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.