Holsinger studies how Arab Americans make their place in American society
Whitworth Today asked Professor of Sociology Raja Tanas, an expert on the Middle East, to interview Assistant Professor of Sociology Jennifer Holsinger, who was recently awarded a Ph.D. by the University of Washington. A portion of Holsinger's dissertation, "Privileged or Deprived? Examining the Residential Patterns of Arab Americans," will be published in an upcoming book from Yale University.
Q (Tanas): Could you please explain the significance
of your research?
A (Holsinger): Both inside and outside academia there is a great deal of focus on new immigrants; the big question is, what will be the impact of present-day immigration on U.S. society? This question stems from a fear that has accompanied every substantial wave of immigrants to the U.S.
Arab Americans have been neglected by the research on immigrant groups, even though they have a unique history of immigration that began at the end of the 19th century. My research fills this gap in the literature and reveals some of the contributions that this population has made and their similarities to other groups in the U.S.
The events of Sept. 11, 2001, and those that followed also make this research significant. The Arab American population has suffered as a result of misconceptions held by Americans, so I seek to increase our understanding of just who Arab Americans are.
Q: How did you become interested in this topic?
A: Although I lived in the Middle East as a child and my father is a Middle East historian, I didn't really have an interest in the region until I spent a semester in Cairo, Egypt, as part of a program through the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities. The people and their history, culture and language, as well as the way these have been portrayed in the U.S., fascinated me. Thanks to my study-abroad experience, I learned about some of the Christian communities in the Arab world and became interested in the Arab American population, the majority of which is Christian.
Q: What kind of data was your research based on?
A: My analyses were done using U.S. census data from 1900 to 2000 and some survey data. I looked specifically at four cities with large Arab American communities, namely Los Angeles, Detroit, Chicago and New York City. The findings suggested that the residential patterns of the Arab American population as a whole have been affected by recent immigration and other forces at work over the last decade of the 20th century. Arab Americans are isolated from both African Americans and white Americans in terms of where they live. The neighborhoods they live in tend to be poorer than the neighborhoods of other white ethnic groups. This is especially true for new immigrants, as Arab Americans who immigrated decades ago have assimilated, moving into white neighborhoods and no longer strongly identifying with their ethnicity. There is reason to believe that the new immigrants will assimilate as well, unless they continue to face discrimination, which, as we know, serves as a barrier to assimilation.
Q: Where do we go from here? That is, what new questions should be asked as a result of your study?
A: I think we will see more studies coming out about the effects of Sept. 11, particularly on the Arab American community, and I hope that my research can serve as a baseline to assess the impact, since I'm analyzing the environment just prior to the attacks.
Also, Arab Americans are an extremely heterogeneous group, having arrived from 22 sending countries, and so in some ways they resist generalizations.
Better data will allow researchers to examine the different experiences within the population, since some groups, such as Iraqi Americans, are much more disadvantaged than others, for example Syrian Americans.
Q: How will your study help you in your teaching career?
A: My research allowed me to become quite familiar with census data, which I teach my students to use. I think it's important that students feel empowered to use such data so that they know where to go to learn about the places where they live and so that they feel comfortable around demographic statistics.