and typically represented in a context of militant Islam, hate crimes and terrorism. One of the purposes of NAAHM is to offset such negative press depictions and to reinforce the positive contributions of this vibrant community to the country’s social, political, and religious fabric.
Important to understanding the place of Arab American communities in the U.S., according to the publication ThoughtCo, is that “Arab Americans also tend to be more educated than the general population, with 41 percent having graduated from college compared to 24 percent of the general U.S. population in 2000. The higher levels of education obtained by Arab Americans explains why members of this population were more likely to work in professional jobs and earn more money than Americans generally. On the other hand, more Arab-American men than women were involved in the labor force and a higher number of Arab Americans (17 percent) than Americans generally (12 percent) were likely to live in poverty.
Because the U.S. Census Bureau does not have a category for “Arab” origin or identity, there is an undercount of Arab Americans in the overall population count. This makes it difficult to accurately assess how many members of this population are doing economically and academically, among other areas of accomplishment. To correct this problem, it has been suggested that Arab Americans identify themselves in the category of “some other race,” then to fill in the accompanying blank with their Arab ethnicity. Even this is a stretch, since to be Arab is not to be in a racial category but, rather in a cultural and linguistic grouping.
To be undercounted has all sorts of implications for funding and other matters. The celebration of Arab identity, particularly this year through NAAHM, should give a boost to the recognition of Arab Americans as a vibrant and significant part of the cultural and social fabric of the nation.
John Mason, PhD., who focuses on Arab culture, society, and history, is the author of LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East, New Academia Publishing, 2017. He did fieldwork in an east Libyan Saharan oasis and has taught at the University of Libya-Benghazi, Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, and the American University in Cairo. John served with the United Nations as an advisor in Tripoli, Libya, and consulted extensively on socioeconomic and political development for USAID, the UN, and the World Bank in 65 countries.
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