The ethnic minority that is no longer a minority: Armenian-Americans

They escaped genocide and found a welcoming America that simply doesn't exist anymore. Now, Armenian-Americans' recognition as an ethnic minority has nearly disappeared.

People hold "Thank You President Biden" signs as they protest outside of the Turkish Consulate on the anniversary of the Armenian genocide in a demonstration organized by the Armenian Youth Federation (AYF) in Beverly Hills, California. Photo: AFP.

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One of the countless migrations that have shaped the ethnic composition of the United States is that of the Armenian population, which occurred in the early decades of the 20th century. Having fled the genocidal rage of the Ottoman Empire, Armenians quickly integrated into the American social fabric, thanks mainly to an unusual welcoming attitude from the American people.

At the time, incidents of racism and discrimination against immigrants were a daily occurrence in the US. The Irish, as well as the Italians, but also the Germans and the Jews were the ones who paid the price for this fear of strangers. One community that was slowly but continuously assimilated into American society were the Armenian Americans, who were welcomed by a strong humanitarian action triggered by the horrors of the genocide committed by the Ottomans.

The Armenian diaspora in the United States began around 1895 and progressively increased until the early 1930s, when there were exactly 81,729 registered Armenian immigrants. There is no accurate data on the Armenian-American population today, but some estimates put the number of U.S. citizens claiming Armenian ancestry at around 500,000, according to a 2017 survey by the American Community Survey. However, this projection has been criticized by several organizations, which instead estimate at least 1.5 million if not as many as 2 million Armenian-Americans currently living in the United States.

To break down the changes within what is now no longer even considered a true ethnic minority within the multifaceted American melting-pot, we met with Andrew Malkasian, an Armenian-American historian and a Pennsylvania public school teacher, where he teaches American history. Here's what he told us.

Who are Armenian-Americans and in what and how many waves of migration have they reached the United States?

In short, Armenian-Americans are regular everyday people. We’re teachers, civil servants, doctors, lawyers, politicians, and everything in between. While Armenian-American’s are a thread in the larger American fabric, we are a proud people who strive to maintain deep connections to Armenia through family, food, and religious traditions. While a small community in terms of sheer numbers, Armenians have made great contributions to the American experience over the last 100 years.

While I’m not fully versed in Armenian immigration specifically, I do know that a large portion of Armenians immigrated to the United States prior to and throughout the first world war. I think a lot of that has to do with the work of the American Red Cross, Near East Relief, Ambassador Henry Morgenthau, and the myriad of journalists who covered the violence in the Ottoman Empire from the late 19th century through to the 1920s.

I’m not aware of the numbers of Armenians who immigrated to the United States after the fall of the Ottomans and the expansion of the Soviet Union after WWII, but my assumption would be that immigration of Armenians to America was consistent through much of the 20th century for various reasons.

In what areas of the United States are they most present and why?

My Armenian family immigrated to Rhode Island in the second decade of the 20th century. In general, I believe their location was a matter of where they were welcomed. 

I know from previous research that many areas within the United States set up relief efforts for Armenians and as a result welcomed them to resettle in cities along the east coast.  Therefore, New England and the Mid-Atlantic states (The Northeast of the United States) remain large centers of the Armenian-American population.

However, Los Angeles, and California as a whole, is home to many Armenian families.  When I lived there, I met families who had immigrated to California in the 1920s but also families who had immigrated after the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s.

The Armenian community in California is strong and incredibly robust. My experiences there induced a personal introspection that gave me the motivation to research my own family history and become more familiar with Armenian culture and traditions. 

How are they positioned politically? Are they pro-Trump or is it a divided electoral group?

Armenians, like other ethnic groups, are certainly no monolith.  And in recent American history, a person’s political persuasion is so often defined by their media consumption rather than their family, religion, regional influences, or even personal reflections. 

So, like most things in the US, Armenian-Americans are widely split on the issues driving American politics these days. I could certainly make grand assumptions about where Armenians live and how those localities voted in 2016 and 2020, but our “winner-take-all” electoral system is not incredibly informative to the nuances across the country.

What has the recognition of the Armenian Genocide by U.S. President Joe Biden meant to Armenian Americans?

Personally, the President’s recognition is confirmation that my family did not flee random massacres or the plight of war, but rather a systemic and coordinated effort to eradicate Armenians from the planet. 

I hope this leads to recognition of other atrocities that have plagued and continue to plague the world regardless of political fallout. We either stand for truth or we don’t.

How much do you think pop culture and stars like Kim Kardashian have affected the perception of Armenian Americans in the United States?

Previously, I would have argued that the Kardashian’s harmed the perception of Armenian-Americans, but I think that would have been a myopic and self-serving perspective. 

Although their television show and their influence are not aimed at my demographic, they have used their platform to inform millions of Americans of the genocide and the continued aggression that affects Armenians to this day. For what it’s worth, that must mean something.

Are Armenian-Americans still a distinct ethnic group or have they been given full access to so-called American whiteness as is gradually happening for Hispanics?

Armenian-Americans have certainly faced their share of ethnic animus but to what extent that remains part of their normal lives today I don’t know. In most cases, as far as my own personal experiences, many people that ask about the ethnicity of my last name are unaware of Armenian, Armenian-Americans, or the genocide. 

If ever I come across someone who is familiar with the origins of my last name, it’s often in the sense that they grew up with a friend or a neighbor who was Armenian. I think Armenian-Americans are not wholly distinct in terms of the larger population’s awareness, but they may also be a matter of specific location or geography.

Andrew Malkasian is a Pennsylvania public school teacher where he teaches American history.  He remains actively engaged in the the study of the Early American Republic, Critical Pedagogy, and the Armenian genocide.  He lives with his wife and two children in Philadelphia.