Cainkar, The Social Contruction of Difference and the Arab American Experience

Cainkar, The Social Contruction of Difference and the Arab American Experience

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The Social Construction of Difference and the Arab American Experience LOUISE CAINKAR INTRODUCTION THEORIES OF IMMIGRANT integration are a tough ft when it comes to Arab Americans. Arabs who migrated to the United States in the ±irst decades o± the twentieth century held structural positions and ±aced barri- ers o± prejudice and discrimination largely similar to those o± white ethnics (especially Italians). 1 Although they were barred ±rom a broad range o± in- stitutions run by mainstream whites, they settled in urban and rural areas, ran businesses, worked in ±actories, built institutions, ²ourished artistically, held government o±±ice in a number o± places, achieved a degree o± eco- nomic success, and led social lives that were intertwined with members o± white ethnic groups and o±ten resulted in intermarriage. O± course there are meaning±ul exceptions to this simplifcation o± history, and in specifc lo- calities, ±or example, the right o± Arabs to naturalize was challenged. 2 Nonetheless, the general pro±ile o± the Arab experience in the United States in the early part o± the twentieth century displayed more social, political, and economic incorporation than that o± racially excluded A±rican Americans, Asians, Native Americans, and Latinos. It also was vastly better than Arab American experiences over the past thirty years, ±or sub- stantial evidence indicates a widening social distance between Arab Amer- icans and all other Americans. This social distance has been created and reproduced by institutions o± power (external to Arab American commu- nities), is measurable, and is mani±ested in government policies, main- stream cultural representations, public perceptions and attitudes, discrim- inatory behaviors, physical insecurity, and social and political exclusion. However, there are continuities between Arab communities past and pres- ent. In both periods and throughout the intervening years, Arabs have been highly entrepreneurial, heavily engaged in retail trade, and have posted above average median incomes. Indeed, the frst wave o± Arab im- migrants carved out occupational niches and established economic and employment patterns that continue to characterize today’s Arab Ameri- can communities. While ±rom one perspective this economic stability may 13_Cainkar_8044_JAEH_Trans 5/26/06 9:35 AM Page 243
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signal success, from another it could suggest blocked socio-economic mobility. The differences in experience between past and present Arab Ameri- can generations are due in part to religious factors. The earliest Arab im- migrants more often were Christian than Muslim, while the reverse is now the case. But reducing historical changes in the Arab American experience to a Muslim-Christian dichotomy is not as analytically useful as it may ap- pear. Currently, all major American Arab organizations, local and national, are staffed by members of both religious groups and share the same ob- jectives: reducing discrimination, stereotyping, political exclusion, and eth- nic viliFcation. Persons with Arabic-sounding names, whether Christian
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This note was uploaded on 12/21/2009 for the course HUMANITIES 128 taught by Professor Barron during the Spring '09 term at Harvey Mudd College.

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Cainkar, The Social Contruction of Difference and the Arab American Experience

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