The Arab American Experience
with Dr. James Zogby of the Arab American Institute
Americans of Arab descent trace their roots back to 22 countries in Western Asia and Northern Africa.
Dr. James Zogby, Co-Founder and President of the Arab American Institute, joins host Tetiana Anderson for a rich exploration into the history of Arab Americans — and the issues and achievements central to Arab American communities in the United States today.
April 01, 2021
Anderson: Performer Paula Abdul, former NFL quarterback Doug Flutie, actor Vince Vaughn, and former White House correspondent Helen Thomas -- four totally different people from four different walks of life. But what do they all have in common? Hello and welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers." I'm Tetiana Anderson. The four folks just mentioned, among many other high-profile people across many professions, are Arab American. And while the U.S. Census data from 2017 estimates the Arab-American population to be just over 2 million people, the Arab American Institute says that that number is much higher. And joining me to talk about that is Dr. James Zogby. Dr. Zogby, thank you so much for being here.
Zogby: Thank you for having me. Let me just comment on the numbers. You said the Arab American Institute says there's more. And the reason why we do is because that number -- 2.1 or 2 million -- is exactly equal to the number of people from Arab countries that have come as immigrants in the last 120 years. We know that they actually have children. And while there's a death rate, there's also a birth rate that exceeds the death rate. So we estimate the number is approximately double what the census has from the studies that we've done by community.
Anderson: So, Dr. Zogby, just because Arab Americans have in common the fact that they are Arab, there are still a lot of distinctions within that. Dive into a little bit of that for us.
Zogby: Well, look, we're talking about 22 countries. We're talking about people with different religions and backgrounds, and we're talking about generational differences. Those who came before World War I, there was a period of about 20 years in between the two wars where immigration zeroed out for people of Arab descent and then after, there were multiple waves. And so each of those generations are all so different. But what's interesting is that while they come with the differences, those differences seem to meld into a community over time.
Anderson: You know, we talk a lot about marginalized groups, and in a sense, Arab Americans are marginalized. I mean, we saw the reaction after 9/11. We saw something called a Muslim ban happened here in the United States. But when it comes to socioeconomics and education, Arab Americans are pretty much the opposite of marginalized. Talk to us about the place of Arab Americans in that context in the United States. They're doing quite well.
Zogby: We are doing quite well. According to the census data, our income levels are higher than the average and our education levels are much higher than the average. A lot of Arab immigrants come here educated, to be precise. But then there are those who don't. I always tell the story of the Yemeni community. I remember when I first opened an office in California to deal with defamation and media, somebody said, "You really need to have something for the farm workers." And I said, "Farm workers?" And they said, "Yeah." This was 1981. They said there were 7,000 Yemeni farm workers in comparison with the 33,000 Mexican American farm workers. So it was a pretty large group. They were the second largest, but there were no Arabic speakers in the Agricultural Labor Relations Board in Sacramento and the unions weren't organizing them. So I went out there, and I realized that there was a problem. We opened an office to provide them with healthcare services, translation, help them with their taxes, et cetera. About 10 years later, Jesse Jackson called me and he said, "Dolores Huerta, the Farm Workers Union, wants you to talk to the Arab grocers --" There were so many of them in every city -- "to help her restart the grape boycott." I said, "I'll make a deal. If she organizes the Yemeni farm workers, I'll do that for her." And so he got back to me a couple of days later, and he said, "Dolores said there's no Yemeni farm workers left. Maybe about 400 doing specialty pruning." I said, "Where are they?" And it turned out that they'd left the fields for small business. And today, one of the fastest-growing groups that we have in the community is a Yemeni young professional association -- Yemenis who -- the kids of that generation who are engineers and doctors and lawyers and the like. And that is pretty much the story of most of the waves. My father was a grocer. So many Lebanese immigrants and Syrian and Palestinian and Egyptians are grocers, and then their kids end up going to graduate school. It's a great story.
Anderson: So, Dr. Zogby, Arab Americans aren't struggling compared to other groups when it comes to things like socioeconomics and education, but every group has their challenges. What are some of the things that Arab Americans are dealing with these days?
Zogby: I think that from the beginning, our experience has been the problem of political exclusion, because so many Arab Americans feel strongly, for example, about the Palestinian issue. There's been a problem of excluding us from politics, candidates rejecting endorsement, giving money back. And then the recent immigrants always face a backlash. We've dealt rather effectively, I think, with both. We've mainstreamed our politics going back to the Jesse Jackson campaign, which I was a deputy campaign manager of in '84. We've empowered Arab Americans. And today, a city like Dearborn, whose mayor in '85 ran on the platform, "What to do about the Arab problem?" Today we have three Arab Americans running for mayor in Dearborn and a majority of the city council is Arab American. So we've overcome exclusion. We've overcome the politics of sort of trying to write us off because we've favored an unpopular issue. A majority of Americans agree with us today. And I think we've done -- we've done pretty well. But there's always the problem of "being foreign" that plagues new immigrants and immigrant communities that are not mainstream. And we still are working to get there, but we're making headway. I look where we were. I see where we are. And the progress is really extraordinary. We feel good about it. It's a great American story.
Anderson: It is a great American story, and I know our viewers are going to want to know more. So when they do, what's your website? Where can they go? They can go to -- It's aaiusa.org. aaiusa.org. And on Twitter, it's @aaiusa.
Anderson: Dr. James Zogby of the Arab American Institute, thank you so much for joining us.
Zogby: Thank you.
Anderson: And thanks to our viewers as well for watching. As always, for more great conversations with leaders in your own community and across the country, log on to comcastnewsmakers.com. I'm Tetiana Anderson.