The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How the Detroit area became a wellspring of Arab American political success

A billboard highlighting the 2020 Census is seen in Dearborn, Mich., home to one of the largest Arab communities per capita in the United States, in April 2020. (Carlos Osorio/AP)
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After becoming the first Arab American to represent Michigan’s 15th district in the state House of Representatives in 2017, at just 26, Abdullah Hammoud invited groups of legislators to tour Dearborn, his hometown, which has one of the nation’s largest concentrations of Arab American residents. Many of them are Lebanese or, like Hammoud, the children of Lebanese immigrants.

The first stop was for Middle Eastern food, then the visitors would often meet with city officials. At the end of the trips, Hammoud asked whether they had any questions about the Arab American community.

As he recalls, one participant replied, “Why do Muslim men beat their wives?”

Hammoud wasn’t offended. “I was glad he brought it up, because I could try to shatter whatever stereotype he had,” he says. “I can’t say I made this individual an ally to the Arab community, but I kind of neutralized it, and sometimes that’s a success.”

Shattering stereotypes of Arab Americans in the Detroit area appears to be well underway, if their political success in recent years is any indication.

After winning two more terms, Hammoud, a Democrat, ranfor mayor of Dearborn in 2021. He easily won, in a city once rife with racism against Blacks, personified by his most famous predecessor, Orville Hubbard, who controlled the city for 36 years. (A statue of Hubbard was removed in 2020, as symbols of the nation’s racist past came down across the country.)

Hammoud wasn’t alone among first-time Arab American mayors elected in the Detroit area in November. In nearby Dearborn Heights, Bill Bazzi, a Lebanese immigrant and retired Marine, was elected to the post he had been appointed to after the previous mayor’s death. A few miles northeast of Dearborn, Amer Ghalib, an immigrant from Yemen, became the first mayor of Hamtramck in 100 years without Polish roots. (The localities run nonpartisan contests.)

Democrat Rashida Tlaib, whose district covers or touches many communities in the Detroit area, was first elected to Congress in 2018 and gave a progressive response to President Biden’s State of the Union address last week.

She plans to run next fall from a new, Dearborn-centric district; for the first time in about 90 years, Dearborn will not be represented by a member of the Dingell family. (Rep. Debbie Dingell, a Democrat, is moving to a new district based in Ann Arbor.)

Like so many other ethnic groups, many Arab Americans came to the Detroit area in the past century to take jobs in auto plants.

Unlike Black Detroiters, shut out of many suburbs by restrictive housing codes, Arab Americans were classified by census takers as White, giving them leeway to congregate in otherwise restrictive Dearborn. There, the Arab American population is estimated at 42 percent, and could be higher.

I’ve long taken visitors on tours of Detroit, driving west from downtown along Warren Avenue. Within the city limits, those neighborhoods today lack signs of the revival underway downtown; there are plenty of empty buildings and deserted streets.

But cross into Dearborn and the scene comes to life, with generations of residents crowding into grocery stores, restaurants, dessert cafes and beauty parlors.

One popular restaurant, A.B.’s Amazing Ribs and Sauce, is a halal place that opened about a year before the pandemic struck. Co-owner Ali Bazzy, who has known Hammoud since middle school, says he believes the new mayor can overcome the anti-Arab animus that persists in parts of Dearborn: “He’s going through the communities. He’s very hands-on. I think it will win them over.”

Bazzy says he has faced his own haters, like one who told him to “stick to shawarma” rather than barbecue. The growing numbers of Arab American politicians can help change perceptions, he says: “I don’t believe it’s about power. I just believe it’s about making things better.”

Arab Americans’ political advance is anything but automatic. Veteran Dearborn attorney Jeffrey Pepper, 69, beat fledgling politician Alabas Farhat, 22, on March 1 in a special Democratic primary election to fill the remaining term of Hammoud’s state House seat.

Soon after becoming mayor, Hammoud began meeting with developers to discuss a series of properties that Ford Motor recently sold, hoping to find ways to ease the area’s housing shortage. “We’re entering conversations about what ... we want the future of Dearborn to look like,” he says.

Hammoud is sensitive to criticism that he will look out only for Arab Americans. Asked by one non-Arab resident what he planned to do for her, Hammoud says, he replied, “What part of plowing the streets” wasn’t for the entire community’s benefit?

Despite the plowing, residents are familiar with snow piles that somehow stubbornly refuse to melt until well into spring. Some attitudes that Hammoud and his counterparts face might similarly take a long time to change. Patience and persistence got Dearborn’s Arab Americans this far economically; now, the political leaders will have to display it as well.