Over the many years I have been involved working within the Arab American community, I have had to contend with a range of myths and misunderstandings about both the nature and composition of the community as well as their attitudes toward major issues of concern facing the United States.
On the one hand, we have engaged in demographic work to better know who we are, where we come from, and where we are living in the US today. Our first major effort, in this regard, was “Arab America Today” a wonderful book, based on US census data, written in 1990 by my brother, John Zogby. At the same time, since 1996 we have conducted a biannual poll of Arab American voters in order to better understand not only how the community votes in elections but how they self-identify personally and politically and how they see the issues facing the country.
As part of this continuing exercise, in November of this year, the Arab American Institute (AAI) commissioned Zogby Analytics of New York to conduct a nationwide telephone poll of 400 Arab American voters. What we found was that Arab Americans remain extremely proud of their heritage, despite having been targeted by discrimination. They also continue to identify as Democrats and favor the Democratic Party’s approach to most issues, despite their growing dissatisfaction with President Obama’s performance in office.
Since we have data from our biannual polling going back to 1996, we are able to track changes in attitudes over the past two decades. The fact that 87% of Arab Americans continue to feel deep pride in their ethnicity is impressive, especially when this is weighed against the growth in the American public’s negative attitudes toward people of Arab descent. This continuing ethnic pride is also significant in the face of the 43% of Arab Americans who report having “personally experienced discrimination because of [their] ethnicity or country of origin”.
When compared with data from earlier surveys, pride in ethnicity has remained constant (well over 80%), but the percentage of those who report having experienced discrimination has grown from 30% in 2002 to today’s 43%. The percentage of those who identify as “Arab American” has also continued to increase from the low 40’s in the late 1990’s to 63% in this 2014 poll. This stated preference in claiming an “Arab American” identity is shared by all sub-groups within the community (immigrant/native born, Christian/Muslim, and young/old). In fact, the only sub-group where a majority does not prefer to identify as “Arab American” are those members of the community who are registered as Republicans.
From 1996 to 2000, the community, by a slight two point margin, leaned toward the Democratic Party. As a result of the policies of the Bush Administration that margin grew to 8 points in 2002 and 2004. With the election of Barack Obama in 2008 and the Republican Party’s increasingly harsh rhetoric against Arabs and Muslims, the gap opened up even further. In 2014, as in the past three polls, Democrats outnumber Republicans by a two to one margin. This year 44% identify as Democrats as opposed to 23% who say they are Republicans.
Of those who said they voted in 2012, 65% claim to have voted for Barack Obama, as opposed to 25% who say they cast their ballot for Mitt Romney. But not unlike the rest of the American public, Arab Americans now give President Obama a negative job rating (38% positive, 59% negative). At the same time, only 13% give Congress a positive rating for its job performance. Given this lack of confidence in the performance of the executive and legislative branches of government, it is not surprising that a majority (55%) say that they feel the country is heading in the wrong direction.
Nevertheless, Arab Americans have not lost their personal sense of optimism in the future—
with two-thirds saying that they have some confidence that their children will have a better life than they have right now. This optimism is shared by all of the sub-groups within the community, with those who are immigrants being the most optimistic about the future. This Arab American confidence in the prospects for the next generation stands in marked contrast to the attitudes of the American public at-large where only one-third are optimistic that their children will be better off in the future.
What are the most important issues facing the United States today? For Arab Americans, they are, in rank order: jobs and the economy (far and away the top issue); followed by foreign policy, health care, and education. In the second tier of issues, ranking much lower in importance, are: immigration, budget, taxes, and terrorism. On all of these issues (with the exception of foreign policy) Arab Americans say that they believe that Democrats will do a better job than Republicans. Not surprisingly, when it comes to determining which party will do better in handling the Israeli-Palestinian issue or dealing with terrorism/national security, most Arab Americans say they have confidence in neither party.
Taken together, these findings paint a portrait of Arab Americans as an American ethnic community that is self-aware, proud of its heritage, and confident in the future. The poll also demonstrates that Arab Americans are concerned about the state of politics here in the US and attentive to all of the issues facing the country today.