Driving down Michigan Avenue in Dearborn, a woman in a chador takes her hand off the steering wheel of her SUV to light a Marlboro. Through the half-open window she exhales smoke and Lebanese pop music. As she turns into the Dunkin’ Donuts her bumper reveals a frayed sticker: Vote Kerry/Edwards.
Dearborn, a suburb of Detroit, is the hub of Arab America. When the car plants of the Motor City had attracted all the labor they could from African-Americans fleeing poverty and tyranny in the Deep South, it went for those fleeing poverty and war from the Global South–particularly Lebanon, Yemen and Iraq. There are more Arab-Americans in California and New York, and, according to the Arab American Institute (AAI), roughly 3.5 million in the United States, but nowhere is there a greater concentration than here. A third of Dearborn is of Arab extraction, and Detroit is the biggest Iraqi city outside Iraq. It is by no means typical. “Unlike anywhere else in America, you could live your whole life in Dearborn in an Arab-American bubble,” says Jennifer Salan of the AAI. But where electoral politics are concerned, that is important. Democrats won Michigan by five percentage points in 2000; Arab-Americans constitute 5 percent of the state’s votes.
Indeed, Arab-Americans are a sizable force in many swing states, including Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida. In a third of the swing states needed to win the Electoral College, Arab-Americans make up more than the margin between the two candidates. What is more, unlike African-American voters in Detroit, who have been loyal to the Democrats, Arab-Americans are up for grabs. In 2000 they backed George W. Bush. This year they are leaning, somewhat half-heartedly, toward his Democratic challenger, John Kerry. In a close race that will be decided in just a few places, Arab-Americans are a rare and precious phenomenon–a swing constituency in several swing states. “In an election this close any small group makes a difference, and this is one of them,” says James Zogby, head of the AAI. Zogby says that based on current polls, about 160,000 Arab-American votes in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida and Michigan will go from Republican to Democrat. “What a party loses in one place they have to pick up somewhere else,” he says.
“It’s not a community that any party has a lock on, especially a community like this one, where 60 percent weren’t born here,” says Ismael Ahmed, executive director of ACCESS. The group, based in Dearborn, is the largest Arab-American social service agency in the country. Ahmed adds, “We’re not really committed to either party.” The Arab American Political Action Committee (AAPAC), after endorsing Bush in 2000, this year endorsed Representative Dennis Kucinich in the Democratic primary and Kerry for President.
To understand the hopes that were dashed over the past four years, recall the presidential debate in Winston-Salem four years ago, when Bush declared that the racial profiling of Arab-Americans was “not what America is all about.” Said Bush, “We need to find out where racial profiling occurs and do something about it.” “You have to ask yourself why it took such a small thing to secure our votes,” says Jumana Judeh, vice chair of the American Arab Chamber of Commerce, who argued for endorsing Democratic contender Al Gore. “Someone recognized our votes. Someone noticed us.” Add to that the fact that Gore had a Jewish running mate (Joseph Lieberman) with a record of being staunchly pro-Israel, and the Republicans looked to many Arab-Americans like their best bet. On polling day Bush beat Gore 45 to 38 percent in the Arab-American community, while Green candidate Ralph Nader (who is of Lebanese descent) received 13 percent.
Then came September 11. While none of the hijackers had American citizenship and Dearborn is home to few Saudis, the community felt besieged. Under Bush, not only profiling but detentions, investigations and deportations became the “American way” for the Arab-American community. “It was a total sea change,” says Ahmed, describing how Arab-Americans went from being below the radar to being in the spotlight and physically at risk. Hate crimes went up fivefold. At the same time, we went to war with Afghanistan and Iraq. And we were told that this is a war without end. All of that makes Arab-Americans feel at risk.”
Accusing Bush of betrayal, the Arab-American community started shopping around for another candidate. Most backed Howard Dean in the Democratic primaries. When Kerry emerged the winner, they went with him. Initially they were enthusiastic. A poll of Arab-Americans by the AAI taken in Michigan, Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania in July showed Kerry leading Bush 51 percent to 24 percent with Nader at 13 percent. By September, the split was down to 49 to 31, with a large number of undecideds. “There will be a ceiling for the President,” says Zogby. “And I think he’s reached it. The question is: Do the rest vote for Kerry or not vote at all? Many of those in the undecided or even in the Nader category would switch to the Democrat, but have not yet found a reason to do so.”
On October 9, when Democratic vice-presidential candidate John Edwards came to Detroit, Judeh went to the gym. Earlier in the week, during the vice-presidential debate, Edwards had responded to a question about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by sympathizing with Israeli victims of suicide bombers. But in a week that saw Israel launch its bloodiest incursion into Gaza in four years, he hardly mentioned Palestinians. “After I heard that I thought, I’m not going to go out and cheer for him,” says Judeh, who attended the Democratic National Convention this year. “I was a loyal Democrat. I distributed the tickets. But I wasn’t going to go. We don’t expect them to be pro-Palestinian. But they won’t even say, ‘We support a just peace in the Middle East.'”
So while there is much loathing for Bush, there is little love, as yet, for Kerry. “They are not giving us anything to work with at a grassroots level,” says Fay Beydoun, who runs the AAI chapter in Michigan. “People are very anti-Bush, but we need to motivate them to go out and vote for Kerry and Edwards, and they don’t make it easy.” Along with their concerns about the economy and education, this is just one more factor that Arab-Americans share with the rest of the nation. The lack of enthusiasm for Kerry “is not just a problem with Arabs,” says Abed Hammoud, a founder and the current president of AAPAC. “That’s true for the African-Americans I talk to. I think it’s true across the board.”