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  • Writer's pictureEmma Elliott

The Experience of Arab Americans in the Post-9/11 World

Image of Saad Almontaser waiving an American Flag over his father Ali's shoulders, as protesters hold a rally outside of Manhattan Federal Court on June 26, 2018, to protest the Supreme Court's decision to uphold President Trump's travel ban. Retrieved from James Zogby's article Before We Bid Farewell to Arab American Heritage Month

When you look up race and policing in the United States, you will see results on systemic racism in policing, racial disparities in policing, police brutality, and racial bias. When looking into these sources you will quickly notice that the history of policing and race are deeply intertwined and predominantly involve Black and Latinx communities. For decades, people of color have been overrepresented at every stage in the criminal justice system. The continued disproportionate impact and overly aggressive policing in communities of color have resulted in public outrage and a demand for change and accountability in law enforcement.

While a wealth of research has been conducted on Americans' perception of police, most of the research focuses on Black and Latinx communities, neglecting many other minority groups. Accordingly, the relationship between Arab Americans and law enforcement is greatly understudied. The lack of attention paid to Arab Americans' perspective of policing has been related to their misclassification in criminal justice statistics, which have been bolstered by the US census bureaus’ classification of Arab Americans as white. However, Arab Americans have suffered discrimination, racial and religious insensitivity, hate crimes, and harassment because of their ethnicity, which is distinct from other white Americans. As a result, they have been marginalized, making their needs and voices overlooked by the community.

A screenshot of the planned 2020 question on race [US Census Bureau] retrieved from Yousef H Alshammari’s article Why is there no MENA category on the 2020 US census?

The September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks had a substantial impact on the treatment of Arab American Communities. New demands were placed on law enforcement as a result of increased public fear and targeted government measures (i.e. special registration requirements, racial profiling by law enforcement, and the detention and deportation of community members).

The Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act (USA Patriot Act) was passed to strengthen counterterrorism and national security efforts. The USA Patriot Act granted law enforcement agencies the power to indefinitely detain immigrants without trial, search property and records without a warrant, consent, or knowledge. Ambiguities in interpreting the law resulted in government officials misusing the law as well as abuses by law enforcement officers towards Arab Americans, Muslims, and South Asians. This included airport profiling, verbal harassment, and physical attacks.

Fear, mistrust, and underreporting were the results of the increased level of public suspicion and surveillance in Arab American communities. When people feel discriminated against and are subjected to racial profiling, they are less likely to report crimes or cooperate with the police. According to recent studies, the interaction between Arab Americans and local law enforcement after 9/11 may be explained by immigrant status, cultural norms, and encounters with police in native countries. Undocumented immigrants may be unwilling to report crimes or victimization to police out of fear that their status might be discovered and that they will be deported. Cultural norms served as another barrier to interacting with law enforcement. Many community leaders in the study perceived law enforcement as an ineffective solution and turned to community-based systems of support. It’s important to also acknowledge that many Arab Americans may have a different impression of police in their native country, which could influence their perceptions of American police.

While some police officers agree that cultural norms contribute to underreporting, many others argue that crime is not underreported but that Arab Americans are less victimized than the larger community. "Crime is not underreported," an officer stated in a study performed by the Vera Institute of Justice, “they [Arab Americans] are the least victimized group. We have not seen any reason for outreach”.

The discrepancy in perceptions between Arab American communities and local law enforcement speaks to a lack of trust and communication between the two groups. However, recent research has indicated that both community members and law enforcement want to improve their relationships. Some police departments have already begun to implement positive practices, such as cultural sensitivity training for officers, the recruitment of Arab American officers, and the establishment of police-community liaisons.

Image from the Vera Institute of Justice Technical Report - Law enforcement & Arab American Community Relations After September 11, 2001

While these are significant advancements, the media's dissemination of racial labels and stereotypes continue to shape not only public perceptions of Arab Americans and other racial and ethnic groups but also police attitudes. Therefore, accountability is also required.


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