Arab Americans

Learning Outcomes

  • Describe the historical context and current experience of Arab Americans in the United States

Arab Americans

The category of Arab Americans may be among the most difficult to define. For Arab Americans, their country of origin—Arabia—has not existed for centuries, although millions of people speak Arabic and it is the sixth most commonly spoken language worldwide. Geographically, the Arab region comprises the Middle East and parts of northern Africa. People whose ancestry lies in that area, or who speak primarily Arabic may consider themselves Arabs.

In addition, Arab Americans represent all religious practices, despite the stereotype that all Arabic people practice Islam. As Myers (2007) asserts, not all Arabs are Muslim, and not all Muslims are Arab, complicating the definition of what it means to be an Arab American. Although Islam will be discussed more fully in the module on religion, it is important to note that Muslims make up a small portion of the U.S. population, just 0.9 percent. They are one of the most racially diverse groups in the country, with 41 percent of the Muslim population being white, 20 percent Black, 28 percent Asian, and 8 percent Hispanic.[1]

The U.S. Census has struggled with the issue of Arab identity. The 2010 Census, as in previous years, did not offer an “Arab” box to check under the question of race. Individuals who want to be counted as Arabs had to check the box for “Some other race” and then write in their race. However, when the Census data is tallied, they will be marked as white. This classification is problematic, however, as it denies Arab Americans opportunities for nearly $400 billion in federal assistance.[2]

According to the best estimates of the U.S. Census Bureau, the Arabic population in the United States grew from 850,000 in 1990 to 1.2 million in 2000, an increase of .07 percent (Asi and Beaulieu 2013). The American Community Survey (ACS) showed the Arab American population to be around 1.8 million in 2011, an increase of 47 percent from 2000, but the Arab Institute estimates the U.S. Arab population to be 3.7 million. The Arab Institute criticized the decision to reject a Middle East/North Africa (MENA) category to the 2020 U.S. Census, a category that was added to the ACS [3]

Regardless of the exact size, the community is enormously diverse. The Arab American population has ancestral ties to 22 countries, varying religious backgrounds, and complex historical, cultural, and political identities. The U.S. population is concentrated in five regions: the Detroit/Dearborn area, Los Angeles, New York/New Jersey, Chicago, and Washington D.C., but segments of the population live in all 50 states. [4]

Why They Came

The first Arab immigrants came to this country in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They were predominantly Syrian, Lebanese, and Jordanian Christians who were fleeing persecution and hoping to make a better life. These early immigrants and their descendants, who were more likely to think of themselves as Syrian or Lebanese than Arab, represent almost half of the Arab American population today (Myers 2007). Restrictive immigration policies from the 1920s until 1965 curtailed all immigration, but Arab immigration since 1965 has been steady. Immigrants from this time period have been more likely to be Muslim and more highly educated, often escaping political unrest and looking for better opportunities.

Between 1980 and 2010, the size of the MENA immigrant population quadrupled, from 223,000 to 861,000. And from 2010 to 2016, the MENA population increased another 36 percent, to 1,167,000.[5] Wars in Syria and Yemen have resulted in humanitarian crises causing refugees to seek asylum in the U.S. and in other countries.

History of Intergroup Relations

Relations between Arab Americans and the dominant majority have been marked by mistrust, misinformation, and deeply entrenched beliefs. Helen Samhan of the Arab American Institute suggests that Arab-Israeli conflicts in the 1970s contributed significantly to cultural and political anti-Arab sentiment in the United States (2001). The United States has historically supported the State of Israel, while some Middle Eastern countries deny the legitimacy of the Israeli state. Disputes over these issues have involved Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Palestine.

In 2018, the U.S. Embassy in Israel was moved from Tel Aviv, the nation’s capital, to Jerusalem, which houses sacred religious sites for Muslims, Jews, and Christians. This controversial move resulted in days of protests, with 55 Palestinians killed by the Israeli Army and 2,770 injured.[6]

In figure (a) A bearded man holds high a large American flag amidst a protest, a sign reads "no clubhouse for jihadists". In figure (b) People are shown carrying "United We Stand" and "USA" signs.
Figure 1. The proposed Park51 Muslim Community Center generated heated controversy due to its close proximity to Ground Zero. In these photos, people march in protest against the center, while counter-protesters demonstrate their support. (Photos (a) and (b) courtesy of David Shankbone/Wikimedia Commons)

As is often the case with stereotyping and prejudice, the actions of extremists come to define the entire group, regardless of the fact that most U.S. citizens with ties to the Middle East condemn terrorist actions, as do most inhabitants of the Middle East itself. The United States was deeply affected by the attacks of September 11, 2001. This event has left a deep scar on the American psyche, and it has fortified anti-Arab sentiment. In the first month after 9/11, hundreds of hate crimes were perpetrated against people who looked like they might be of Arab descent, including many Sikhs (a religious minority with origins in India). According to the FBI, anti-Muslim hate crimes (against Muslims or people mistaken to be Muslim), surged 67 percent in 2016, a level not seen since 2001.[7]

The United States has had business interests in Saudi Arabia’s oil industry since 1933, when Standard Oil, now Chevron, explored the area and discovered oil. By 1980, Saudi Arabia had bought out foreign shareholders and established what is known today as Saudi Aramco, though U.S. companies like Chevron, Dow Chemical, and ExxonMobil continue to have deep business ties with Saudi Arabia. As the second-largest holder of crude oil reserves in the world, Saudi Arabia enjoys a close political relationship with the United States.

Current Status

Although the rate of hate crimes against Arab Americans has slowed, they are still victims of racism and prejudice. Racial profiling has proceeded against Arab Americans as a matter of course since 9/11. Particularly when engaged in air travel, being young and Arab-looking is enough to warrant a special search or detainment. This Islamophobia (irrational fear of or hatred against Muslims) does not show signs of abating. Scholars note that white domestic terrorists like Timothy McVeigh, who detonated a bomb at an Oklahoma courthouse in 1995, have not inspired similar racial profiling of or hate crimes against whites. Executive Orders enacted by President Donald Trump in 2017 have drastically reduced U.S. entry from several Muslim-majority countries and created other restrictions on refugees and resettlement. The “Muslim Ban” has faced multiple legal challenges but has resulted in reduced immigration. As discussed earlier, there has been a 67 percent increase in attacks against Arab Americans since 2016.

The United States’ close political and economic ties with Israel and Saudi Arabia have led to increasing tensions when violence continues to erupt. Saudi-supported attacks in Yemen have led to what the European Union called “the worst humanitarian crisis in the world” in 2018. Whether the U.S. will continue to support Saudi Arabian attacks in what many are calling a genocide in Yemen is unknown, but a surge in civilian deaths in the summer of 2018 has resulted in a call for intervention. Yemen is one of the seven countries included in Executive Order 13769 (otherwise known as the “Muslim Ban”).

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  1. Huda, 2018. "The World's Muslim Population," Thought Co. 
  2. "Uses of Census Bureau Data," 2017.
  3. Harb, A. 2018. "U.S. Fails to Add MENA to the U.S. Census." Middle East Eye.
  4. Brown, Heather, Emily Guskin, and Amy Mitchell. "Arab-American Population Growth." Pew Research Center. November 28, 2012.
  5. Cumoletti, M. and J. Batalova. 2018. "Middle Eastern and North African Immigrants in the U.S."
  6. Chapell, B. 2018. "55 Palestinian Protesters Killed." NPR.
  7. Suri, M. & H. Wu. 2017. "Religious Minority Target of Hate Crimes." CNN.


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