Friday, December 18, 2009

Lebanese in America

Victoria Reggie Kennedy, the second wife and now the widow of Senator Ted Kennedy, has written an op-ed for Sunday's Washington Post endorsing the present, "imperfect," Senate version of the health care reform bill.

That reminds me of something that I discovered about her at the time of Ted Kennedy's death in August of this year.

=> I knew vaguely that Victoria Reggie was a successful lawyer and long-time political activist who came from a prominent Democratic, Catholic political family in Louisiana. What I didn't know, but was tipped off to by a passing remark in a New York Times article about her, was that her family are also Arab-American. Specifically, all four of her grandparents were Maronite immigrants from Lebanon (see here for more).

(The NYTimes story put it this way: "It was the blending of two large, powerful political families, the Irish-American, Roman Catholic Kennedys from Boston and the Lebanese-American, Roman Catholic Reggies from Crowley...." I couldn't help being reminded of the sociologist Will Herberg's old theory of America's "triple melting pot" in his 1955 book Protestant-Catholic-Jew. Perhaps that picture hasn't become totally obsolete?)

I've discovered over the years that some key facts about the demographic make-up of Arab-Americans and about their role in American society seem to be unknown, not just to the general public, but also to intellectuals and scholars who should know better. One of those facts is that most Arab-Americans are Christian, not Muslim--because the largest single group by far, about a third, are Christians from Lebanon and their descendants. (It's not accidental that the two co-founders of the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee, James Zogby and former Senator James Abourezk, both came from this background--not to mention former Senators John Sununu and Spencer Abraham.) The Lebanese (like the Jews) have a world-wide diaspora, and they've been coming to the US for over a century. The other thing that many people don't seem to know is how successful, affluent, and influential Lebanese-Americans have been (not as much as American Jews, but a lot more than most other ethnic groups). That partly because a lot of prominent Lebanese-Americans aren't recognized as such--the Naders, for example, or Frank Zappa ... or, it seems, Victoria Reggie.

(Then there are more complicated cases like former Senator George Mitchell. My impression is that most people vaguely think of him as Irish, an impression compounded by his involvement with the Northern Ireland "peace process," and it's true that his father was born an Irish-American. But Mitchell's father had been adopted and raised by a Lebanese family, Mitchell's mother was a Lebanese immigrant, and Mitchell himself was raised as a Maronite Catholic. Mitchell's Lebanese background is something that political junkies know, and people concerned with the Middle East ... but not, I suspect, the average TV-watcher or even the average journalist.)

It occurs to me that this post might even have been headed "Maronites in America." They seem to be all over.

Yours for ethnic pluralism,
Jeff Weintraub

P.S. Shiites from Lebanon started arriving in the US in significant numbers around a half-century ago, I think--and some of them, like Nabih Berri, wound up going back to Lebanon--but most figures I've read over the years estimate that around 80% of Lebanese-Americans are still Christians. There are also some Jews and Druze from Lebanon here, but I think the numbers are tiny.