This year, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) and the Arab American Institute (AAI) celebrate their 25th and 20th respective anniversaries.
The ADC is, of course, the Arab American community’s pioneer rights organization. It has, over the years, won significant court decisions in defense of civil rights, challenged and won battles against media giants who defamed Arabs and distorted Arab culture, and it has defended a countless number of Arab Americans who suffered discrimination at work, in their schools or in their communities.
AAI has been Arab Americans’ political engine, utilizing voter registration, organization and mobilization to move the community into the US’s political mainstream. During the past two decades, AAI has won recognition for Arab Americans in both political parties, provided support for Arab Americans seeking elected or appointed political office, trained a generation of young political activists and brought the community’s issue concerns into the center of the national political debates.
Witnessing leaders from both organizations working together during the past few weeks in meetings with both the new Attorney General and the new Secretary of Homeland Security brought home the progress their collective efforts have made possible.
But as important as their work has been, the real story written by these national organizations is told on another level. Their most significant contributions can be found in the establishment of an Arab American identity, the creation of a community and its transformation into an empowered political constituency, and the opportunities both ADC and AAI have provided for hundreds of young Arab Americans to find fulfilling careers in service of their community and their country.
To understand how far Arab Americans have come, it is only necessary to recall where they were 30 years ago. There was, back then, no broadly shared sense of community, nor was there any grassroots Arab American community organization. During the past three decades, a significant national effort succeeded in bringing together Arab Americans, both immigrants and the descendants of immigrants from the many countries of the Arabic speaking world. The community that was built was based, not on ideology, but on a shared cultural heritage.
Significant challenges were faced down. There were those who sought to exclude newly organized Arab Americans from US politics or to stereotype and defame them. There were also challenges from within, coming principally from the divisive ideologies of “exile” groups who sought to import their religious, factional or national identities and establish them here.
Despite these challenges, Arab Americans succeeded in efforts to create a unified American ethnic community that has become established and recognized as a mainstream component in the political and cultural life of the US. Polling now shows that not only nine in ten Arab Americans feel pride in their heritage (registering the highest among all the ethnic groups surveyed), but that “Arab Americans” is their preferred self-definition of ethnic identity, winning out over country or religion.
Today, Arab Americans are recognized in both parties. In the 2004 Presidential campaign, every Democratic candidate and President Bush’s campaign made an effort to court the community’s support, with all of them addressing the October 2003 AAI National Leadership Conference in Michigan. It is also significant to note that every one of the 2004 campaigns had Arab Americans in staff or advisory roles.
Twenty-eight years ago, when I came to Washington to run the Palestine Human Rights Campaign, there were only a handful of Arab Americans working in community related politics, and most organizations that addressed our domestic and foreign policy concerns had no Arab Americans on staff. Some actually shunned the community’s involvement.
Today, Arab Americans are working in senior positions in major civil and human rights and political organizations and, this summer, when our organization’s internship programs are in full swing, scores of Arab Americans will be working in Washington DC, serving their community and gaining valuable experience that will assist their career development.
It is also important to note the impressive numbers of Arab Americans who received their start at AAI or ADC and are now working in government or major US public interest and political organizations.
Real challenges remain, both in terms of the issues that must be addressed and the obstacles presented by those who still seek to turn back the community’s progress. There are, for example, individuals and groups, some coming from within the Arab American community, who seek to divide Arab Americans on the basis of religious identity or country of origin. And, there are groups who have never stopped pressing politicians to exclude Arab Americans from full participation in campaigns and the debate over critical policy issues.
But through it all, Arab Americans have retained an impressive commitment to sustain the momentum they’ve achieved in the past three decades. This year, for example, in critical gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia and municipal contests in dozens of cities with strong Arab American concentrations, the community will be involved. Voter turnout continues to grow and, as we saw in 2004, Arab American participation in fundraising and organizing (keys to political power) also continues to grow.
In many ways, this story of Arab American identity, community development and empowerment is even more impressive when seen against the backdrop of the pressures shaping contemporary American life.
Because of growing alienation from politics in general, too few Americans vote or get involved in campaigns. In contrast, Arab Americans are voting in numbers higher than the national average and in many locales, are among the most organized and involved communities in political campaigns.
In three decades, Arab Americans faced down discrimination and threats to their civil rights, backlash and exclusion, and continued to make real progress as an American ethnic community. In addition to their respective anniversaries, this is what ADC and AAI will celebrate this year.