In the US, race has always mattered. Whiteness in particular has mattered most, standing as the seal of civilisation and the gateway towards citizenship.
Since 1944, Arabs have been deemed white by law. Many Arabs still embrace and defend that status today.
However, the US Census Bureau has proposed a new stand-alone classification – “Middle East or North African [MENA]” – which if adopted on the 2020 Census, may formally end more than 70 years of formal whiteness, and the “racial Catch-22” that perplexes the Arab American identity.
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The proposed reclassification of Arabs from white to MENA appears to be a moment of racial progress. However, it comes during a time of expanding state surveillance, the emergence of “countering violent extremism [CVE]” policing, and rising immigration from turbulent Arab states.
These intersecting developments have further perplexed the legal status of Arabs as whites, and raised suspicion about the proposed MENA box.
White without privilege
Far from merely a racial designation, whiteness still stands as the paragon of social citizenship in the US and a gateway to a myriad of privileges.
Socially constructed in opposition to blackness, whiteness remains eternally associated with prestige, power, access, and opportunity.
Early Arab immigrants desperately pursued whiteness and performed it in immigration proceedings. The law officially mandated whiteness as a prerequisite for US citizenship until 1952. Key judicial decisions in 1915 and later 1944, solidified the legal designation that Arabs were white by law.
These early judicial decisions root the US Census Bureau’s current classification of Arabs as white – a legal profile that conflicts with discursive imagining and national security policing of the estimated three to six million Arabs in the US.
A social and political currency like no other, to be white in the US is to be free from the presumption that you are foreign or inferior. Whites are simply “American”, unfettered by the qualified or hyphenated identities compelled upon Asian, African, Latino, or Arab Americans.
Designated white by law
Although designated white by law, Arabs in the US are not extended the array of privileges associated with whiteness.
Arabs have been historically (dis)oriented as “alien” and “unassimilable”, and today, branded as “terrorists” and prospective “radicals”.
These stereotypes are deployed by popular culture – most notably through the media – but also by state law beginning with early 20th century immigration rulings and today’s NSA’s CVE surveillance regimes.
Together, popular and governmental demonisation of Arabs has positioned the population as political pariahs and national security threats; consequently, stripping Arabs of the privileges and power associated with their (legal) whiteness.
Although a heterogeneous population – comprised of fair-skinned Levantine American Christians that have resided in the US for over a century, to freshly introduced waves boasting darker complexions and traditional Muslim identities – whiteness is a status confined on paper, hardly experienced by Arabs in the US today.
Racing towards 2020
On one hand, the end of Arab American ceremonial whiteness may mark a moment of racial progress – and on the other may indicate racial retrenchment.
Betwixt and between legal whiteness and sociopolitical subordination, the experience of Arabs in the US highlights the flawed and fluid nature of race in the US.
Racial categories are thought to be objective and fixed, but are in fact an imperfect science shaped and reshaped by prevailing political interests and structural powers.
The proposed reclassification of Arab Americans as “MENA” in 2020 begs the question: Why now?
Since the 1980s, Arab Americans have lobbied the government to change their racial classification. The efforts were driven by a desire for the government to acknowledge the distinct identity and experience of Arabs in the US, and the range of existential, economic, legal, and political interests that come with minority status.
However, the US government continuously rebuffed community demands for a distinct “Arab American” or stand-alone “MENA” classification.
Allowing Arab Americans to dis-identify
In 2014, the US Census Bureau proposed a “MENA” box for the 2020 Census. The box, if adopted, would allow Arab Americans dis-identify as white.
In addition, the MENA American box would be supplemented with a fillable box, which would allow Arabs to specify their identity along nationality (Lebanese or Moroccan) or broader ethnic terms (Arab).
Certainly, the MENA box furnishes Arab Americans with long coveted racial self-determination, but also comes with under-examined risks. Risks that rise to the level of alarm amid a still expanding police state that presumptively perceives the Arab and Muslim identities as suspect and subversive.
The MENA box would facilitate collection and compilation of more precise Arab American demographic data. This data would benefit Arab Americans with regard to state services, political organisation and influence, as well as research and healthcare.
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On one hand, the end of Arab American ceremonial whiteness may mark a moment of racial progress – and on the other, may indicate racial retrenchment.
Regardless of how Arabs are racially classified in the US – white, MENA, or otherwise – their sociopolitical designation as “presumed terrorists”, “terrorist sympathisers”, or “radicals” will always trump whatever identity they choose to write on paper.
Reforming structural understandings of Arab identity, ultimately, is more important than the racial labels affixed to them.
Khaled A Beydoun is an assistant professor of law at the Barry University Dwayne O Andreas School of Law.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.