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On Survival and Progress of Unpopular Minorities in the United States: The case of Iranian-Americans

By: Nader Habibi

Part I

As recent demographic surveys have demonstrated, the community of Iranian-Americans is a highly educated and prosperous group of people, which enjoys a higher standard of living than many other ethnic groups in the United States. Because of the selective nature of the U.S. immigration policy and cultural pressures of the Islamic Revolution, the share of professionals and entrepreneurs among Iranian-Americans is larger than most other minorities. With this large supply of educated and skillful professionals, the Iranians have the potential to preserve their high standard of living for decades to come. However, because of the continuing tensions in the U.S. relations with Iran in particular, and the Middle East in general, the Iranian community in the U.S. has been under stress ever since the 1979 Islamic revolution. The future prosperity and assimilation of the Iranians also remains vulnerable to the contentious U.S.-Middle East relations.

When there is prolonged hostility between a third world country and the United States, gradually the U.S. public opinion towards the community of immigrants from that country will turn negative. The community will face social rejection, discrimination, prejudice and might even be looked upon with suspicion and accused of sympathizing with an external enemy. As the developments after September 11 have demonstrated the negative reaction will be more severe when Americans are worried about acts of terrorism in America and fear that immigrants might play a role in future attacks.

Even a very resourceful ethnic minority can't escape the adverse consequences of being looked upon as a suspect and undesirable group by the rest of the society. While education and wealth play an important role in economic progress, enjoying the social goodwill and trust of the greater society is also equally important. The negative impact of prejudice and discrimination on ethnic minorities is undeniable. Just as the reduction of discrimination has elevated the socioeconomic status of African Americans and Hispanics in the past four decades, the rise of discrimination and hostility against a successful ethnic group can diminish its socioeconomic status over-time. The covert and overt hostility toward such a group will affect its prosperity through several channels some of which are listed below:

a) Employment and promotion: Members of a despised ethnic group will face discrimination in the job market. Finding an entry-level position will become more difficult and those who, because of their high skills, already have a successful career will be promoted at a slower pace or even bypassed in favor of other employees. In recent months the media has reported several job discrimination complaints by Middle Eastern professionals. (An example is the formal lawsuit of Jamshid Farshidi who taught mathematics at Norfolk State University until June 2002. Farshidi claimed that he was falsely accused of sexual harassment and fired from his job because of his Middle Eastern background.) Employed individuals will also have a difficult time switching jobs and moving to a new firm. One reason for discrimination against despised minorities is that the human resource managers might feel that other employees (or clients) would be reluctant to work with these individuals. This is particularly true of high level managerial positions. The employer might worry that the staff would resent serving under members of an unpopular ethnic group.

b) Trade and investment: Members of a despised minority (DM) might face subtle forms of discrimination in their day-to-day economic transactions. This could be most visible in the service industry where a service provider will offer a lower quality service to a DM person. Since business owners face severe legal punishment for racial and ethnic discrimination they might avoid overt discrimination, which could be detected. For example the employees of a restaurant cannot deny service to a DM but might show less courtesy and warmth when serving such a client. A teacher might show less attention and offer less encouragement to a DM child. A real estate agent might put less effort into finding the most suitable housing when helping a DM client. As a result of these subtle discriminations a DM person will face a more hostile trade and investment environment and might fall behind his competitors.

The cases below refer to the psychological and social consequences of becoming a despised minority. These reactions themselves cause further social and economic damage to the ethnic group.

c) Poor performance due to loss of self-esteem and aspiration. The psychological consequences of discrimination and prejudice are well known. Rage and loss of self-esteem are two of the most visible consequences. A DM individual by definition is unpopular outside his ethnic group. When he is subject to visible harassment and discrimination his peace of mind is threatened by anger and fear. Sometimes a victim of prejudice might turn this anger toward himself and develop a negative self-image. Some individuals project their anger towards their family or their ethnic group. These individuals try to hide their ethnic background in social interactions and often show a hostile attitude towards other members of their own ethnic community. Alternatively, a victim of prejudice might develop hatred towards all people outside of his ethnic group even though only a small number of people show overt prejudice towards him.

The emotional trauma of prejudice is particularly severe when an ordinary ethnic group suddenly becomes unpopular because of an international conflict. A child, that up until a certain date, was very popular in school, is suddenly rejected by his classmates. A successful professional who was everybody's pal in the office, suddenly receives a cold shoulder (and even verbal abuse) from his colleagues.

These events can eventually erode an individual's sense of self-esteem and reduce his motivation. A person, who might have aggressively pursued a high status career under normal circumstances, will settle for a less successful career path in an unfriendly social environment because of low-self esteem and lowered expectations. Furthermore the rage and anger that victims of social prejudice harbor in their hearts could also have an adverse effect on their health, creativity and social perspective. The individual might develop a futile attitude toward life and resign into a life of idleness and isolation.

d) Ethnic retrenchment: As the society's attitude towards a minority turns negative, the social bonds and friendships between the members of the minority group and the greater society weaken. Existing friendships fade away while it becomes more difficult to create new bonds. This gradual disengagement will make it easier for the larger society to develop negative stereotypes about the minority group. Members of the minority group, in turn, are forced into ethnic retrenchment. Faced with rejection and prejudice, they will become more dependent on their ethnic community for social support and cultural activities. They loose interest in the national issues and focus their attention on their ancestral homeland. (Salman Rushdie refers to this concept as the rejected immigrant's virtual homeland.) Gradually the frequency of intermarriage between this ethnic group and the rest of the society will also diminish.

Ethnic retrenchment is an understandable psychological defense mechanism: they reject us so we reject them. However, it has a negative impact on economic and social success of an ethnic group. Since networking and personal contact play an important role in economic progress, retrenchment diminishes a minority groups contacts with the greater society and therefore, reduces the pool of economic opportunities available to an ethnic group.

e) Negative attitude towards other minorities: Victims of racism and prejudice often project their anger and frustration towards other minorities. They also tend to adopt the negative stereotypes of the majority towards other minorities. Sometimes two ethnic minorities such as blacks and Hispanics develop negative stereotypes against each other. As the level of social hostility against a minority increases its tendency to reject other minorities and develop prejudices of its own will also increase. The end result is a higher level of ethnic isolation where, not only the majority group keeps its distance from various ethnic minorities but the minorities also keep to themselves. This ethnic isolation will further reduce the opportunities for networking and mutual assistance, which could help the members of all minorities. Sometimes, in large organizations with a racially diverse pool of employees, high ranking individuals use their influence to discriminate in favor of their ethnic colleagues at the expense of other minorities. The Chinese physicians in an inner-city hospital, for example, might try to hire other Chinese every time a new position becomes available, at the expense of other ethnic groups.

Part II

Individual and Collective Reaction to Ethnic Prejudice
When the status of an ethnic group diminishes, its effects are felt at both individual and group levels. In part one I mentioned some of the new conditions that a Despised Minority (DM) person could face. The individual finds himself in a new environment where he faces less respect and relatively fewer social and economic opportunities than members of the majority (or some other ethnic groups). In this section I will discuss some of the behaviors and survival strategies that such an individual might adopt to cope with this undesirable social environment.

The reactions of the victims of ethnic prejudice fall into two major categories: personal responses and collective responses. Personal responses are those behavioral and attitude changes that take place without any coordination with other members of the ethnic group. The collective responses will arise when members of a despised minority choose to pull their economic and political resources together to protect their collective interest and try to change the attitude or policies of the greater society towards themselves. I will address these two categories of responses separately.

Individual responses:

1) Attempts to increase social acceptance by submissive behavior and assimilation. When faced with rejection and abuse, a DM member might try to downplay or even hide his ethnicity by adopting the attitudes and lifestyle of the majority. Some could go as far as changing their name and religion to avoid the stigma of being recognized as a member of an unpopular minority. During 19th century the large groups of Arabs who migrated to Brazil and other Latin American countries were faced with anti-Arab and anti-Muslim prejudice. Many of them responded by adopting Spanish names.

2) Altered Conscience: Another defensive mechanism is self-censorship and altered conscience. For example when discussing U.S. policy towards his ancestral homeland with people outside his ethnic group, a DM will avoid criticizing U.S. policy. Some will support U.S. position for sake of conformity without a deep conviction. Others might even go as far as adopting such an attitude as an emotional defense. By convincing themselves that what U.S. does is good for their homeland they will avoid the feelings of guilt and anger that is associated with conflict of loyalties.

It also makes it easier for them to express their opinion in public and gain social acceptance. Some Arab-American scholars offer good examples of such behavior. While many American intellectuals accept the view that U.S. policy in the Middle East has contributed to the growth of anti-American sentiments in the Arab world, and as such has indirectly contributed to the rise of terrorist attacks against U.S., some Arab-American scholars carefully avoid any criticism of U.S. policy towards the region and avoid any discussion of the impact of American foreign policy on the rise of anti-Americanism. They are afraid that they might be punished or rejected for criticizing the United States.

3) Alienation from the greater society and pursuit of a low profile materialistic lifestyle: After several rounds of rejection and unfriendly encounters a DM will gradually accept the fact that he is an unwanted neighbor or colleague. He tries to minimize his social contacts with the greater society and reduce his participation in community activities or political programs. Gradually he will avoid joining any political or social groups in which his ethnic identity is recognized. Alienation, rejection and self-censorship have an adverse effect on mental and physical health.

4) Radicalization and political extremism. Some DM persons, particularly the youth, become vulnerable to radical and extremist ideas. This is best demonstrated by the popularity of militant Islam among young Arab and South Asian immigrants in Europe. In most European countries Muslim minorities are unpopular and members of Muslim communities have to put up with frequent ethnic insult and rejection. It is no surprise that in such an environment they join radical Islamic groups that reject the western lifestyle and occasionally engage in urban riots.

5) Departure: When the social hostility towards a DM community increases, some might finally give up and opt for migration. After the 9-11 attacks, Arabs and Pakistanis were faced with rising hostilities and diminishing opportunities in the United States. Unofficial reports show that some chose to leave the United States. Some returned home while others tried to move to other Western countries. Canada has become a popular destination for many Pakistanis that are considering leaving the United States. So far the pressures on Iranian community have not reached a point that makes departure attractive. However, if the U.S. attitude towards Iran becomes more hostile after the Iraq campaign is complete, then we might witness an exodus of Iranians from the United States. Furthermore, even in the absence of ethnic hostility a small group of Iranians might choose to leave the United States because of their disapproval of the U.S. foreign policy.

6) Overachievers: Finally, ethnic rejection does not always lead to a negative outcome. It could turn children into high achievers. When social rejection is coupled with strong family support and high expectations of success, the DM minority children will evolve into overachievers and outperform others in science and arts. This pattern is most visible among Asian and South Asian families. Children of Chinese and Indian origin often face rejection in school because of their visible physical features such as darker skin or oriental faces. However, since their families are resourceful and well educated, they often turn this negative stimulus into positive energy and become high achievers in arts and science. The key ingredient for this outcome, however, is that Asian cultures emphasize hard work and educational achievement as the appropriate ways to overcome discrimination. Furthermore, the hostility that these minorities face is less severe than low-income minorities such as African Americans and Hispanic. Some middle class Iranian families that live in prosperous suburban neighborhoods might show a similar response to ethnic prejudice.

Collective Responses

A popular, well-assimilated ethnic group tends to downplay its separate identity (also referred to as the sense of "otherness"). Its members show little interest in joining ethnic political groups. Their participation in ethnic activities is often limited to cultural events. The Irish-Americans and the German-Americans, for example have active cultural clubs that celebrate their ethnic festivities but no anti-discrimination committees, for which they see no need. The more visible and less popular ethnic groups on the other hand, tend to come together and react to prejudice and discrimination through collective action. In recent decades, African- Americans and Hispanic-Americans have been very successful in collective struggle against racism. As noted by several Iranian sociologists, the Iranian-Americans have not shown much interest in ethnic collective action in the past 25 years. This is partly due to the fact that, thanks to their education and/or wealth, they have been able to achieve economic success based on individual initiative. However, in the new post 9/11 environment, their attitude might change. If as a result of the deteriorating image of Middle Eastern Americans and the worsening U.S.-Iran relations, more and more Iranians experience a decline in the quality of their lives, then perhaps they will show more interest in collective action and ethnic rights activism. Some of the potential collective responses of Iranian-Americans are as follows:

1) Formation of anti-discrimination committees: Iranian-Americans are likely to follow the path of many other ethnic minorities and create active anti-discrimination committees. Arab-Americans, Asian-Americans, and others have created ethnic organizations to monitor and report on cases of discrimination and ethic harassment. These organizations also provide legal advice and assistance to victims of discrimination and coordinate collective protests. There is already an Iranian-American anti-discrimination committee that was created recently. It is the Persian Watch Cat (, which has organized several email drives against anti-Iranian legislation in the U.S. congress. So far Persian Watch Cat has received a limited attention among Iranians. This and similar organizations, however, are likely to attract more attention and play a more important role in the coming years.

2) Trying to improve the U.S.-Iranian relations: Since a major cause of potential hostility towards Iranian-Americans is the ongoing hostilities between Iran and the United States, some Iranians might try to address this root cause through political action. Currently the most active group in this area is the American-Iranian Council (AIC). The AIC has organized several gatherings of moderate Iranian and American politicians. However, the Iranian-American community is deeply divided on its attitude towards the Iranian government. Those who are opposed to the Islamic regime are highly critical of AIC activities.

3) Political participation and formation of political action groups. In communities that are host to a large group of Iranian-Americans, such as Southern California and Washington D.C., Iranians can use their voting power to influence the local politics. The National Iranian American Council, which was formed in early 2000, actively encourages Iranians to run for political office and participate in local and national politics. So far the scope of NIACs activities is limited but it has the potential to become an active political lobby for the Iranian-American community in the future. By focusing on issues that directly affect the Iranian-Americans (as opposed to the Iranian politics,) MIAC is catching the attention of the second generation Iranian-Americans. The NIAC is also trying to act as a political lobby for the Iranian-Americans in the U.S. Congress.

4) Peaceful Ethnic protests: After keeping a low profile for more than two decades Iranian-Americans are beginning to realize the power of mass protest. In December of 2002, after sudden detention of hundreds of Iranians by U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), a large group of Iranian-Americans gathered in front of the INS building in Los Angeles to protest these arrests. This peaceful but vocal protest was perhaps the first significant civil rights demonstration by Iranian-Americans. It was also a clear indication that Iranian-Americans are coming to terms with their status as an ethnic minority that has to defend its civil rights through collective action. We can expect to see more civil rights demonstrations by Iranian-Americans in the coming years. Such demonstrations, which are often spontaneously organized in protest against a particular incidence, increase the participants' sense of ethnic solidarity and encourage more participation in ethnic political activities.

5) Riots and Violent Protests: When a despised and abused ethnic group cannot change its plight through peaceful and legal political channels, it becomes vulnerable to riots and spontaneous violent protests. In the United Sates, there have been several urban riots in reaction to incidents of police brutality in recent decades. These riots mostly occur in neighborhoods with large concentrations of Hispanics and African-Americans. So far the Iranian-Americans have not engaged in any violent protests. This is because most Iranians do not face as much ethnic hostility as these groups and they don't live in concentrated ethnic neighborhoods. (The neighborhoods with large concentration of Iranians happen to be the prosperous suburban neighborhoods such as the Beverly Hills area in Los Angeles.) Overall the chances that Iranian-Americans will take to the street in violent riots because of ethnic frustration is small. However, because of the negative attitude towards the Middle Eastern ethnic groups, there is a danger that a peaceful protest by Iranian-Americans could provoke a violent right-wing response, which in turn could turn an entire demonstration into an ethnic riot.

6) Establishment of ethnic media and emergence of community leaders. Ethnic radio and television stations, internet sites and newspapers help create a sense of common identity and ethnic solidarity. Most Iranian media outlets in the U.S. operate as exile media with heavy emphasis on the news of Iran. However, as the Iranian-Americans face ethnic issues of their own, these media will gradually change their focus and will serve as instruments for cultural entertainment, civil rights awareness, and political education. Ethnic media will also help introduce potential community leaders to the Iranian-Americans. Organizations such as NIAC (described above) can reach out to a large Iranian-American audience and increase their membership.

Part III


In previous sections I briefly described how the socio-economic environment of a minority group changes as it loses status and popularity because of its association with a country that is in conflict with the United States. I also touched on how members of a despised minority are likely to react to their declining social status and their exposure to rising ethnic prejudice at both, individual and group level. In this final section I build on what has been discussed earlier to offer a series of recommendations on how a despised minority should behave to ensure its survival and progress.

What are the characteristics of a successful ethnic minority in the United States? A successful minority has four main traits. First, it is economically successful, which means that its members enjoy an economic status that is equal or better than the majority. Second, it is well assimilated in political and social institutions of the society and has access to political power in proportion to its relative share of the population. Third, it enjoys a positive image in the society and is able to defend its members against ethnic hostility. Fourth, it lives with dignity and self-respect, which arises from behaving with courage and moral righteousness. This last condition often means that the members of a minority do not have to hide their political attitudes for fear of rejection, punishment or deportation.

A popular minority such as Greek-Americans or Armenian-Americans would not have much difficulty achieving all four of these objectives. For an unpopular minority, however, achieving all of these objectives becomes a major challenge. Furthermore, some of the individual and collective reactions to ethnic prejudice that were mentioned above will push the community further away from these goals.

Economic success: As an ethnic group becomes unpopular it becomes harder and harder for its members to preserve their economic prosperity. To avoid an economic decline, overtime, the economic culture of the group must be modified in several ways. First, at the individual level each person must try to save more and forego the luxurious but expensive lifestyle that is affordable and sustainable under normal circumstances. The competition to show off personal wealth by having more expensive cars and houses must be replaced with a competition for accumulating more productive capital. This larger saving can protect an individual against the negative effects of economic discrimination and lead to higher earnings in the future.

Second, the ethnic culture should put emphasis on educational advancement. Since it is more difficult for a despised job-seeker to find suitable employment, he or she must possess above average skills to at least partially overcome the existing discriminations. One way to encourage the younger generation of a despised minority group to work harder is to talk to them in realistic terms about the disadvantages that they might face in the labor market because of their ethnicity. Furthermore the community must encourage its members to aspire for continuous career growth and explore careers that have been traditionally neglected because of cultural bias. In some Asian cultures (Iranians included) there is an overemphasis on engineering and medical fields. This attitude most be modified to make sure some members of the ethnic community enter into law and finance as well. Active presence of some members of a minority group in legal and financial professions is a valuable tool for the success of other members in technical and scientific fields. Access to financial capital will help turn skilled professionals into entrepreneurs and business owners.

The third factor is mutual economic support and networking. The minorities that enjoy a strong sense of solidarity without isolating themselves from the rest of the society tend to be more successful. They help create jobs for each other and support other members' business initiatives. As a minority becomes less and less popular in the eyes of the greater society it is important for the members to increase their mutual support in economic and social affairs.

Political participation: The importance of participation in social and political affairs cannot be emphasized enough. Just as an ethnic group must create a strong internal social network, it must also try to increase and strengthen its bonds with the rest of the society. Close social interaction with others helps neutralize the negative stereotypes that often are reinforced by the media about an unpopular ethnic group. Members of the ethnic group must be encouraged to develop bonds of friendship and fraternity with others. Often because of the preexisting negative stereotypes it is difficult for members of a despised ethnic group to achieve this goal. However, members must be encouraged to be socially active despite these difficulties. Participation in community service programs, local politics, social and professional clubs are some of the typical examples. These types of social and political participation increase the influence of an ethnic group in communities where its relative share of the population is significant.

When an ethnic community is under stress it can benefit from the presence of wise and progressive community leadership. During periods of crises people look to leaders, and respected members of their community for direction and guidance. When a community is overwhelmed by a sense of victimization and despair, a good community leader can discourage destructive behavior. In the absence of such leadership, some individuals particularly, the youth might react to prejudice and humiliation by resorting to sporadic violence, which could result in a negative and possibility violent backlash from the majority. An effective ethnic leadership can reduce the community's frustration by registering its complaints with the government through legal channels and media campaigns. The community leaders can also educate the community on how to cope and react to ethnic hostility in a positive and effective manner. The activities of the African-American civil rights organizations is a good example of such a leadership.

Awareness and Protection Against Prejudice: It is wrong to be paranoid about prejudice and become hypersensitive. Such a hypersensitivity about prejudice could result in destructive defensive behavior. For example an individual might blame prejudice for everything that goes wrong in his life and use this justification for inaction. Without communal awareness and dialogue some members of a despised minority might gravitate towards this unhealthy state of mind. In the opposite direction, ignorance and denial of prejudice and discrimination is equally harmful. Members of an ethnic community must educate themselves about various types of discriminatory behavior and the available legal protection against them. Apathy and indifference of a victim of prejudice will only encourage the perpetrator to continue his behavior.

In addition to educational and awareness programs, an ethnic community must mobilize its resources for legal defense and media campaign against discrimination. The community must form civil rights organizations and through these organizations offer legal and financial assistance to victims of prejudice. Iranian professional associations and Non-profit ethnic organizations such as the Persian Cat-Watch and the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) could serve a positive role in this process.

The Iranian civil rights organizations can become more effective if they join other civil rights organizations such as the Arab-American, African-American and Hispanic-American civil rights organizations. Close cooperation with other ethnic groups has many benefits. First Iranians can learn from the experience of other minorities in political and social campaign for civil rights. Second, by supporting the causes of other ethnic groups we can count on their support for our causes. In any social or political initiative in the United States, the population of advocates is an important factor. Small minorities can become more effective by joining multiethnic civil rights movements.

Moving beyond material prosperity

Economic success and material prosperity are two important goals of every human being. But they are not enough- particularly for immigrants who care about the well being of the country of their ethnic origin. In many cases this affection is visible even among second and third generation immigrants. While we cannot blame anyone for limiting their goals to the pursuit of wealth and material success, all human beings should aspire to achieve more in life than personal prosperity. With this regard the Iranian-American Community has two important responsibilities.

First we should be sensitive to American foreign policy and try to promote a just and ethical U.S. foreign policy that will be beneficial to both the United States and the developing world. Nowhere is the U.S. policy more controversial than our ancestral region, the Middle East. Rather than ignoring the plight of the region and the existing tensions between the U.S. and many Middle Eastern countries, we must play an active role in campaigning for a just resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict. We should also try to protest the efforts of those who are trying to promote hatred towards the Middle Eastern cultures and are lobbying the American policy makers for an aggressive U.S. policy, which will be detrimental to sovereignty, dignity and prosperity of the Middle East, of which Iran is an integral part.

Second, while working towards improving the U.S. foreign policy toward Middle East (Iran in particular), we must also try to exert a positive influence on domestic political and economic conditions of Iran. Iranian-Americans disagree on many issues about Iran's political conditions, but at least there is one principle that most agree on. It is the need for promotion of democracy and respect for fundamental human rights. We should emphasize this common demand as much as possible and add our voice to those inside Iran that are struggling for democracy.

It is important for Iranian Americans to pursue these two political concerns simultaneously. To criticize U.S. policy towards the region without protesting the domestic political abuses will lead to accusations of one-sidedness. It is equally wrong to continuously criticize the political regimes in the Middle East without any attention to the U.S. policies towards the region. It is only by a balanced pursuit of both issues that a politically conscious ethnic group can attract attention to its cause and make a difference.

As various events in the past three decades have shown, whether we like it or not, our lives in the West are affected by the social and political events in the Middle East. The 1979 hostage crisis affected the lives of many Iranian-Americans and so did the September 11th attack on twin towers in New York. By promoting democracy and stability in the Middle East and discouraging powerful nations from exploiting and humiliating the region, we will indirectly help prevent future Middle Eastern events that are likely to touch our lives in the same manner as the hostage crisis and 9/11. Active involvement in these political initiatives will also help us live our lives with a sense of dignity and the awareness that we have risen above material indulgence.

About the author:
Nader Habibi is an economist and lives near Philadelphia. He works for an economic consulting firm as a regional specialist for Persian Gulf. His latest publication is a novel called 'Atul's Quest', which is a satirical story about interracial dating and marriage.

... Payvand News - 03/25/16 ... --

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