Anti-Arab Racism in the USA

By Arlen Jones

Every now and again you find one of those books that is so informative, it’s hardly thoughtless, but so agitating, it’s hardly heartless. “Anti-Arab Racism in the USA” is part personal, part political, part polemical, part pragmatic. It is an accessible text that makes a great effort towards weaving the many (at times) disparate strands of social, economic, and historical forces that have created structures and institutions of racism in America.

In the introduction, “The Evolution of White Supremacy,” Stephen Salaita starts with his own early experiences of racism, growing up in the Appalachian corridor with a Palestinian father and a Nicaraguan mother of Palestinian descent. He makes connections from his experiences there to the greater experience of Arab immigrants to the United States in general, posing a historical framework in which the pervasive, dynamic, and quite unique form of American racism has evolved since before the U.S. was even a country. He hypothesizes where “anti-Arab racism” fits into this framework and explains its peculiarities, identifying it next to, but separate from, other terms like “Orientalism” and “Islamophobia.” Salaita’s view places Arab Americans in the margins of the myopic discourse of American power. From here, he suggests some common ways in which racism is whitewashed, internalized and ignored.

Salaita takes us through the numerous factors that have impeded the assimilation and/or the acceptance of Arab immigrants, before and since 9/11. In the chapters “Ethnic Identity and Imperative Patriotism” and “Observations on a New Fifth Column,” he discusses the myriad ways in which Arab discourse and agency have been marginalized and subsumed under antagonistic rhetoric in the media and society in general, as well as in American universities, respectively. Incredibly damning of the logic of settler societies and their hard-line supremacist “leaders,” he argues: “After all, without liberal apologia, colonization wouldn’t have lasted one month anywhere it occurred.”

In the first chapter, “The Perilous World of Savages and Barbarians,” the author examines the ways in which the discourses of both liberals and conservatives undermine the social and cultural legitimacy of Arabs in order to downplay military action taken against their countries. The number of examples, the careful semiotic and semantic dissection of articles, speeches, and events present a good deal of assumptions, conflicts, and consequences to consider. For example, when we talk about terrorism, when we denounce terrorism, to what are we referring? What are we denouncing? Are we talking about Christian fundamentalists hijacking airplanes? Are we talking about Zionist or Hindu groups attacking mosques? Is the term purely descriptive, or does it connote a specific “other”? Furthermore, why is it the responsibility of Arab Americans, more than any other group, to denounce terror whenever they speak publicly? These are some of the questions that Salaita asks and examines.

With wit and keen insight, Salaita exposes and analyzes the roots and methods of the cultural production of anti-Arab racism, from the overt messianism and hawkish rhetoric of neo-conservative elites such as George W. Bush, John Ashcroft and Donald Rumsfeld, to the fractured, nativist logic of far-right pundits like David Horowitz, Anne Coulter and Pat Robertson, all the way down to the tacit and/or implicit discrimination by progressives such as Michael Moore as a means of connecting to an audience imbued with a white supremacist value system.

Additionally, there is an extremely well-written chapter dealing with the multiple expressions of Zionism, a chapter on the “logic” of Christian fundamentalism and a chapter on the damning social implications of the Abu Ghraib “scandal.”  With both laudable scholarship and personal narrative, “Anti-Arab Racism in the USA” may prove a useful tool in the identification and analyses of an ethnic/economic/political/cultural hegemony that extends over the entire country (and, indeed, the world)!


This review appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 12, nos. 54/55 (Winter/Spring 2006)

Copyright (c) 2006 by Al Jadid