Feb 01,2021 – JORDAN TIES – JAMES J ZOGBY
There are times when no news is, in fact, big news. This is an article about a recent example that proves the wisdom of this maxim. But first, a bit of history.
Back in 1984, I was serving as a deputy campaign manager for the Jesse Jackson for President campaign. The Arab American community had become energised by Jackson and they were hosting fundraising events for him in cities across the country. Late in the campaign, I met up with Jackson in Los Angeles. He had just arrived from a visit to San Diego where, among other engagements, he had attended a gathering of Arab Americans who had raised funds for his presidential campaign.
When we got together in LA, Jackson with his wry humour said to me, “Looks like your folks have crossed a threshold. They’re making it in American politics. We did a fund-raising event in San Diego and the press didn’t cover it.”
He was pointing out that from the beginning of the campaign until that event every time the Arab American community had raised money there had been negative press stories about “Jackson goes to the Arabs”, or concerns raised by some local American Jewish leaders about the possible “impact of Arab money” on Jackson’s views. He interpreted the fact that there was no press coverage for the San Diego event as progress and possibly acceptance that Arab Americans were just another group of ethnic Americans claiming their rightful role at the political table. A historical note: while Jackson’s observation was correct, it was unfortunately premature. “Arab-baiting” remained a problem for several more years. Thankfully, it is now largely in our past.
I thought of Jackson’s words this morning while speaking with two reporters for major Arab world dailies. They had each called to ask about White House and State Department press releases announcing a few rather significant Arab American appointments in the Biden administration. One of the journalists simply asked for my reaction to these appointments, while the other wondered why this story hadn’t received more coverage.
My response was like Jackson’s, “When an Arab American getting appointed to a national security post isn’t a story anymore, it looks like we crossed a threshold.” I also borrowed from Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in which he said that he looked forward to the day when one would be judged by the “content of his character and not the colour of his skin”. Having spent years seeing Arab Americans excluded from political appointments dealing with critical Middle East issues, it is heartening to see competent Arab Americans being judged by their skills and experience and not excluded because of their ethnic background.
The fact that a few of the appointees are of Palestinian descent has, of course, been noted by fringe rightwing publications and a few predictably hardline members of Congress. But the support these Arab American appointees have received from their colleagues has drowned out the nonsense coming from the anti-Arab haters.
As someone who has lived through decades of discrimination in which Arab Americans were fired from jobs because of their ethnicity or their support for Palestinian rights or had contributions rejected or returned because candidates feared a backlash from appearing to be “too close to the Arabs” — I hope you’ll excuse me for feeling good about where we are today.
Across the US today, in communities where just four decades ago Arab Americans were having difficulty becoming established and respected, members of the community are serving as mayors and other elected positions. On every level, from federal, state, and local, office holders and candidates regularly seek out Arab Americans for financial and political support, and policy expertise. And this year, the Biden campaign had an unprecedented number of Arab Americans on staff, organised a number of high-level meetings with the community, and issued a first-ever position paper of commitments to the Arab American community on a range of domestic and foreign policy concerns. And all of this occurred without any press coverage or backlash.
So, I’m not surprised that the number of great Arab American appointments in the Biden administration have been greeted as ho-hum by the national media. In fact, I see it as good news that there is no news. We have crossed a threshold. And that is a big story in and of itself.
The writer is president of the Washington-based Arab American Institute