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social united experiences racialized

Within one week of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., law enforcement authorities in the United States received 96,000 tips about the allegedly suspicious behavior of persons who fit a racial phenotype associated with Arabs. For at least the next three years, Arab Americans experienced collective revenge for the attacks from the U.S. government and public alike in the form of assaults, harassments, mass arrests and deportations, denials of civil and political rights, media vilification, employment discrimination, and invasions of privacy. Public opinion polls taken after 9/11 revealed wide support for restricting the civil rights of Arab Americans, requiring Arab Americans to carry special identity cards, and subjecting them to special security checks before boarding planes. These suspicions and punishments were related to the Arabic origin of the 9/11 hijackers, but they would not have been imposed on Arab Americans if Arabs had not been previously racialized as a monolithic group with an alleged predisposition to violence and hatred.

Prejudicial attitudes and discriminatory behaviors toward human groups based on their alleged racial traits are certainly not new in American society. Indeed, they lie at the foundation of American society and characterize the historic experiences of Native Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans, and Latinos. Receiving such treatment, however, was relatively new for Arab Americans, who had spent more than half a century in the United States as a comparatively advantaged group. When one compares the Arab American experience in the first half of the twentieth century to that of the second half, one finds that Arab Americans have been racialized in a process similar in form but different in pretext and timing from that of other historically racialized groups. Arab Americans have historically been afforded some of the benefits and protections of whiteness, and their exclusion from the social and political perquisites of whiteness postdates the historic experiences of other negatively racialized groups. It is therefore not perfectly tied in its genesis to ideas about race and the superiority of whiteness that have existed since the founding of the United States. Instead, the racialization of Arabs emerged from the rise of the United States as a global superpower, and particularly from its perceived foreign policy interests.


Arabs who migrated to the United States in the first decades of the twentieth century held structural positions and faced barriers of prejudice and discrimination largely similar to those of white ethnics. Using legal rights concerning property ownership, voting, immigration, naturalization, residential and marital patterns, and employment experiences as primary indicators of their social status at the time, early Arab immigrants and their American-born children—numbering some 100,000 persons by 1924, according to Philip Hitti (1924)—largely fit into a marginal white category, a position similar to that of Italians, Poles, Slavs, Jews, and Greeks in America. Although Arabs were barred from a broad range of institutions run by mainstream whites, they settled without documented restrictions in urban and rural areas, ran businesses, traveled freely about the country as traders, worked as unionized laborers in manufacturing, built community institutions, flourished as writers, and held offices in state and local governments. They achieved a degree of economic success, experienced upward social mobility, and led social lives that were intertwined with members of white ethnic groups, often resulting in intermarriage.

Of course, there are meaningful exceptions to this broadly simplified history, and there were specific localities where the right of Arabs to become naturalized was challenged. During the era of widespread nativism that characterized the United States between 1910 and 1924, Arab whiteness was contested by specific local court clerks and judges seeking to block their naturalization. Such incidents occurred in places like Detroit, Buffalo, Cincinnati, St. Louis, and parts of Georgia and South Carolina. In the words of the historian Helen Hatab Samhan, in some places Arabs were “not quite white” (Samhan 1999). These disparate experiences around racial location underline the notion that race is socially constructed, and that Arabs sat at a disputed margin of whiteness. This marginality is graphically illustrated in the boundaries of the Asia Barred Zone, a map attached to 1917 legislation passed by the U.S. Congress that erected geographic barriers to immigration and included small sections of the Arab world. The inclusion of parts of Yemen provided ammunition for those who opposed Yemeni naturalization.

These contested racial experiences were neither universal nor representative of the early Arab American experience, and they were counterposed by the widely documented and largely unfettered freedom of movement experienced by Arabs engaged in commerce, which was as true of Christian Arabs as it was of Muslim and Druze Arabs. The existence of variations around race in the early Arab American experience highlights the notion that racial projects are given meaning as they are embedded in local social relationships. Overall, in the early part of the twentieth century, Arab Americans experienced levels of social and political inclusion and economic mobility largely reserved for whites and denied to negatively racialized groups, such as African Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, and Latinos. Their experiences were also vastly better than what Arab Americans have faced since the late 1960s. Since that time, substantial evidence indicates a widening social distance between Arab Americans and all other Americans. This social distance is measurable, and it is manifested in government policies, mainstream cultural representations, public perceptions and attitudes, discriminatory behaviors, physical insecurity, and social and political exclusion.


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