Arab Americans are an ethnic group who trace their roots to the Arabic-speaking countries of the Middle East and North Africa. Arab immigrants began arriving in the United States during the 19th century. The majority of Arab Americans are descendants of the first wave of mostly Christian immigrants, which began around 1875 and lasted until about 1920. After a period when immigration was restricted, a second wave arrived after World War II. Today, most Arab Americans are native-born Americans. Their regional homelands include 22 Arab countries in southwestern Asia and North Africa, though most Arab Americans originate from Lebanon, Syria and Palestine. There are also substantial communities from Egypt, Yemen and Iraq.
Currently there are three million Arab Americans who live in all 50 of the United States, 90 percent of whom live in urban areas. The cities with the largest Arab American populations are Los Angeles, Detroit, New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C., respectively. The largest communities of Arab Americans live in the Detroit/Dearborn, Michigan area.
Education and Employment
Eighty-two percent of Arab Americans hold at least a high school diploma, and 36 percent have a college degree. Approximately 65 percent of Arab American adults are in the labor force; 5.9 percent are unemployed, which is about the same rate of unemployment in the rest of the country. Though Arab Americans work in all occupations, nearly 73 percent of these working adults are employed in managerial, professional, technical, sales or administrative fields. At the local level, Arab Americans are most likely to be executives in Washington, D.C. and Anaheim, California; salespeople in Cleveland and manufacturing workers in Detroit. Arab American incomes are 22 percent higher than the U.S. national average.
The majority of Arab Americans are Christian. Only about 12 percent of Muslims worldwide are Arabs. In fact, there are more Muslims in Indonesia than in all Arab countries combined. Today, Arab Muslims represent the fastest growing, albeit still minority, part of the Arab American community. Religious practices that direct personal behavior--including the five-times-daily prayers, month-long fast at Ramadan, beards for men and the wearing of the hijab (headcover) for women make Muslims more visible than most religious minorities and thus more vulnerable to bigotry.
The U.S. Census classifies Arabs as white along with the European majority, although a number of Arab Americans believe they are treated more like other ethnic minorities than European Americans. Although the federal government does not currently measure Arab Americans separately, some institutions like universities and health agencies do classify people of Middle Eastern ethnicity separately.
Stereotypes and Racial Profiling
Fueled by foreign policy and public ignorance about the Arab American population, negative stereotypes of Arab Americans have blossomed in American pop culture since the 1970s. The Arab characters in movies are often seen as the "bad guys" or terrorists, greedy sheiks or barbarians. But these prejudices are not just in the media. Crises in the Middle East have invited backlash against mosques and Arab-owned stores through the years. During the Gulf War, prominent activists and politicians of Arab descent were targeted by the FBI for questioning about pro-Iraqi terrorism in the U.S. Within three days after the Oklahoma City bombing, more than 200 hate crimes were committed against Arab Americans and American Muslims. The same was true in the days following September 11.
After 9/11, anti-terrorism policies of airline passenger profiling have disproportionately affected Arabs and Muslims. Some have been taken off planes or not allowed to board because of their ethnicity. Anti-terrorist programs and policies that single out people of Arab descent have also contributed to creating negative bias in the public eye, not to mention fear of the police and hesitation to report hate crimes among Arab Americans.
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