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American, but not quite: The Arab American Identity

posted on: Nov 23, 2022

The story of ‘Arab Americans’ began when a Moroccan man named Estebanico Azemmouri and a Lebanese man named Antonio Bishallany arrived in the United States in 1527 and became the first members of this ethnic group. 

The Four Waves of Immigration 

Today, Arab Americans constitute about 10% of the U.S. population. Arab immigrants arrived in the U.S. in four waves, mainly from Syria, Egypt, and Lebanon but also from Iraq, Jordan, Yemen, Morocco, Iraq, Tunisia, Palestine, and other Gulf countries. The First Wave mostly comprised Syrians and Lebanese, most of which worked as peddlers and grocers in the Northeast and Midwest. 

The Second Wave of Arab immigration occurred at the start of the twentieth century when Detroit’s burgeoning auto industry drew immigrants from all around the globe. The Third Wave continued till 1990 and was made up of immigrants who escaped from war and poverty in Yemen, Egypt, Morocco, and Lebanon. The current Fourth Wave consists of refugees from Iraq, Syria, Sudan, and Somalia. 

Classification as ‘Whites’

To get American citizenship, early Arabs in the United States had to identify as “White”. The immigrants from Syria were classed as white persons after the Georgia Court of Appeals granted Geroge Dow, an Arab American, naturalization rights in 1915. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) published Directive 15 in 1977 which classified “White Americans” as those who descended from Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. 

Even after the inclusion of Arab ancestries in the Census Bureau, they were still treated as ‘others’. Internal and external debates as to how the Arab American community should be defined continued for the next two decades. One argument was to give a pan-Arab identity to immigrants who come from different ethnicities across the Arab world. 

In 1997, OMB closed the case saying that further research was needed on the matter. The lack of accurate data on Arab Americans jeopardized their health, housing, education, employment, and civil rights for the next 15 years. 

Quest For Recognition & Fair Representation

The members of the Arab-American community initiated a campaign to change their classification in 2010. They formed a coalition under the Arab American Institute (AAI) and wrote a historical plea to the Census Bureau for the addition of a MENA box on the Census form. You’ll also have to fill out a basic form when signing up for Novibet roulette.

The Bureau answered their request and issued a notice in the Federal Register to which many people responded favorably. The Bureau announced its plan to add a MENA category to the form in December 2014. If this had been implemented, it could have produced essential data on MENA communities, their contributions, and their needs. However, the entire initiative was halted by OMB in 2018. 

Without a MENA category on official forms, Arab Americans have to identify with any of the five races that have access to American citizenship. Many of them refuse to identify with any of the five races and mark the “Some Other Race” option instead. Being categorized as ‘White’ or any other group grossly misrepresented this ethnic group. 

Without adequate recognition and fair representation, attracting attention to the community’s contributions to public service is hardly possible. With over 12% of Arab Americans employed in governments, the community deserves representation that corresponds to their contribution to international development and foreign policy. 

Arab Americans are still an undercounted and underrepresented group that continues to work with U.S. government employees to build awareness about issues of representation that need to be addressed to form a more inclusive, diverse, and equitable workforce. Even after 600 years, Arab Americans are still working through different channels to get recognition and fair representation.

Please note that this post was written by a third-party and does not necessarily reflect the views of Arab America or its employees. These posts help allow Arab America to produce our wonderful original content, thanks for your understanding.

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