‘It matters’: US marks Arab American Heritage Month

Washington, DC – The White House, US State Department and other government agencies have released statements celebrating Arab American Heritage Month, an event that advocates hope will quell the bigotry Arab-American communities face.

Arab American Heritage Month was born out of grassroots effort by Arab activists to gain acknowledgement for their communities at the local level. But in recent years, there has been a more concerted push by Arab-American advocacy groups to get federal recognition for the month in April.

“It used to happen in different municipalities, different cities, school boards that have passed resolutions to recognise it, and then [it] started taking off about a decade ago on a more national level,” said Abed Ayoub, legal director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC).

The Arab America Foundation, an educational group that promotes Arab culture in the US, says it launched formal efforts in 2017 to get Arab American Heritage Month recognised by state and local officials and celebrated nationally.

“Last year, through our efforts we received proclamations from 37 governors and this year we are shooting for 50,” said Warren David, co-founder of the Arab America Foundation.

In a statement sent to Arab organisations in the US on Friday, President Joe Biden heaped praise on Arab Americans, saying that they make the country stronger and “more diverse and vibrant”.

“We also recognize that too many Arab Americans continue to be harmed by discrimination, bias, and violence,” Biden said. “As president, I have made it a top priority to strengthen the Federal Government’s response to hate crime and to advance a whole-of-government approach to racial justice and equity so that all Americans, including Arab Americans, can meet their full potential.”

The State Department also paid tribute to Arab communities in the US, saying that “immigrants with origins from the Arab world have been arriving to the United States since before our country’s independence and have contributed to our nation’s advancements in science, business, technology, foreign policy, and national security”.

‘Breakthrough moment’

In 2019, Michigan congresswomen Debbie Dingell and Rashida Tlaib – who is of Palestinian descent – introduced a congressional resolution to officially recognise April as Arab American Heritage Month.

But a “breakthrough moment” came last year when State Department spokesman Ned Price honoured the month during a news briefing, said Maya Berry, executive director of the Arab American Institute (AAI), a Washington-based think tank.

Dozens of governors and state legislatures also recognised the month over the past few years.

“Happy Arab American Heritage Month! Let’s come together to honor and celebrate our Arab American friends here in Michigan and across the nation,” Gretchen Whitmer, the governor of Michigan, home to one of the largest Arab populations in the US, tweeted on Friday.

Municipalities, school boards, universities and local officials across the country also released statements and social media posts in recognition of Arab Americans.

Berry said these statements from mainstream institutions are important given the biases and institutional discrimination that Arab Americans face. “People need to understand that the biases and stereotypes they hold against this community are deeply flawed and hurtful. And they have a real negative impact on people,” Berry told Al Jazeera.

A 2017 AAI poll found that 23 percent of respondents, including 36 percent of Republicans, hold unfavourable views of Arab Americans.

Ayoub, of ADC, echoed Berry’s remarks on why the government statements celebrating Arab Americans matter. “It matters. Representation always matters,” he told Al Jazeera. “It shows that the government acknowledges who we are, and it takes a moment to acknowledge our contributions to this country to its history. And it’s a celebration of our culture and heritage.”

Fighting for representation

Advocates say Arab Americans – who number approximately 3.7 million in the US, according to the AAI – have faced government discrimination, including racial profiling, surveillance and restrictive immigration policies for decades.

The US Census Bureau still considers Arab Americans to be white, making data about their communities, including in demographics and public health, difficult to find – an issue that was underscored by the COVID-19 pandemic.

A years-long effort to add a Middle East and North Africa (MENA) category to the 2020 Census form did not materialise. Both Berry and Ayoub said having a MENA category on the census is a priority for Arab Americans.

“We continue to be a community that’s rendered highly visible and invisible at the same time,” Berry said, adding that while Arab Americans are viewed through a national security lens that leads to violations of their civil rights, they are not seen as their own group on the Census.

Yet Berry added that despite these policy challenges, it is heartening to see fellow Americans celebrate Arab American Heritage Month.

“It’s about the fact that this will trickle down to that fifth-grader who has his fellow students celebrating with him. The fact that the kids can now see themselves being honoured makes me just so happy,” she told Al Jazeera.

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