Celebrating Arab American Heritage Month

Arab Americans and Americans of Middle Eastern heritage have a long history in the United States. They are U.S. military heroes, entertainers, politicians and scientists. They are Lebanese, Egyptian, Iraqi and more. Yet the representation of Arab Americans in the mainstream media tends to be quite limited. Arabs are typically featured on the news when Islam, hate crimes or terrorism are the topics at hand.

Arab American Heritage Month, observed in April, marks a time to reflect on the contributions Arab Americans have made to the U.S. and the diverse group of people who make up the nation’s Middle Eastern population. The theme for Arab American Heritage Month 2013 is “Proud of Our Heritage, Proud to Be American.”

Arab Immigration to the U.S.

While Arab Americans are often stereotyped as perpetual foreigners in the United States, people of Middle Eastern descent first began to enter the country in significant numbers in the 1800s, a fact that's often revisited during Arab American Heritage Month. The first wave of Middle Eastern immigrants arrived in the U.S. circa 1875, according to America.gov. A second wave of such immigrants arrived after 1940. The Arab American Institute reports that by the 1960s, about 15,000 Middle Eastern immigrants from Egypt, Jordan, Palestine and Iraq were settling in the U.S. on average each year.

By the following decade, the annual number of Arab immigrants increased by several thousand due to the Lebanese civil war.

Arab Americans in the 21st Century

Today an estimated 4 million Arab Americans live in the United States. The U.S. Census Bureau estimated in 2000 that Lebanese Americans constitute the largest group of Arabs in the U.S. About one in four of all Arab Americans is Lebanese.

The Lebanese are followed by Egyptians, Syrians, Palestinians, Jordanians, Moroccans and Iraqis in numbers. Nearly half (46 percent) of the Arab Americans profiled by the Census Bureau in 2000 were born in the U.S. The Census Bureau also found that more men make up the Arab population in the U.S. than women and that most Arab Americans lived in households occupied by married couples.

While the first Arab-American immigrants arrived in the 1800s, the Census Bureau found that nearly half of Arab Americans arrived to the U.S. in the 1990s. Regardless of these new arrivals, 75 percent of Arab Americans said that they spoke English very well or exclusively while at home. Arab Americans also tend to be more educated than the general population, with 41 percent having graduated from college compared to 24 percent of the general U.S. population in 2000. The higher levels of education obtained by Arab Americans explains why members of this population were more likely to work in professional jobs and earn more money than Americans generally. On the other hand, more Arab-American men than women were involved in the labor force and a higher number of Arab Americans (17 percent) than Americans generally (12 percent) were likely to live in poverty.

Census Representation

It’s difficult to get a complete picture of the Arab-American population for Arab American Heritage Month because the U.S. government has classified people of Middle Eastern descent as “white” since 1970. This has made it challenging to get an accurate count of Arab Americans in the U.S. and to determine how members of this population are faring economically, academically and so forth. The Arab American Institute has reportedly told its members to identify as “some other race” and then fill in their ethnicity. There’s also a movement to have the Census Bureau give the Middle Eastern population a unique category by the 2020 census. Aref Assaf supported this move in a column for the New Jersey Star Ledger.

“As Arab-Americans, we have long argued for the need to implement these changes,” he said.

“We have long argued that current racial options available on the Census form produces a severe undercount of Arab Americans. The current Census form is only a ten question form, but the implications for our community are far reaching…”