Administration won’t put Arab-Americans on ‘disadvantaged’ list

The U.S. Commerce Department has denied a petition seeking to put Arab-Americans on the list of disadvantaged groups eligible for federal business assistance.

In rejecting the bid, the department’s Minority Business Development Agency (MBDA) acknowledged that Arab-Americans have been subject to prejudice. But advocates for the group were unable to show that the discrimination has translated to the business world, the agency concluded.

“In too many instances, Arab-Americans have faced prejudice that has resulted in incidents of violence, assault, and other undeniably adverse treatment,” the agency said in a decision to be published Tuesday. “But the Petition fails to connect this evidence to a showing of impediments in the business world for members of the group that are not common to all business people in the same or similar business and marketplace.”

The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) filed the petition with MBDA in January of last year, seeking access to management and technical assistance programs offered by the agency. On Thursday the group's legal and policy director complained that the Commerce Department did not indicate earlier that the petition was insufficient. 

"We are pretty upset that they didn't get back to us for a year," Abed Ayoub said, adding that ther group plans to file an amended petition.

Established in 1969, MBDA works to connect minority business interests with credit and capitol. In 2011, the last year for which totals are available, the agency helped create almost 5,800 new jobs by helping minority-owned firms obtain nearly $4 billion in contracts and capital, according to its annual report.

To be eligible, groups must demonstrate that they face an economic disadvantage in the private sector. The list of eligible groups includes African Americans, Puerto Ricans, Spanish-speaking Americans, American Indians, Eskimos and Aleuts, Hasidic Jews, Asian Pacific Americans and Asian Indians.

In its petition, the ADC argued that, especially since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Arab-Americans have faced prejudice, both in and out of the workplace.

“Arab-Americans suffer from discrimination, prejudice and cultural bias in the workplace. This employment discrimination has produced obstacles in the business world for Arab-Americans – both as employees and entrepreneurs,” the group wrote in its petition.

The petition received 37 public comments. Nineteen supported the proposal, 13 opposed it and five were thrown out “for use of offensive or derogatory language,” MBDA said. 

But a review of the comments, the petition and the agency’s own research found no evidence that the Arab-Americans face a disadvantage when it comes to business. In fact, the agency pointed to a 2008 study by the Arab American Institute Foundation, which found Arab-American households’ mean individual income is 27 percent higher than the national average.

“While there is qualitative evidence that demonstrates that Arab-Americans have faced significant prejudice in numerous instances, there is insufficient evidence that this undeniable prejudice has impaired their ability to compete in the free enterprise system due to diminished capital and credit opportunities,” MBDA concluded.

Ayoub, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee's legal director, said the 2008 study presents an incomplete picture of Arab-Americans' economic plight. He said the study was based on a small sample size and that demographics have changed dramatically over the last five years.

Meanwhile, the post-Sept 11 discrimination has not, Ayoub said. He described instances in which Arab-Americans were kept from doing their jobs, including a case involving the owner of a firm under contract to inspect bridges in New York. The man, Ayoud said, was barred from a worksite.

Still Ayoud said ADC was encouraged that MBDA has indicated it would look additional information backing up the group's claim that Arab-Americans should be included in the assistance programs.

"One thing they did do was leave the door open for a follow-up petition," he said. "We are planning to take that route."

This story was updated with new information at 6:11 p.m.