Deepening the Melting Pot: Arab-Americans at the Turn of the Century

Article excerpt

The Arab-American population grew by 42% in the 1980s, reaching over one million in 1990 (although less conservative estimates have put it at around 2.5 million). Arab-Americans are increasingly diverse in national origin and more likely to be Muslim. They have higher than average educational levels and incomes, though poverty remains high among the foreign-born. This article examines changes in the demographic and socioeconomic profile of Arab-Americans, their implications, and the assimilation trajectory for this group. Although still small in size relative to many other US ethnic groups, the Arab-American population may gain more public recognition if current demographic trends hold and a positive assimilation path is maintained.

he Arab world has figured prominently in media eyes at the turn of the century. The price of oil, Islamic revivalism, recurrent conflict in the Persian Gulf, and the roadblocks to peace in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute remain important areas of concern. Attention has also turned to the growing size and voice of Arab peoples now living in the United States, a group often viewed suspiciously by mainstream commentators and public alike.

Its relatively small size notwithstanding, the Arab-American population is gaining recognition for its potential political influence. In 1998, Bill Clinton became the first US President to address an Arab-American conference when he spoke to a meeting of the Arab American Institute, a Washington-based advocacy organization. Both major presidential candidates in the 2000 elections met separately with Arab-American community leaders in Detroit, where the suburb of Dearborn is home to the largest concentration of Arab immigrants in North America. These meetings marked the first such overtures made by presidential candidates to Arab-American leaders.I They also underscored the growing political import of Arab-Americans, whose activists have worked hard in recent political elections to place their constituency on the political map and to help push the issues of civil rights and US foreign policy in the Middle East that top Arab-American concerns.

Although Arab-Americans have become more visible as a minority and more politically prominent as a group, their demographic, social, and economic characteristics remain inadequately described and poorly understood. This article seeks to redress this imbalance by analyzing the demography of this ethnic group and the implications of the trends and changes noted. A secondary objective is to examine the social and economic adaptation of foreign- and native-born Arab-Americans. With Arabs continuing to immigrate to the US in large numbers, they are becoming a more significant yet diverse ethnic community. Since the 1970s, a group consciousness has become more apparent among Americans of Arab ethnic heritage, alongside the emergence of many Arab-- American organizations at the community and national levels.2 At the same time, the Arab image in popular American culture has been affected by the growing presence of a Muslim population and its association with the rise of militant Islam as a force in international politics, as well as by US Government policy toward the Middle East.3 A review of Arab-Americans in the present and recent period should contribute to contemporary scholarship as well as to an understanding of this ethnic group. Such work is also necessary to help inform public debate and to overcome stereotypes and misperceptions. Immigration to the US has grown markedly in the last three decades of the twentieth century. As a result, the share of foreign-born persons in the US population has more than doubled from 4.8% in 1970 to 10.4% in March 2000.4 This rise in the number of foreign-born residents has generated considerable interest and public debate on how well these new groups will assimilate. This article seeks to inform discussion about the Arab-American population; specifically, to present a profile of how its demographics have evolved in recent decades and to fill a gap created by the uncertain nature of the statistical base characterizing this group. …

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