Nadine Naber, Nicole Nguyen, Chris D. Poulos, Iván Arenas, Louise Cainkar, Nazek Sankari, Amanda E. Lewis, Nina Shoman-Dajani, and Zeina Zaatari*, Beyond Erasure and Profiling: Building Strong and Vibrant Arab American Communities in Chicagoland (Institute for Research on Race and Public Policy, University of Illinois Chicago, 2023).
* Interview conducted with Nadine Naber and Nicole Nguyen
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this report?
Nadine Naber and Nicole Nguyen (NN & NN): We wrote this report to challenge the erasure of Arab Americans in nearly every area of society striving for diversity and racial justice. For too long, Arab Americans have been positioned between hypervisibility (singled out through racial profiling and discrimination) and invisibility (undercounted, leading to a data desert about their racial and socio-economic realities). As a result, Arab American struggles are erased and overlooked within the arts, philanthropy, advocacy, and policy considerations about urgent struggles in areas such as housing, employment, health care, and education. This data desert severely limits the potential of Arab Americans to survive and thrive. For instance, our study revealed that, in Chicago, Arab Americans’ median household income is $30,000 less than the white median household income. However, without accessible data, social service organizations are unable to address Arab Americans’ socio-economic needs, which obstructs Arab Americans from building strong communities. We thus conducted a community-based mixed methods study, including a large-scale survey and interviews and focus groups, in partnership with six Arab community organizations in Chicagoland.
J: What topics and issues does the report address?
NN & NN: First, co-authors Louise Cainkar and Chris Poulos used quantitative data to demographically show who Arab Americans in Chicagoland are and their socio-economic realities. We relied upon the American Institute’s analysis of the sizable undercount of Arab Americans, as well as their recommendation to multiply the census population numbers by 1.5. Our report revealed that Arab Americans are the fastest growing group in Chicagoland and are becoming more and more diverse. This is, in part, a result of shifts in the Arab region since the launch of the war on terror in 2001 and the ripple effects of US wars across the region in terms of devastating infrastructures, leading to mass migration and displacement, coupled with the growth of US-led global economic policies that have resulted in rising rates of poverty, economic catastrophe, and insecurity.
The rising numbers of Arab immigrants from countries that have been socio-economically devastated have expanded the socio-economic gap across Arab Americans. While some groups, such as Lebanese Americans and Egyptian Americans, have a much higher median household income relative to most MENA groups and the overall US population, many have median household incomes below the general median and many also spend fifty percent or more of their household income on housing costs. Yemenis, for example, earn significantly less than Arab Americans overall and even less than Chicagoland communities. Groups with the highest median household incomes are in their third and fourth generations, already highly educated and thriving, in comparison to recent migrants and refugees. We therefore insist on avoiding the use of “averages” to respond to Arab American struggles. While policy makers and philanthropic organizations tend to rely upon “collective averages” to make policy decisions and distribute resources, averages erase disparities and obscure the needs of those most racially and economically vulnerable. Collective averages also impede recognizing nuances like the difference between those who come to the United States on H1B visas—who are among the most highly educated in the places they come from—and those who arrive as refugees.
Second, we name the problem that most US institutions lack a language and framework for discussing and responding to anti-Arab/anti-Muslim racism and discrimination. We offer the term imperial racism to help readers understand how such racisms have emerged out of the global US war on terror and its ripple effects within the United States. Drawing upon Nadine’s research, we show how imperial racism plays out as cultural racism, such as the racist assumption that the hijab is an example of Muslims’ “hyper-sexist culture and religion,” and as nation-based racism, such as the racist assumption that Arabs and Muslims are enemies of the US nation. We show how such racisms operate in schools, employment, and policing. Further examples of cultural racism include classmates who threw bacon or pork on Arab American kids and referred to the area where Arab American athletes stood in the locker room as the “camel corner.” An example of nation-based racism includes a police officer stating to a Muslim man he pulled over, “I just came back from crushing skulls in Iraq” to intimidate him.
Third, unlike most surveys that focus on middle-class professionals, our survey focused heavily on individuals disproportionately impacted by structural violence. Out of the 496 respondents who completed the survey between December 2020 and September 2021; fifty-two percent earned less than $25,000 a year, fifty-nine percent earned less than a bachelor’s degree; and forty-four percent were not working. We documented how the most disenfranchised/marginalized Arab Americans (low-income, unemployed immigrants) primarily accessed resources through local Arab American organizations and how they shared an understanding that broader social service organizations were not meeting their needs. The few effective organizations in responding to Arab Americans’ unique needs were the same Arab American organizations with limited resources. The problem of the data desert directly limits the capacity of philanthropy and large non-profit social service organizations to support Arab American organizations, which then overburdens Arab American organizations and obstructs their capacity to serve their constituents.
Fourth, drawing upon Nicole’s book, Suspect Communities, we report on the high rates of harassment, discrimination, and bullying in schools, in encounters with police officers, and in workplaces. Bullying and discrimination in schools from K-12 through college included death threats, taunts about wearing a hijab, and beatings, such as:
- “Yo, I’m gonna get you back for what you did,” alluding to September 11.
- “I’m gonna get you back. We’re gonna kill you. We’re gonna hang you. We’re gonna do you like ISIS does our people.”
Yet the problem we uncovered was not merely the racism, it was the invisibility—that there was virtually no awareness about it in the school system, no mechanisms to address it, and no affirming curriculum or education about the Middle East. Adults in schools more often failed to intervene or reinforced the racism and bullying. As a result, consistent bullying had cascading effects on students, their psychological health, their relationships with teachers and students, their understandings of themselves, their sense of belonging, and their academic performance.
Our research about policing similarly revealed that many Arab Americans rarely viewed the police, security guards, or other members of the criminal legal system as protectors of their safety and security. Some shared repeated experiences of getting pulled over by the police without violating the law, or “driving while Arab.” Community advocates were especially concerned about what the police beating of seventeen-year-old Arab American Hadi Abouteah would mean for the community’s sense of safety and belonging. These compounded experiences led many participants to feel fearful of calling the police or of encountering them in their everyday lives.
Overall, our findings reveal that ongoing engagements with racism in everyday life impacted Arab American health, education, housing, socio-economic status, wellbeing, civic participation, and sense of safety, belonging, and empowerment.
Importantly, the report also includes a series of commentaries written by local experts, on topics and issues, such as the experiences of Egyptian Coptics, Iraqi refugees, Yeminis, Sudanese Americans, and Palestinian activists in Chicagoland.
J: How does this report connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
NN & NN: Nadine has been writing about anti-Arab/anti-Muslim racism for many years, and Nicole on how anti-Muslim and anti-Arab racisms shape state institutions, such as public schools and social work, and organize national security priorities, evident in in legislative efforts like the Muslim ban. This report adds a policy focus, including data and analysis that can be used by activists, social workers, community organizations, elected officials, educators, philanthropists, and others interested in advocating for Arab Americans. The deep involvement of community-based organizations in the design of the study, the data collection, the analysis, and the distribution of the findings to advocate for a MENA category in Illinois aligns with both of our long-standing research methodologies.
J: Who do you hope will read this report, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
NN & NN: Our intervention—the need for a MENA category—might seem like a modest proposal. Yet, the lack of the MENA category on government records facilitates the invisibility of Arabs and Arab Americans in funding streams and needs assessments and justifies the denial of critical resources to communities and community organizations. With nuanced, disaggregated data, funders and organizations can gauge and track funding for Arab Americans while producing targeted grant opportunities that allow for greater investment in programs and services addressing specific and diverse needs. Schools can track the total enrollment, retention, academic success, and graduation rates of Arab American students. Students and families can demand restorative justice in the face of racism at school and society could rely upon the data to advocate for structures for addressing racism, socio-economic disparities, and erasure. Yet the MENA category is not the end of this struggle. It is a tool that provides data for advocates working to dismantle systems that further white supremacy in general and anti-Arab/anti-Muslim racism specifically (i.e. policing, higher education, healthcare, and so on) and to build alternatives.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
NN & NN: Nadine is writing a book called Pedagogies of the Radical Mothering with Souzan Naser and Johnaé Strong on maternal activism as a mechanism for knowledge making about prisons, militarism, and colonization and for building a world based upon love and liberation. Nadine is also writing a book that seeks to theorize and legitimize social movement-led research methodologies.
Nicole is working two new research studies. The first examines the media’s coverage of the global war on terror and its impact on Muslim and Arab people’s everyday lives. The second examines the growing role of mental health professionals in the global war on terror and thinks through abolitionist approaches to mental health care in this context.
Excerpt from the report (pp. 113-121)
Racism in Everyday Life: Policing in Chicagoland
If participants hesitated about reporting bullying and harassment to their teachers and other school personnel, they found calling the police similarly problematic. Participants rarely viewed the police, security guards or other members of the criminal-legal system as protectors of their safety and security. Bilal, a Palestinian immigrant man, described the police as having “scary racism” and noted that the police had stopped him “several times although I had no violation except that I’m an Arab.” When asked if he reported this police officer who constantly harassed Arab residents, he said, “We talked to the judge but uselessly. He wouldn’t believe a normal citizen [over] a policeman.”
Farida, an Egyptian immigrant woman, reported that after a theft in her neighborhood, police officers refused to help her husband when he called to report the theft once they learned that his name was Mohammed. However, when their neighbor David called about a similar theft the very next night, the same police officers and more flooded the area, making Mohammed want to change his name to Michael. Participants’ contact with law enforcement has been rife with harassment, discrimination, and sometimes outright abuse.
These experiences mirror the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) 2017 findings that the Chicago Police Department largely refused to respond to anti-Muslim hate crimes and unjustly targeted Muslim and Arab residents. A Chicago Police Department (CPD) sergeant even told the DOJ, “If you’re Muslim, and 18 to 24, and wearing white, yeah, I’m going to stop you. It’s not called racial profiling, it’s called being pro-active.” In fact, the DOJ also reported:
Several CPD officers posted social media posts containing disparaging remarks about Arabs and Muslims, with posts referring to them as “7th century Islamic goat humpers,” “Ragtop,” and making other anti-Islamic statements. One CPD officer posted a photo of a dead Muslim soldier laying in a pool of his own blood with the caption: “The only good Muslim is a fucking dead one.” Supervisors posted many of the discriminatory posts we found, including one sergeant who posted at least 25 anti-Muslim statements and at least 43 other discriminatory posts, and a lieutenant who posted at least five anti-immigrant and anti-Latino statements.
Emblematic of such racism, a Saudi Muslim American woman, Itemid Al-Matar, filed a lawsuit alleging that six CPD officers racially and religiously profiled her, used excessive force to detain her, and violently removed both her hijab. According to surveillance footage, Al-Matar was walking up the stairs alone to a Chicago Transit Authority train stop when she was approached from behind by five police officers, with one grabbing her and forcefully bringing her to the ground. The other officers circled Al-Matar, searched her (revealing her midsection), and ripped off her hijab and niqab. The officers charged her with reckless conduct, which was dismissed by a judge, as well as several counts of obstructing justice, of which she was found not guilty. These public incidents made Arab participants fearful of calling the police or of encountering them in their everyday lives.
“A Bunch of gangs that protect its members only”: No trust in Police
Sabah, an Iraqi immigrant man explained that his brother worked for Uber and “used to call the police whenever he face[d] any trouble at his work during the night.” One night, the police “told him they knew his name and [the] next time he calls, they’re not responding to him. They also told him to save this emergency button for himself and drive on your way acting as if you don’t see or hear anything.” Farida summarized that, because of her experiences with police and what she has seen and heard from other Arab Americans, “I see the people at police stations like a bunch of gangs that protect its members only.” These examples echo the Department of Justice’s finding that Arab American experiences with the police often “offend and humiliate people and diminish residents’ willingness to work with law enforcement.
Multiple participants reported that they “just don’t trust the police.” Ismael, a Lebanese American man described wanting to help an elderly woman file a police report after an incident where someone had threatened them at a rally, claiming they had a gun, but the elderly woman expressed to him that “you know what they are not going to do anything about it, why should I file a police report? […]. I don’t have faith that they’re going to do anything.” And so, they decided against filing a report with the officers on the scene because, as the elderly woman surmised, “I don’t trust the police are going to follow up on it.” Nawal similarly explained, “I don’t think I would call the police if not for a traffic stop or something like that. If I saw a car in an accident or something like that. In terms of things happening, I just don’t trust the police would actually protect me, or anyone else, if not actually hurting someone else.”
Mustafa described the following experience when renting a car during a trip to California:
I was driving a new car. I got followed by this cop for almost three miles. I make the turn. I get into my house. I get pulled over. My heart drops. He asks for my license. I asked, “Why did you stop me?” He gets really aggressive, and he’s like, “Give me your license.” Well, he takes it. I hear on his radio that the plates come back clean. The car is not stolen. He gives 'em back to me. I’m like, “Why did you stop me?” He was like, “Your blinker is not on.” I was going straight for three miles. A brown kid with a long beard, instantly, I get stopped. It was in the middle of the night. He had to be looking. That’s what really pressed me. That guy was like — he really had to focus on who was in that car. His racism really gave him that extra vision. There have been so many more experiences.
Even members of Chicago’s Arab American Police Association reported concerns about “cultural sensitivity and the treatment of Muslims in particular.” While driving or renting a new car for the first time can be an important rite of passage for young people in the United States, for Arab residents, these experiences are fraught and often rife with instances of police harassment and discrimination.
The person who is supposed to protect you, is the one you feel afraid of!:
Policing and Anti-Arab Racism
Participant interactions with police officers and airport security feel “tense,” “demeaning,” and “condescending,” such that they “never want to ever call the police.” Anti-Arab and anti-Muslim racism in policing was commonplace throughout all of our focus groups. Ismael, the Lebanese American man we quoted earlier recalled that a youth that they worked with told him that she was “stopped by a cop in the [Chicago] suburbs” for a routine traffic stop. When the police officer approached the young woman, he asked, in reference to her hijab, “Oh, do you have a bomb or something under there?” Ismael noted that he witnessed a high-level police officer “actually put his hands on somebody and slammed the door into someone’s back.” Although that person called the police to file a complaint, the police “called them back and [… said], ‘Essentially you have no evidence. This is nothing, and so we are not going to bother following up on it’.” The overwhelming sentiment from our focus groups participants because of the anti-Arab racism they experienced in police encounters was that the person who was supposed to protect them was the one they feared.