Washington, DC - In January 2012, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee's (ADC) Legal Director, Abed Ayoub, filed a petition with the United States Department of Commerce calling for Arab Americans to qualify for "disadvantaged minority" status. This petition would grant Arab-American businessmen and women access to coveted government contracts.
Ayoub's intervention with Commerce's Minority Business Development Agency (MBDA) not only challenged the governmental designation of Arab-Americans as "Caucasian", but also marked a critical impasse with the internal debate among Arab-American communities and institutions regarding which racial road to walk down: integration into whiteness, or pursuing de jure minority status.
While many communities, including Irish- and Italian-Americans, have leveraged their (once) minority status for largely utilitarian ends, namely access to government business contracts and opportunities, the recent petition filed on behalf of Arab-Americans is distinct.
ADC's petition is part and parcel of a broader effort to claim minority status as a legal designation. It reflects the collective and existential sociopolitical reality of Arab-Americans, who have been marginalised and racialised as non-white by federal law, state policing and rising cultural animus following the "war on terror". Yet, for too long the government paradoxically folded Arab-Americans into the Caucasian category - for example, in Census forms, college applications and applications for government contracts.
White without privilege
Since its inception, the United States government has had a fixation with race. The judiciary was the government's arbiter of making and molding racial designations, and subsequently, classifying new immigrant communities into the fluidly shifting and arbitrary American racial taxonomy.
Racial categories were shaped, and reshaped, according to shifting demographics. Initially, three primary categories, White, Black, and the catch-all “Mongoloid” group were created to distinguish between Americans, and segregate the latter groups from full-fledged citizenship. These categories were incessantly morphed, by American courts, and new titles such as “Caucasian” and “Hispanic”, for instance, were introduced.
Yet, marginalised groups that had the ability to pass jockeyed for inclusion into the category - White or Caucasian - that would extend white privilege. The broad nature of the latter title, and its geographic denotation, furnished new populations - including the pioneering wave of Arab immigrants from the Levant - with a conductive portal for entry.
How US courts made, and remade, racial identity
The first major wave of Arab-Americans, who arrived in America circa the turn of the 20th century, was largely Christian natives of the Ottoman-colonised Levant. Religion, and the physical appearance of this wave, facilitated racial passing, and American courts ruled that (this pioneering) influx of Arabs were "part of the white race".
In 1909, George Shishem, a Lebanese-Syrian policeman applying for citizenship, challenged the Department of Justice's claim that he was part of the "Mongoloid" race on grounds of faith, contesting that, "If I am a Mongolian (sic), then so was Jesus, because we came from the same land". The Los Angeles Superior Court overruled the DOJ, finding Shishem's religious appeal to whiteness compelling.
The Shishem matter, and the progeny of state and federal cases that debated the race of Arab-Americans, highlighted:
First, that the baselines for determining race were subjective and inconsistent - with religion, language, national origin and phenotype alternately emphasised by different courts as the definitive marker of whiteness or otherness.
Second, the almost unfettered authority the judges, with little or no knowledge of the Arab world, had when racially classifying Arabs.
Third, that the manufacturing of race, and Arab identity, was a top-down, jurisprudential construction.
Finally, that Arab-Americans would ultimately be racialised differently, creating a divided landscape where American courts facilitated the early wave's pursuit of whiteness and white privilege, and established jurisprudential baselines that denied the subsequent wave of largely Muslim, "ethnic" Arabs that same path.
Caucasian was a legal term imposed on Arabs-Americans, while whiteness as an on-the-ground status was only enjoyed by those Arabs the courts - and the court of public opinion - deemed worthy of inclusion.
Jewish quotas, 9/11 and Islamophobia
In her brilliant book, How the Jews Became White Folks, Karen Brodkin provides an exceptional portrait of the myriad challenges Jewish-Americans and immigrants endured in the early 20th century. Institutional anti-Semitism entrenched the public and private sectors, and rigid (formal and informal) quotas prevented the inclusion of qualified Jews into American universities and colleges, law firms and businesses, government agencies and more.
"National origin and phenotype facilitated this [Jewish-American] racial trek, where religion was initially considered conflicting with White Anglo-Saxon Protestant ideals."
Jewish-Americans, predominantly of European extraction, leveraged their physical appearance to gradually pass and penetrate into these institutions. In addition, these quotas empowered Jewish-American entrepreneurs and visionaries to build their own institutions, transcending American anti-Semitism and establishing an economic and political presence to combat this animus.
Brodkin compellingly articulates how Jewish-Americans, in grassroots fashion, overcame otherness en route to whiteness. National origin and phenotype facilitated this racial trek, where religion was initially considered conflicting with White Anglo-Saxon Protestant ideals. However, the rising socioeconomic standing of American Jews combined with their political organising efforts overcame this religious rift, and with regard to the judicial race making, normalised Judaism.
The emergent presence of Jewish-Americans within business cannot be underestimated as an integrating catalyst. For Arab-Americans, particularly those marginalised by US policy and Arab-American advocacy institutions alike, a favourable MBDA decision would offer access to opportunities today's sociopolitical landscape has closed shut.
Like Jewish-Americans, the first and subsequent waves of Levantine Christian Arabs benefitted from an agreeable racial appearance. Christianity offered a spiritual bridge toward whiteness, which Muslim Arabs could not cross - before, and especially after, 9/11.
"We're American and Arab, not Muslim, is what I heard... Many Arab Christians overcompensated by being hyper-Islamophobic."
- Mouaz Mustafa, political consultant in Washington, DC
The racial and religious profiling, with regard to hiring and business decisions, mirrored the anti-Semitic quotas of the early 20th century. Muslim Arabs, while deemed Caucasian by the US Census and Government, were not only branded as "others", but also designated by the US PATRIOT Act as instigators, and within the rulings and dicta of judicial decisions as the antithesis of American.
Surely, Christianity did not give full cover to Arab-American Christians from the rising tide of Islamophobia and anti-Arab policy. However, the vast majority of first-wave Arab immigrants were already assimilated into whiteness, while the "religion card" offered latter Arab-American Christian immigrants with an oft-used defence.
"We're American and Arab, not Muslim, is what I heard," claimed Mouaz Mustafa, a political consultant in Washington, DC. "Many Arab Christians overcompensated by being hyper-Islamophobic." 9/11, it aftermath, and the Islamophobia industry's entry into America not only galvanised Arab-American Christians to re-leverage religion as a marker of whiteness and patriotism, but also a trump card for inclusion in halls of power denied to Arab-American Muslims who rejected tokenisation as a means for overcoming de facto Islamophobia-quotas in public and private hiring.
Achievement of minority status?
The Arab-American community's inability to follow the grassroots path blazed by Jewish-Americans is rooted in their division. Arab-American organisations, like the ADC or the Arab-American Institute (AAI), are either invested in embracing whiteness or are inept in stimulating a grassroots campaign to forge toward an Arab-American ethnic category. For institutional gatekeepers who reject minority status, in spite of sociopolitical and legal realities, a range of non-Levantine, non-Christian and recent Arab immigrant waves have been marginalised at best, and at worst, deemed undesirable.
"The cost of winning minority status - for many assimilated Arabs - is the whiteness and accompanying privilege American courts granted them, and rejected others, over the last century."
AAI's Yalla Vote campaign attempted to survey Arab-Americans by mobilising an on-the-ground effort asking how they identified racially. Yet, the organisation's inability to penetrate working-class and immigrant-heavy Arab-American communities, and resonate with a largely professional and elite audience, rendered results that were not representative of the population.
Thus, Arab-American organisations operate and continue to pursue an institutional track that is not representative of the racialised reality of the majority of the population. ADC's and AAI's primary gatekeepers subscribe to the flawed race-making formula of early 20th century courts - eg Shishem - and manifest this position by refusing to integrate non-Levantine Arabs, coalition-build with other disadvantaged American communities, and fully pursue minority status.
Achieving the latter may be Ayoub's end, and the goal of much of the population in a post-9/11 and Islamophobia-infested America. Yet, the cost of winning minority status - for many assimilated Arabs - is the whiteness and accompanying privilege American courts granted them, and rejected others, over the last century.
For now, the enterprise of making Arab-American racial status is the business of the MBDA. Will it render a decision that the profiling, vilification and court-induced divisions Arab-Americans face grounds for granting "disadvantaged minority status", or will the ability of a critical mass to pass, pursue and procure white privilege preempt the benefits this designation will extend to downtrodden segments of Arab-America far from Washington, DC, and even further from whiteness.
Khaled A Beydoun is Adjunct Faculty and the Critical Race Studies Teaching Fellow at the UCLA School of Law. He is a native of Detroit.
Follow him on Twitter: @Legyptian
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.