Arab Americans’ Integral Place in an Already-Great America
By: John Mason/Arab America Contributing Writer
Arab Americans show up very positively, based on empirical studies. For one, they are more highly educated on average than the rest of the American population. Their average incomes are higher. Many Arab immigrants arrive in the U.S. already well educated in such professions as medicine, law, and engineering. They represent at least 22 different nationalities and both Christian and Islamic faiths. They tend to immigrate to larger American cities, including New York City, Los Angeles, and the Detroit suburbs, where higher incomes are needed to live. The post-9/11/01 political atmosphere has resulted in some discrimination against Arabs and an Islamophobic President has exacerbated that feeling, resulting in outright hatred of Arab and non-Arab Muslims.
Arab Immigrants arrived ready to live and work in America
Arabs immigrating to the U.S. have been most successful in enhancing their well-being and contributing to the American economy and society. Where these Arabs originated is an important piece of the picture of their success. According to a 2015 issue of the Journal of Intercultural Communications Studies, there were four major waves of Arab immigration to the U.S.
First was the wave from the 1870s to World War I, in which Arabs came from Lebanon and Syria following the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the subsequent formation as individual states. Made up of mostly Christian immigrants, they fit in readily to the overall American cultural fabric. A much smaller Arab immigrant grouping arrived during the second wave, namely wives and families coming to join their husbands who’d come in the first wave. A third wave began after World War II extending to 2010 consisted of Arabs who were educated and/or politically repressed by their national governments; many of them were Muslims. Both Christians and Muslims comprise the fourth wave of immigration, which came from Iraq and Syria; its dates are defined as 2010-present.
Not all Arab immigrants, however, arrived in the U.S as readily-adapted participants in the American economy. Many of them were well-educated, including scientists, engineers, and medical doctors, while others were single men who were unskilled who worked in mining and automobile manufacturing. Others included large numbers of students who came for higher education purposes and then there were those who fled their war-torn countries to avoid persecution.
A view of Arab American Economic Well-Being
Most Arab immigrants were attracted to urban centers in California, New York, and Michigan. There they could practice their professional and entrepreneurial skills, which they had learned in their countries of origin. A Columbia University study reported that 94% of Arab Americans live in metro areas. While the cost of living in those cities is higher than in other areas, this is a reflection of their relatively higher socioeconomic status. That same study reported a U.S. Census statistic that 46% of both native-born and immigrant Arabs have completed higher education, contrasted to 28% of the general population. Their higher rate of graduate and postgraduate degrees has led to better jobs and salaries than average.
Arab Americans work across most sectors comprising the U.S. economy, though many are concentrated in professional fields, including engineering, law, and medicine. According to the Columbia study, 73% of Arab American adults in the labor force work in managerial, professional, and sales or administrative positions. As a result of their positions in the economy, Arab Americans have a higher than average income than the rest of the country.
It must be noted that despite the higher than average Arab American income, there is a significant number of this population that is poor and who live below the poverty line. Michigan is one state in which the recession of 2007-08 hit them hard. Men in the 20-39 year age group were hit especially hard by the recession.
Understanding how Arabs have adapted to Life in America
Historically there has been no U.S. Census category for Arab Americans, thus requiring them to self-define as “white.” This practice has complicated the calculation of their presence in the population. The Census Bureau, however, has a subset that captures Arabs. Using a sampling of this subset in its survey, the earlier-mentioned Intercultural Communications Studies (ICS) found that the largest groupings of Arabs in the U.S. have their origins in Lebanon, Egypt, and Syria. It also reported that “…the proportion of the Arab population with a high school diploma or bachelor’s degree was higher than the national average and the same was true regarding the median income of Arab men, women, and families.”
The ICS uncovered the fact that Arab Americans following 9/11/01 have been the object of stereotypes, discrimination, and even hostility and hatred. Such negative reactions occurred despite the fact that the sample included 81% holding American citizenship. It should be no surprise, then, that Arab Americans at that time valued their own cultural roots more than they did American culture. Perhaps needless to say, the subjects of this survey indicated that they “…are proud of their Arab heritage and at the same time are integrating into the American mainstream as they are showing positive attitudes toward the American host culture. Although they positively view their cultural identity, they are also integrating into the host culture.”
This is an Arab American success story. While they are proud of their Arab backgrounds, whether it be Muslim or Christian, most have successfully merged into the larger American fabric.
Intercultural Communication Studies XXIV(2) 174, “The Acculturation Modes of Arab Americans: An Empirical Study on the Effects of Gender, Religion, Nationality and Sojourner Status,” Gaby Semaan, University of Toledo, 2015.
“A Study of Socioeconomic Status of Arab Americans,” Academic Commons, Columbia University, 11/28/2010.
John Mason, 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.
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