Feb 27, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Axios Explains: Arab Americans' Michigan primary protest rooted in feelings of invisibility

Photo illustration of a faded family portrait of an Arab American family with the faces marked out with a marker.

Photo illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photo: Arab American National Museum

Arab Americans threatening to withhold support for President Biden in Michigan's primary Tuesday are upset with his handling of the war in Gaza — but for many, their frustration is rooted in years of feeling ignored or dismissed in the U.S.

Why it matters: It goes beyond U.S. policies that favor Israel. The war has become a symbol for what many see as disrespect for Arab Americans' longtime contributions to American life.

  • Biden's early support for Israel's assault on Palestinians in Gaza was simply a tipping point for many Arab Americans who helped him achieve a critical win the state in 2020, community leaders tell Axios.

State of play: In the Detroit area, home to the nation's largest Arabic-speaking population, the Listen to Michigan campaign has been urging voters to choose "uncommitted" on the Democratic presidential primary ballot.

  • Some Arab Americans there tell Axios that Biden's stance on the war has led them to avoid voting for him again — and they want to send a message.
  • Most say won't vote for Trump in November but might stay home, which could hurt Biden anyway.
  • "He has lost people, and he's losing people because of his foreign policy," said Abbas Alawieh, a former chief of staff for Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) and a spokesperson for the Listen to Michigan campaign.

Zoom in: Some Arab American leaders say their communities were appalled by Hamas' Oct. 7 attack on Israel, but that as Israel's counterattack began killing thousands of Gaza citizens, it became a reminder of how invisible they sometimes feel in America.

  • Some note that the U.S. Census doesn't keep track of Arab Americans. It estimates there are 2 million, but Arab groups say the number is closer to double that.
  • Schools rarely allow students to choose their racial identity as Arab American on information forms.
  • Community leaders say that on paper, it can seem like Arab Americans don't exist.

Reality check: They do, and their stories are prevalent throughout U.S. history. And their numbers are growing — along with their political power.

Flashback: People of Arab descent — a wide-ranging ethnic group consisting of people from the Arab-speaking world in Western Asia and Northern Africa — arrived in the present-day U.S. as the Transatlantic Slave Trade began.

  • Estebanico, an enslaved Arabic-speaking Black Moroccan man, traveled throughout present-day Texas and New Mexico after a Spanish ship wrecked near present-day Galveston in 1527.
  • Omar Ibn Said became a celebrity in North Carolina in the early 1800s after the enslaved man wrote Arabic on walls. He later wrote an autobiography — the only known narrative by an enslaved American written in Arabic.
  • Arab roots run deep among Black Americans: Scholars have uncovered how some blues music has similarities to the Muslim call to prayer.

Mass immigration to the U.S. in the late 1800s and early 1900s brought Lebanese and Syrian migrants to factories nationwide.

  • Arab Christian and Muslim migrants flocked to Dearborn, Mich., home of the Ford Motor Company's world headquarters, for jobs in the automobile industry.

Families of immigrants produced future notable Arab Americans such as radio personality Casey Kasem, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs and former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels.

  • The grandfather of Colombian singer Shakira was born in New York City to Lebanese immigrants.
  • Today, there are six Arab American/North African members of Congress — three Democrats and three Republicans.
  • They include Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), who represents the Dearborn area and has urged Democratic voters to protest Biden's war policy by choosing "uncommitted" on their presidential ballots Tuesday.

Between the lines: Most Americans see Arab Americans today only in terms of conflicts in the Middle East or overseas humanitarian crises, Matthew Jaber Stiffler, director of the Center for Arab Narratives at the Arab American National Museum, tells Axios.

  • He said that neglects the community's storied past in the U.S. and paints the population as perpetually foreign.
  • The lack of census data also omits crucial information about generations, small businesses, health care needs and poverty.
  • Biden's administration is proposing the 2030 Census include a Middle Eastern/North African (MENA) category — an idea the Trump administration had scrapped for 2020.

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001 there was a surge in anti-Arab and anti-Muslim hate crimes. At the time, the FBI wasn't counting anti-Arab crimes and classified anti-Arab hate as "ethnic non-Latino."

What's next: James Zogby, co-founder of the Arab American Institute, said that since the group began tracking Arab American attitudes in 1996, the population has leaned Democratic — with gradual shifts to the GOP.

  • The group's recent polling suggests a significant drop in Arab American support for Biden, Zogby said.
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