The Quintessential (Muslim) American Story

A recent Gallup poll provides insight into the changing demographics of our nation, writes Julie Ajinkya.

Two students cheer on their teammates on the basketball court. A new Gallup poll finds that the Muslim American community at large is engaged and optimistic, and that its youth have also begun to share in this same sense of hopefulness about the future. (AP/Carlos Osorio)
Two students cheer on their teammates on the basketball court. A new Gallup poll finds that the Muslim American community at large is engaged and optimistic, and that its youth have also begun to share in this same sense of hopefulness about the future. (AP/Carlos Osorio)

The U.S. Census Bureau has not asked questions about religious affiliation since the 1950s. Studies such as the recent Gallup poll on Muslim Americans, however, are shedding much-needed light on the status of this country’s religious communities. This recent study sought to build on its 2009 report on the Muslim American community, in which Gallup not only found an “educated, employed, entrepreneurial, and culturally diverse community, whose strengths and struggles reflected America as a whole,” but also a community where young Muslims were classified as less successful and more frustrated than their peers.

Two years later, the most recent poll finds that Muslim Americans are uniquely optimistic about the future. Sixty percent report that they are thriving (a self-reported measure that asks how respondents feel about their lives, broadly speaking), with even young Muslims now thriving at a proportion similar to their peers. Old and young Muslims alike also share more optimism about the future than members of any other faith group, estimating that their lives will be even better in five years. This confidence affirms that anti-Muslim bigots such as Frank Gaffney and Pamela Geller have not been able to squash the spirit of this vibrant community.

Nonetheless, the diversity of the Muslim American community must not be overlooked. As the most racially diverse religious group in America, a closer look at the Muslim experience reveals that social and economic indicators do vary according to race. Black Muslims, for instance, who make up 35 percent of the Muslim American population, report more financial hardship and less satisfaction with their standard of living than white or Asian Muslims.

While Muslim Americans as a group report that there have been times in the past year when they were unable to afford basic necessities, such as food, shelter, and health care, the community reflects the wider public’s race-based education and income trends. Only 23 percent of black Muslims completed a college degree or higher, which is comparable to 24 percent of black Americans but significantly different from Asian Muslims at 57 percent and white Muslims at 51 percent.

Income scenarios paint a similar picture. Thirty-five percent of black Muslims and 29 percent of black Americans report a monthly income of $1,999 or less (before taxes), while only 15 percent of Asian Muslims and 21 percent of white Muslims fall into that income bracket.

These racial disparities are obscured in aggregate reports about the community’s outlook, yet if we take anything away from these numbers, it should be the resounding evidence that the Muslim American community also experiences racial inequity at the same levels of the U.S. public.

Changing racial landscape

Addressing racial inequities becomes ever more paramount in our public policy as demographic projections predict that the net population growth in the United States over the next four decades will result from racial minorities. This same set of projections notes the significant growth of our mixed-race population, which currently makes up 3 percent of the U.S. population but will make up approximately one in five individuals by the year 2050. Instead of mirroring the wider public on this subject, the Muslim American community seems to be ahead of its time. Eighteen percent classify themselves as an “other” race—most likely signifying identification with more than one race.

Some scholars highlight the surge in our mixed-race population as one of America’s most promising assets looming on the horizon. Joel Kotkin, for example, argues that our nation’s most historically significant and powerful weapon might be its emergence as the world’s first multiracial superpower. In a world that is increasingly defined by migratory flows across borders, he says, the fate of Western nations might rely on their ability to make social and economic room for people of non-European descent. In his opinion, the United States has not only proven more capable at absorbing new immigrants than its European counterparts but it has also given rise to what he calls “multiracial amalgamation”—with the demographic comprised of mixed-race individuals projected to grow the fastest over the next four decades.

According to Census figures, mixed marriages now account for 8 percent of all marriages, up from 7 percent in 2000. While these numbers do not quite represent the dramatic increase in mixed-race individuals that the projections suggest, a further breakdown by age shows that 94 percent of the Millennial generation that will comprise the majority of adults in 2050 support mixed matches.

The Muslim American community again seems to break ahead from the wider public’s rate of mixed unions. Although the Census does not explore the rates of interracial or interethnic marriage by religious affiliation, this author’s doctoral research on Muslim American Millennials suggests that Muslim American women marry Muslim American men across racial and ethnic lines at a significantly greater rate than the population at large. Survey respondents said that the higher incidence of cross-cultural marriage universally came down to finding comfort in common religious beliefs that were believed to trump racial or ethnic differences.

The recent Gallup poll demonstrates that the Muslim American community at large is engaged and optimistic, and that its youth have also begun to share in this same sense of hopefulness about the future. Anyone remotely familiar with the community would not be surprised with these findings but they authoritatively counter stereotypical representations that suggest Muslim Americans’ religious identity may challenge their national loyalty. Yet a less-often-heard story might point to its young population’s rather revolutionary refusal to let race and ethnicity divide the community—a lesson the United States could stand to learn as we move closer to our own multiracial reality.

Julie Ajinkya is a Policy Analyst for Progress 2050 at American Progress.

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Julie Ajinkya

Policy Analyst