People, Races, Ethnicity in the U.S. Lebanese and Arab Americans

About the Lebanese or Arab Americans in the U.S. including where they are from, why they left, how many there are, famous Lebanese or Arab-Americans and more.


Where The Came From: About 80% of the Arab-American community consists of Lebanese and Syrian Christians, particularly from the Mt. Lebanon area. The group also includes Muslims from the same region and Coptic Christians from Egypt. Two groups that have come in increasing numbers in the last decade are Shiite Muslims from southern Lebanon and Yemenis. The most distinctive subgroup in the community is composed of the 8,000 Chaldean Christians, an Aramaic-speaking group from Iraq, many of whom come from the village of Tal Kaif.

Why They Left: The heaviest period of immigration followed the collapse of the silk industry in Lebanon in 1912. Other important factors have been anti-Christian discrimination by the Ottoman Turkish rulers of Lebanon and Syria and, more recently, uprootings by the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Lebanese civil war.

Where They Settled: Arab immigrants in the late 19th century settled mainly on the East Coast, but gradually fanned out across the U.S. The growth of the auto industry was the main factor in making Detroit the largest Arab-American community.

Numbers: There are over 2 million Lebanese and Arab Americans living in the U.S. today. The largest settlements are in Detroit, Los Angeles, and New York City.

Their Story in America: Anthony Bishallany of Lebanon, who came to the U.S. in 1854, is regarded as the first Arab immigrant. More trickled in over the next two decades; immigration picked up after 1875 and accelerated after 1900. Many early Arab immigrants became peddlers, who, after bringing over wives and families, settled in cities as small shop owners. Others became farmers and urban laborers, notably in Detroit's auto plants.

Though they came from Africa and the Middle East, the Christian religion--Maronite, Melchite, Syrian Orthodox, and Antiochene Orthodox--of most Arab immigrants and their Mediterranean appearance made their reception more like that given southern Europeans. In cities where they were not numerous enough to form their own neighborhoods, Arabs often settled in Catholic ethnic areas.

Churches and mosques have traditionally been the center of Arab-American community life; most of the first and second generation identified more on the basis of religious, village, and family lines than on national or ethnic ones. Today most Arab Americans are second- or third-generation. While there are still many merchants among them, they are much more diverse occupationally and somewhat better educated than the national average. With the exception of small subgroups, like the Muslim Yemenis, they are probably the most assimilated non-European ethnic group in America; inter-marriage is high, and their main ties to their cultural heritage tend to be food and music.

Despite their assimilation, the predominantly Christian group from a predominantly Muslim part of the world suffers from a chronic identity crisis. Many insist they are descended from the Phoenicians rather than the Arabs. A 1970 study of Detroit Maronites showed that 6% thought of themselves as "American," 38% as "Lebanese," 54% as "American-Lebanese," and only 2% as "Arab."

Famous Lebanese and Arab Americans: Sen. James Abourezk, from South Dakota; singer Paul Anka (born in Canada); author William Peter Blatty, who wrote The Exorcist; cardiologist Michael De Bakey; football coach Abe Gibron; airline executive Najeeb Halaby; consumer advocate Ralph Nader; entertainer Danny Thomas; and assassin Sirhan Sirhan, who shot Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.

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