Many Arab Americans Fight to Be Counted Differently

Currently classified in the census as white, some activists worry that the community is being politically marginalized — and look to the experience of Mexicans, who were also ‘white’ until 1970

Many Arab Americans Fight to Be Counted Differently
Women wear American flag headscarves at an event at New York’s City Hall marking World Hijab Day in 2017 / Robert Nickelsberg / Getty Images

One ordinary evening as a college student, now a little more than 10 years ago, I was bracing myself for the quintessential Arab-American experience. That is to say — I was filling out a survey, preparing to identify my race as “white/Caucasian.”

But then, to my surprise, I saw something different — there, beneath “white/Hispanic” and “Native/Alaskan” was a new combination of ethnicities: “Middle Eastern/Pacific Islander.”

I do not remember what the survey was, whom it was for or whether I even ended up turning it in. But I do remember that after years of reluctantly bubbling in “white/Caucasian” for lack of a better option, my Lebanese-American sensibilities finally had the chance to be recognized. There was just one catch: They might be recorded as Samoan.

“They may have just written ‘miscellaneous brown,’” I joked to my roommate, laughing to cover up the uncomfortable feeling that I may never be able to define myself in a way that felt right. 

Still, it felt like a small problem in the grand scheme of racial injustice in the United States. Just a few months before, 22-year-old Oscar Grant had been murdered by the Oakland police near where I grew up, while Joe Arpaio — the sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona — had just proposed a law that would authorize the police to ask anyone for their papers, opening the door to shameless racial profiling that would doubtlessly only further terrorize undocumented families.

Who was I to complain about being seen as white? It felt like a privilege to be able to blend into a white American landscape, where I wouldn’t have to worry about being gunned down or deported and where the only indication that I was different was a slightly ethnic look, the kind that occasionally solicits a “where are you from?” rather than explicit racial profiling. 

Still, I felt uneasy every time I saw a movie that depicted Arabs as terrorists or heard about a hate crime committed against someone in the community. We might be legally white, but were we actually white? It was like a flimsy protection that could slip away overnight. Ever since the 9/11 attacks, it felt as if my charming exoticism might veer into racial profiling, as if being questionably white could also mean being questionably brown, which might morph into being unquestionably a terrorist at any minute.

But it was not until I started researching the Arab-American community’s history in the United States for my upcoming book, “Love Across Borders,” that I started to realize just how inextricably connected the confusion over our identity is to the wider history of white supremacy and struggles of other immigrant communities to be recognized in the United States. Our omission was not an accident but a response to whiteness — and the power it has historically represented in the United States. 

A few weeks later, my research led me to another fact: Until 1970, Mexicans in the United States were also seen as white. Now, Mexicans, and the wider Latino community, are not only recognized but also politically powerful. How did they achieve this recognition, and what could we learn from their experience as we push for ours?

In order to understand how a community can be recognized as distinct, we must first understand why they fought for that recognition. In other words, we must first understand how they became white.

For Mexicans, it started with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which formally ended the Mexican-American War in 1848, with the Mexicans ceding to the United States the land that consists of present-day Texas, California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, most of Arizona and parts of neighboring states. One of the outstanding questions was what would happen to the communities living on these lands — would they retain their identity as Mexicans or would they become U.S. citizens?

“The biggest concern was slavery,” says Roberto Rodríguez, a columnist and retired Mexican American studies professor at the University of Arizona who explained that while slavery was illegal in Mexico, it was alive and well in the antebellum United States. Even though the Mexican government was on the verge of collapse, Mexican negotiators were concerned that their citizens could be enslaved if the treaty went forward without this issue being addressed.

As a compromise, anyone who stayed would automatically be granted U.S. citizenship, which by default meant being legally white, as Blacks were not guaranteed citizenship until 20 years later, after the Civil War. 

“But it wasn’t about being white,” Rodríguez reiterates. “It was so they wouldn’t be put in chains.”

Being white on paper might have kept Mexican Americans from being enslaved, but it didn’t protect them from being thrust in the crosshairs of Manifest Destiny, violently hunted down by the Texas Rangers — then a white nationalist vigilante group — and even lynched when they wouldn’t give up their land. A small minority of wealthy Mexicans who passed as white were spared from this violence and were even encouraged to “marry white” to protect their bloodlines, while most of the Indigenous Mexicans were treated as second-class citizens. “Laws were in place to protect people who were seen as white,” Rodríguez continues. “Jim Crow was in place for everyone else.”

Immigrants from the Middle East were also navigating the murky waters of racial ambiguity. While immigration was relatively unrestricted at the turn of the 20th century, citizenship was still reserved for white, property-owning men or people who had been born in the United States. “There is a triumphalist narrative that these immigrants came, worked hard and are so much better than today’s immigrants,” Akram Khater, a North Carolina State University professor and the founder of the Moise A. Khayrallah Center for Lebanese Diaspora Studies, told me when I asked about the differences between immigrants today and a century ago.

“But that couldn’t be further from the truth,” Khater said, explaining that most learned just enough English to work, and often worked demanding, menial jobs. They also experienced verbal and physical assaults — with one of the most tragic incidents occurring when a Syrian couple was lynched in South Florida.

“Many of them struggled to be accepted and led a very difficult life,” Khater continued, pointing out that many returned to the Middle East. “Ultimately, many of them found that the only way to be accepted was to become white.” 

One of the most prominent examples of a Syrian immigrant “becoming” white happened when George Dow, a Syrian immigrant in South Carolina, petitioned for his naturalization, arguing that he was white by the merit of being a practicing Christian and was denied as a result of his “Asiatic” origins. When the Syrian community rallied around him, many evoked the language of white supremacy. One popular Arabic language newspaper argued that if Dow lost his case, it would seem as if they were “no better than Blacks or Mongolians” and that “Blacks will have rights that Syrians will not have.” 

Eventually, Dow appealed and won, setting a legal precedent that Syrians — so long as they can prove that they are Christian — are white. But this did not apply to every immigrant from the Middle East. Faras Shahid, who was also a practicing Christian, was denied citizenship for being suspiciously “mulatto,” an outdated and offensive term then used to describe a person of mixed white and Black ancestry. Immigrants who were not from the Levant region — and therefore could not argue their ancestral proximity to Jesus — were often even further marginalized. 

As the first generation of immigrants from the Middle East wrestled with securing their future in the United States, more Mexicans were crossing the border. But, as Rodríguez reminds me, they were never treated as white, even though they were white on paper. Instead, they were exploited on farms and in factories, frequently underpaid or not paid at all.

Unsurprisingly, American industries — particularly in the Southwestern United States — grew as a result of Mexican labor. But when the stock market crashed in 1929, Mexicans became the scapegoat as President Herbert Hoover pushed a campaign of “Real jobs, for Real Americans” while authorizing the 1930 census to include a “Mexican” box to map the community. It was like our worst-imagined Muslim registry. Within just a few months, immigration officers were storming factories across Los Angeles, rounding up Mexican workers and demanding to see their papers. The most infamous of these incidents happened in La Placita Park in Los Angeles in 1931, when federal immigration officers sealed off the park and started demanding that the families who were enjoying their Saturday afternoon present proof of citizenship or legal entry into the United States. Anyone who couldn’t provide these documents was arrested and often detained. Sometimes they were put on trains straight to the border. It was the first mass deportation in U.S. history.

Upon seeing how Mexicans were being treated, President Pascual Ortiz Rubio requested that the box be removed from census forms — hoping that Mexicans would go back to being seen as white. For the time being, Mexicans were back to being legally white. But this did little to stop law enforcement from targeting them.

Mexicans were living in segregated neighborhoods with poor living conditions. Many felt that they had more in common with Black Americans than with white Americans, particularly when their children were forced to study in Mexican-only schools or deemed “too dark” to marry a white woman by registrars who were trying their best to uphold anti-miscegenation laws.

But as the civil rights movement gained power across the United States, Mexican Americans began to connect the dots of their own segregation, giving rise to Chicano activism — a distinct political movement that was rooted in simultaneous Mexican and American identity — and political groups such as the League of United Latin American Citizens and the Inter-Agency Committee on Mexican American Affairs, which attempted to act as a Mexican equivalent of the NAACP to meet with politicians and government agencies on behalf of the community. Still as University of California, Berkeley professor Cristina Mora writes in her book, “Making Hispanics: How Activists, Bureaucrats and Media Constructed a New American,” “The African American struggle for civil rights had created a situation in which the efforts of Black leaders inspired Mexican American and Puerto Rican activists, but also overshadowed them.”

This frustration reached a fever pitch when the White House organized a conference on civil rights in 1966 and included only eight Mexican-American leaders among 3,000 invitees. While Mexican Americans knew they had political power — and had helped presidents like John F. Kennedy win elections — many didn’t feel that Washington was giving their issues adequate attention, dismissing them as regional problems that concerned only the borderlands. 

While President Lyndon B. Johnson promised to continue Kennedy’s civil rights legacy, signing landmark legislation that ended legal segregation and racial discrimination, it often evolved into new forms instead. Now Black and Mexican-American populations were  segregated de facto from their wealthy, white American counterparts, but since Mexican Americans were white on paper, the situation legally passed as integration.

“What they did was essentially take poor kids from the barrio schools and integrate them with Black kids from the ghetto schools,” says Trinidad Gonzales, a professor of Mexican American Studies at South Texas College. One of the most prominent examples of this happened in Corpus Christi, Texas, where José Cisneros noticed that his daughter’s elementary school had broken windows and outdated textbooks, while the Catholic school she had previously attended had far more resources. When he complained to the school board, he was ignored, so he galvanized 24 other Mexican-American parents to file a class-action lawsuit, accusing the school district of denying Mexican-American students the equal right to an education. 

“It was the first time that an official body recognized that Mexicans are not Caucasian,” Gonzales continues, pointing out that it was also the first time that civil rights law — in this case, the Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation case — extended to protect Mexican Americans as well as Black Americans. It might seem counterintuitive to fight to not be seen as white. However, it was the first step to calling out the way that racial integration was actually playing out as class segregation, taking poorer Mexicans who were counted as white on the census and placing them in Black, historically disenfranchised schools, all the while keeping them separate from wealthier, white communities. Mexican Americans like Cisneros wanted their discrimination to be acknowledged. Civil rights legislation that had historically protected the Black community made political redress possible.

Still, without nationally representative data, Mexican — and, more broadly, “Spanish-speaking” — community leaders had difficulty arguing for government funds to be funneled to their communities to address this discrimination. While they consistently saw problems — such as high dropout rates and unemployment — they didn’t have the data to back it up. Frustrated with this, community leaders started lobbying the U.S. Census Bureau to include a category for the “Spanish-speaking” community, and in 1970, the bureau finally listened. 

Next came an argument over terminology. “Brown” was suggested but quickly thrown out when someone argued that anyone could be brown — including immigrants from both Southeast Asia and parts of the Middle East. “Latin American” was a possibility, but suggested foreignness, which, like the Arab-American community today, many Americans of Latin descent were trying to distance themselves from. Ultimately, “Hispanic” was agreed upon as the most all-encompassing label, which could bring together immigrants who traced their roots to South America, Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean. 

Many were not comfortable with this label. “You’re talking about a group of Indigenous people that are given the identity of the conquerors,” Rodríguez said, pointing out that unifying all of Latinidad as Hispanic whitewashes colonial violence against Indigenous populations, ignoring the power dynamics at play across the region.

“If [the late Chilean dictator Gen. Augusto] Pinochet came to the United States, he would be considered Hispanic — he would have the same identity as the people that he is oppressing,” Rodríguez added. It makes me think of dozens of similarly difficult parallels from across the Arab World. With few legal immigration routes, it is easy for a former architect of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s torture regime to be granted the same asylum protections as one of its survivors. Multiple Izidi (or Yazidi) women have been resettled in quiet villages across rural Germany only to run into their former Islamic State group captors in the street.

“Most of us didn’t pick these identities — we get grouped,” Rodríguez said, elaborating on how labels like Hispanic (or even the later iterations such as Latino, its gender-inclusive counterpart Latinx and now Latiné) are assigned to everyone, from a member of the Chilean political elite to an Indigenous Guatemalan asylum-seeker to fifth-generation Mexican Americans. “All of a sudden, you’re with 30 other countries under a label that you did not pick.”

It’s easy to imagine a similar schism happening within our own community. While it is Arab-American organizations leading the push for a box on the census, Turkish, Iranian and Armenian communities worry they will not be included even when there is overlap in our genetic makeup and our diasporas have experienced racism. But if Mexican, Puerto Rican and Cuban Americans could find common ground that has expanded to include South Americans, Central Americans and Caribbean Americans, why can’t we?

“We are trying to be as inclusive as possible,” said Matt Stiffler, the research and content manager at the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, who has pushed for recognition in the census.

“The competing labels are Arab, MENA [Middle East and North Africa] and SWANA [Southwest Asia and North Africa],” Stiffler said, pointing out that MENA includes non-Arabs. He also suggests adding Chaldean to accommodate Michigan’s large population of Chaldean Christians.

Still, I wonder about the limits of these valiant efforts toward inclusivity. While it is useful to imagine our homelands without the borders imposed by colonizers, the land encompassing MENA — or, if you prefer, SWANA — is vast and nuanced, stretching from the plains of the Western Sahara to the peaks of the Zagros Mountains in Iran. Most — though not all — of the land is united by the Arabic language in the same way that most — though not all — of the land is united by Islam. There are dozens of other languages, religious sects and cultures, many of which have made it to the United States in their diasporic forms. What about the differences between Arabs and Iranians, Chaldeans and Amazigh? One could argue that this kind of broad brush is as damaging and counterproductive as former President George W. Bush and an undocumented Latvian immigrant both technically being categorized as white, or Pinochet and a Honduran asylum-seeker arguing that they’ve experienced the same kind of discrimination. Given this diversity, does a box even make sense?

“It creates avenues within the political bureaucracy that didn’t exist before,” Gonzales said, pointing out that the Hispanic label was not linguistically perfect but nevertheless led to the community’s being able to take advantage of affirmative action programs, leading to higher education opportunities and more representation across sectors. “You’re part of a group that is legally recognized by the state,” adding, “That affords you opportunities to affirmative action that are trying to remediate past injustices and discrimination.”

Still, not everyone agrees that a box is the answer to community empowerment. “Our rights have improved over the years, but it wasn’t because of a box,” Rodríguez said, arguing that affirmative action policies are the antithesis of equal rights. “It is because of the civil rights movement and the Chicano movement — just because you have a box doesn’t mean you won’t be oppressed.”

With Gonzales’ and Rodríguez’s words in my mind, I wonder what this would mean for the Arab-American, MENA and Chaldean communities. While both Black and Latino communities fought for civil rights during the 1960s, Arab Americans are largely absent from that history — and I wonder if that has to do with their historical obsession with being seen as white.

“Everyone just wanted to be American — there was World War II, patriotism and the Cold War,” Stiffler said, pointing out that Arab Americans who weren’t themselves immigrants didn’t typically see themselves as anything other than white with Middle Eastern ancestry until events like the 1967 Arab-Israeli War and the Lebanese Civil War forced them to start reckoning with their identity. Many of the most prominent Arab-American organizations — such as ACCESS, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and the Arab American Institute — started around this time, with a goal of carving out a space for both this community and more recent immigrant communities.

“During the 1980s and 1990s, and especially after 9/11 you see more Arab Americans interested in civil rights,” Stiffler continued, pointing out that much of this was in response to stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims in the media, as well as ongoing, invasive surveillance of these communities. “You start seeing people who see themselves as something other than white.”

Still, while those of us who might check the “Arab American, MENA or Chaldean” box have experienced varying forms of racism, we aren’t fighting against systemic discrimination. Although we cannot know our total numbers without census data, there is no way that our population is as large as the Hispanic population, and it is doubtful that we could sway elections. Do we have the right to call ourselves a minority?

“We do not have enough data to answer that question,” Stiffler laughed when I asked him whether we have earned that status. Over the years, several prominent Arab-American community organizations have attempted to survey their communities from the grassroots, but most of their efforts lead to more questions than answers. While many second- and third-generation Lebanese- and Syrian-American communities are embodying the whiteness that their ancestors fought for, living in wealthy suburbs with higher-than-average education and income levels than even white Americans, this is not necessarily the experience of recently arrived immigrant communities who often confront racism, poverty and immigration instability simultaneously.

Meanwhile in Dearborn, Michigan — which has the highest concentration of Arab Americans in the country but is officially 85% white — minority status is affecting voter redistricting.

“As a community, this is the only way that we can get representation,” said Rima Meroueh, director of National Network for Arab American Communities. Meroueh pointed out that, as a majority-minority district, Dearborn should be protected by the Voting Rights Act, which could help protect the Arab-American community’s voting power from being redistricted away. 

Instead, the lines were drawn to split the community into seven districts, with no more than 15% in each district.

“Our voting power was diluted across those seven districts,” Meroueh said. “For me, this is the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

Still, there are members of the community who see a box as petty identity politics, irrelevant in a world where they are already seen as white.

“If someone doesn’t think that this is important, then they have never worked in community outreach,” Stiffler responded, pointing out that access to federal research funding for minority communities allows service providers to gather the information necessary to respond to everything from special education needs for children to life-saving health interventions.

One of the most recent examples of this is the COVID-19 pandemic. As Deena Kishawi wrote in New Lines last year, lack of federal data did a disservice to MENA populations across the United States; like many other marginalized communities, they experienced higher rates of infection, hospitalizations and death compared to their white counterparts. 

“Over the years, our health data was always thrown in with white patients,” Kishawi said, pointing out that, for nearly 100 years, it has been impossible to disaggregate health data impacting patients who trace their roots back to the MENA region.

“We do not share genetic information or the same cultural practices as white patients,” she continued. To understand the community that she was serving, Kishawi had to compare research on genetic predispositions and cultural customs in the MENA region with what she was seeing in the Arab-American community’s experience of the COVID-19 pandemic. When she started noticing that there were higher rates of diseases like hypertension, and practices such as intergenerational families living together, she realized that the MENA immigrant community in the United States needed special attention. But this was nearly impossible without data to prove her hypothesis.

“One of the biggest successes in the Latino community is that the moment the vaccine was available, there was information in Spanish,” Kishawi continued, mentioning that she didn’t see the same information in Arabic until at least six months later. Meanwhile, in the Latino community, census data became a key part of the COVID response. “I was following how the pandemic was playing out in Italy and Spain, and I knew it was going to affect the Latino community — especially with people living in intergenerational housing and had a lot of people in one space,” said Viviana Martinez-Bianchi, an associate professor of Family Medicine and Community Health at Duke University and the co-founder of Latin-19, an organization set up in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, to respond to the disproportionate effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Latino community. 

“Data supported what we were saying — it gave an urgency to policymaking to show that we had to hire people who spoke Spanish and put testing sites in different neighborhoods.”

But for the Arab-American community, this kind of data does not exist. While community advocates like Stiffler and Meroueh understand the community’s needs, they cannot access the funds to further reach — or respond — to these needs with concrete services.

“We are trying to deal with the consequences of another 10 years without this category, without data on this community,” Meroueh said, adding that while the COVID-19 response was an enormous problem, there are other health concerns that arise from being part of an immigrant community, specifically those with family still living in the Middle East. 

“People’s mental health is not just what is going on in the United States, it is also what is happening in their countries of origin,” Meroueh continued, pointing out that this leads to specific stressors and mental health concerns. Lebanese families are often preoccupied with family members who are experiencing the economic crisis. Meanwhile, Yemeni families are constantly in contact with family members experiencing starvation, famine and bombing.

“Often, children from these communities need trauma-informed psychological care,” she said. “But how are you supposed to convince people to fund these services when they don’t know that these people exist?”

Pushing for a box on the census is the type of thing that right-wing commentators roll their eyes at — liberals who are “too obsessed” with race and identity politics.

But when examining our shared immigration histories, whiteness has been a tool wielded by those in power to bestow or deny rights and manipulate the political agenda. Once, school districts in Corpus Christi skirted around segregation by pretending that Hispanic students were white. Now, voting districts are drawn to pretend that Arab voters are white. While “becoming white” may have once been an arguably necessary protection against racist immigration laws and segregation policies, we have never been fully protected by it — and pretending that we were only further disenfranchised people who do not share this privilege. 

Instead, we should be proud to represent a majority multicultural nation whose foundation has been built through intersecting civil rights struggles that paved the way for the new Americans to come. While I am proud to share this nation with members of the Pacific Islander community, I hope that, in the future, I can be identified as Lebanese.

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