November 7, 2008
The candidacy-and now election-of Barack Obama has elicited an avalanche of commentary on race across the political and social spectrum.
Some pundits have posited that we now inhabit a "post-racial" society that has transcended racial differences with the victory of an African-American presidential candidate. That a nation which held blacks in bondage, and refused to grant them justice long after slavery was abolished, could elect a black man for the highest office in the land appears to most observers as a striking victory for the cause of racial unity and tolerance.
Lost in this celebration, however, has been any serious treatment of the Arab and Muslim question. Obama was ceaselessly and openly pilloried by conservatives as a foreign, exotic, unpredictable quantity, not only because he was of mixed racial heritage, but also because he was wrongly said to be Muslim and Arab. And while the Obama campaign fought firmly and intelligently to overcome voters' fears about electing an African-American, they rarely took the extra step of condemning the anti-Arab and anti-Islamic caterwaul of their opponents' campaign.
In this context, serious studies of how Arab and Muslim Americans are treated inside the United States should be welcomed to the discussion. One such study comes from Dianne Shammas, an American activist of Lebanese heritage pursuing her Ph.D in at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Her thesis is the latest comprehensive study of racial discrimination against Arab Americans at community colleges in southern California and southeast Michigan.
She surveyed 753 Arab Christian, Arab Muslim, and non-Arab Muslim students from 21 community colleges using a 92-item survey and three focus groups to learn how this population viewed prejudice on campus and interacted with the larger campus community.
Previous studies have shown high levels of discrimination: a 2007 Arab-American Institute survey showed 76 percent of Arab-Americans ages18 to 29 experienced discrimination, and a 2004 Muslims in the American Public Square report showed 50 percent of American Muslims ages 18 to 24 experienced discrimination in the school and workplace.
However, Shammas said her findings did not bear out these previous reports. She found that Arab and Muslim students tend to cluster and form friendships on religious and ethnic lines, as do other minorities on college campuses. Examining 570 written responses, Shammas found that 38 percent of students formed friendships based on sameness of culture, heritage, and religious belief more than any other criteria.
But importantly, these campus friendships contributed to the students' sense of belonging at college. There was no strong evidence, she notes, to support the idea that such group clustering was connected to the level of perceived discrimination.
Compared to non-Arab and non-Muslim students, Shammas observes, her Arab and Muslim sample did report higher rates of discrimination on four of the nine criteria by a factor of two to four. However, the bigger picture shows that overall there is no striking difference-the mean score was 2.21 for Arabs and Muslims versus 1.94 for the others.
Shammas believes that her results do not mean that discrimination has simply disappeared. She says that many respondents seemed hesitant to speak about discrimination for fear of sounding a false alarm or appearing weak. It may also be the case that, in sticking together, the respondents partially immunized themselves to bias
Whatever the case, Shammas says it is important to fine-tune such surveys to pick up bias when fear, or even the normalization of bias, makes it harder to detect.