Not Quite White: Race Classification and the Arab American Experience
(Chapter in Arabs in America: Building a New Future)
This paper was first presented on April 4, 1997 at a symposium on
Arab Americans by the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, Georgetown University.
Issues of race and identity are certainly dominant factors in American social history. The dual legacies of slavery and massive immigration – and how they have intersected over time – deeply conditioned the ways in which the citizenry relates to race, and how the government intercedes to classify the population.
Throughout the more than 100 years that Arabs have immigrated to the U.S., there has been the need to clarify, accommodate and reexamine their relationship to this peculiar American fixation on race. In each historical period, Arabs in America have confronted race-based challenges to their identity. Today, the constituency known as Arab American is situated at an interesting social crossroads, where issues of minority and majority affiliation demand more attention – and reflection.
The purpose of this chapter is to examine race classification policy as it has impacted the Arab American experience. Rather than approach the question of identity development from within the ethnic boundaries (which continues to be ably and amply studied), this view is principally to examine the externally – imposed systems of classification in the American context: how and why they have developed, changed over time, and how they have related historically to Arab immigrants and ethnics.
The first major question to be addressed is what were the social and political motivations of racial classification: how did these change during the past century and take on different roles in identity issues. Reviewing the two principle arenas where classification occurs in the public sector – immigration policy and the U.S. Census – this section will trace the policies that drove each of these government tools. It will also look in general terms at the socio-political impact of racial categories, both on society and on the subgroups themselves.
Once put in historical perspective, the second issue covered is the direct impact racial classification in this American context had on Arab immigrants. An important feature of this discussion is the recurring theme of “not quite white” that appears to impose itself, albeit in differing intensity depending upon the era. The ways in which official U.S. policy on race and classification confounded the Arab population will be examined in two periods that epitomize the country’s classification policies in the twentieth century: turn of the century nativism, and the civil rights era. An important postscript under consideration is the post-civil rights “millennial period” to cover current trends and attitudes towards race-based policies in particular and multiculturalism in general.
This historical survey of U.S. policy will serve as a resource to the further study of Arab American responses to racial classification and remedies that have emerged to rationalize the somewhat confusing and often awkward fit of relating to race. As Arab ethnic initiatives force a diversity-conscious society to recognize its existence, and interact with non governmental entities and governmental bodies structured for “official’ minority representation, an interesting debate is prompted of how ethnic action can promote and demand inclusion. This overview seeks to inform that debate and place in perspective the yet unsettled issue of where Arabs fit on the ever-changing prism of race in America.
Immigration Policy and Race: the Gatekeeper’s Dilemma
A cursory review of immigration policy since the mid-nineteenth century reveals that classification by race has dominated official attitudes towards new Americans. With the possible exception of the period immediately following world war II (when cold war political motives were of prime importance) the U.S. has continually struggled with reconciling its northern European settler identity to new groups whose culture, language or religion have not conformed to their Anglo-centric concepts of American identity.
While the second half of the nineteenth century was replete with examples of prejudice and intolerance towards immigrants even within the northern European context (Germans and Irish), official policy in this period was preoccupied with the pace and pattern of immigration from the far East. Excluding Asians and limiting their rights to citizenship and property dominated the attention of federal statutes from the 1870s through the 1920s. Precipitated by large numbers of Chinese immigrants that coincided with economic depression, anti-Chinese attitudes motivated a series of anti-Asian laws. Chinese immigration was made illegal in 1882 and by the first decade of the new century, steps were taken to limit the impact of Japanese immigrants as well. The significance of these anti-Asian restrictions to the early Arab immigrants will be explored in the next section.
If late nineteenth century U.S. immigration policy fixated on excluding Asians as “undesirable” Americans, the first two decades of the twentieth century ushered in a new era of exclusion – -policies that focused on the millions of new arrivals from southern and eastern Europe and the Mediterranean. This turn of the century period was characterized by competing forces of an industrial economy that demanded foreign born labor and nervous sectors of the U.S. born population that feared these new groups for their strangeness, cultural, linguistic and religious practices, and even political ideologies. Encouraged by business interests, immigration policy allowed this period to admit the largest numbers of immigrants in U.S. history (peak immigration occurred between 1905-1907 when over a million newcomers arrived each year). Dominant national groups in this wave included Italians, Poles, Russians (mostly Jews), Slavs and Greeks. This is also the period that witnessed the first sustained influx of immigrants from the Arab world.
These massive numbers of newcomers prompted competing social and civic ideologies on how America should deal with such change. It was common to refer to the “race” of the new groups, despite their common European origin. Concerns of diluting the American race emerged aside fears that the highly urbanized, often poor immigrants would undermine cherished American values by retaining the political, social and cultural loyalties of their foreign heritage. Some writers continued to allude to the benefits of new blood, assuring the nation that from the proverbial melting pot would emerge a cultural amalgam that was uniquely American. In the same vein, Americanization programs abounded to make sure the foreign-born would learn the language, civic values and cultural ways of their new homeland. This, however, within a pervasive public ideology that viewed the new immigrants as racially, culturally and intellectually inferior.
These Americanization programs, implemented in both the public and private sectors, received new impetus on the eve of the First World War. July 4, 1915 was the first official “National Americanization Day” with the motto “Many Peoples, But One Nation”. But this slogan soon was replaced by “American First” and the seeds of nativism would take strong root throughout the war years culminating in the law of 1924 that dramatically altered the face of immigration for four decades.
Nurtured by restrictionist movements that emerged as early as the 1890s , the authors of immigration reform in the early 1920s sought by force of law to reestablish the balance of “European stock” to its pre-1890 characteristics. The 1924 National Origins Act put an overall ceiling on European immigration (150,000), prohibited immigration from Japan, and set quotas based on a percentage of each national origin group already present in the U.S. Originally proposed at 3% of the population enumerated in the 1910 census, it was revised to even further affect the less desirable groups to be no more than 2% of each group’s foreign-born population in the 1890 census. Like the Italians, Greeks, Poles and Slavs of the era, the number of Syrian immigrants permitted by the new law was drastically diminished: the prewar peak of over 9,000 per year was now reduced to a few hundred.
Both the anti-Asian laws of the 1880s and the 1924 attempt to cut back the amount of newcomers and give preferential quotas to the original settler groups from northern Europe represent the most drastic interventions to control the classification and complexion of new Americans. Two subsequent periods witnessed government initiations that affected how immigrants would be classified. With the exception of President Roosevelt’s wartime request to Congress to relax temporarily the quotas on nationals of China and India (both U.S. allies) no major change in immigration policy occurred until the post-war period. As Dolce observed, it was the cold war period that symbolized the shift of immigration policy from the domestic domain of congress to become a “focus of the executive branch as a tool of foreign policy.”
Beginning in 1948 with Truman’s push for the “Displaced Persons Act” to deal with German, Baltic and East European war victims, post-war laws began to adjust to the diplomatic priorities of the state, though not yet abrogating the intent of the 1924 reforms. The McCarran Walter Act of 1952, now notorious in Arab American circles for its contemporary role in justifying the case against the “L.A. 8” , in fact represented the first complete codification of immigration and naturalization laws in modern time. The 1952 Act took five years of congressional study and retained the national origin quota system but based it on the 1920 census, allocating two-thirds of the total to northern Europe. While the1952 Act reduced the total volume of immigration, it established “first preference” quotas that targeted persons with useful education and training, thereby injecting a “quality” variable into the classification of immigrants that did affect the composition of post-war arrivals.
The persistence of the quota system and its control over the race/ethnicity of new arrivals remained until the immigration Act of 1965 removed the 1924 formulas from the books. The reform bill established an overall annual quota of 170,000, for the first time fixed immigration from the Western Hemisphere at 120,000 per year, and set a per country annual cap of 20,000. The act has been said to reflect the evolution of public policy towards the foreign born in general and President Kennedy’s view in particular of immigrants as a source of national strength. The central innovation of the 1965 law was to replace the quota system with a more egalitarian policy of first-come-first-served. Its provisions stressed preference to family unification, outstanding skilled workers and refugees.
These reforms that lifted the quotas and opened up the criteria for new immigrants contributed to the expansion and diversification of Arab immigration to America. By the late 1960s annual immigration from the Arab world reached an average of 14,000-15,000; Egypt, Jordan/Palestine and Iraq joined and often surpassed Lebanon and Syria as major sources of new Americans. By the late 1970s, annual Arab immigration increased by several thousand, in part a result of the Lebanese civil war and sustained high numbers of new arrivals from other countries.
Reforms to American immigration policy during the 1980s had less direct impact on the Arab community but did reflect a need to deal with significant shift in immigration trends, mostly from Asia and the Western Hemisphere. The Refugee Act of 1980 came in response to the huge influx of refugees from Southeast Asia, a move that standardized refugee definitions and created the first right of asylum. Six years later, attention focused on the rise of illegal penetration, especially from Mexico and Central America.
By 1995, Congress turned its attention once again to the increasingly daunting problems of illegal immigrants, this time taking a swipe at the annual quota of legal arrivals as well. In an effort to reduce the ripple effect of family unification provisions, the reformists sought to tighten the circle of family members a citizen could bring in, and to begin a phase-back of the total newcomers admitted annually. A neo nativist (although not as overtly racist as in the 1920s) attitude seemed to surface during the course of this most recent congressional debate, bolstered by the statistics that Europe has been replaced—perhaps definitively – by Central and South America and Asia as the source of new Americans.
This debate continued throughout the 104th session of congress, creating concern among immigrant communities and their advocates that the reforms of the 1960s may not be permanent. The social and economic impact of illegal as well as new immigration has become a prominent feature of the debate that will be factored into future policies. In addition, particular provisions of both immigration and counter terrorism are projected to have a narrowly focused but visible impact on certain Arab immigrants with political affiliations identified by the U.S. government as “terrorist”. Such political exclusions – while targeting a narrow class of immigrants—introduces highly controversial and visible aspects to the Arab immigrant experience that promises to reverberate beyond its original intent.
Census Categories: Serving the Oppressor – and the Oppressed
If post-1850 immigration classification mirrors the nation’s fixation on the race of the foreign born, census measures of the populations racial composition reflect historical fixations on its black population. From the first census of 1790 through the civil war, the decennial census served to distinguish white citizens from free blacks and slaves, since the latter group was counted proportionally (3/5) for purposes of political representation. Throughout the 1800s, beyond the civil war and well into the twentieth century census classifications were rooted in racist intent whether to create as many slaves as possible or reflect the society’s obsession with miscegenation. Slaves were specified by color (“B” for black, “M” for mulatto), and in 1890 the census further broke down black ancestry to quadroon (black grandparents) and octoroon (black great-grandparents). In twentieth century Jim Crow America, the “one-drop rule” took over these intricate formulas with the segregationist premise that a person with any black ancestry would be classified as black.
How the census dealt with other issues of race is less distinctive but also reflected the needs to identify non-white populations. The impact of the post-civil war surge in immigration on census categories could be seen in two main areas: new questions on the foreign born and new race categories for Asians. The 1870 census, for example, included the first question on citizenship and birthplace of parent. By 1880, questions on the ability to read, write or speak English reflected the demographic realities of the times. In 1890, foreign-born persons were asked their year of immigration (a question discontinued from 1940-1960) and in 1910, the language of parent was asked.
As for new “racial’ categories, the forms used by census takers early in this century included broader color/race checkoffs, adding to White, Negro and Indian the largest Asian subgroups, notably Chinese and Japanese. Given the civic and sociological thinking at the turn of the century, it is not surprising that “race” definitions could include subgroups of immigrants who were in some way distinguishable from the native-born majority. Mexicans, Jews, Hindus and even Syrians were among the national and religious origin peoples referred to as racial groups. And in some cases, racial classification changed over time: from 1920 to 1940 Asian Indians were classified as Hindu by “race”, but from 1950 to 1970 were coded with Whites. Through the standards set in 1978 by federal directive 15 (to be discussed below) the people from the Indian subcontinent became classified as Asian.
In the period following the Second World War, there was some speculation that the race question would be phased out altogether in the U.S. as it was in Canada in favor of a simple question on national origin. Concern over the racist origins of the categories prompted the American Civil Liberties Union to petition to drop the race question from the 1960 survey. While this would not transpire, it was the enactment of civil rights laws during that decade that would change dramatically the motives and uses of race data collection in the U.S.
When the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965 the government found itself in need of highly detailed information about minority participation. Federal data collection, most notably the decennial census, had to supply legislators and the courts with accurate data on which to enforce civil rights protection for blacks. Meanwhile, advocates for other groups displaying large disparity with the white population as a whole (most notably Mexican and other Spanish speaking Americans) were mobilizing for protection offered by the new civil rights legislation.
The various federal agencies charged with implementing civil rights policies soon found the need for common definitions of the racial (and ethnic) groups being monitored. In 1974, a Federal Interagency Committee on Education (FICE) was asked by the Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare to recommend standard racial and ethnic definitions for use by government agencies. The interagency adhoc committee released a report in 1975 proposing five categories which would serve as the basis for the policy promulgated three years later by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). The committee set its focus on disparities between black, Latino, American Indian and Asian American population in comparison to the white population based on existing census data…in large part due to earlier policies of limited or total exclusion in various areas – such as citizenship, property rights and immigration—directed at these groups. This focus would serve as the rationale for the subsequent scope and definition of “minority” programs and policies.
The categories promulgated in 1978 by the OMB in fact did draw distinctions, but unlike earlier policies, not on skin color. Known as “directive 15”, the standards identify four race categories:
- American Indian/Alaska Native: this category includes indigenous north American groups, and despite genetic similarity, remains distinct from indigenous persons from central and south America because of certain land and treaty obligations;
- Asian or Pacific Islander: this category originally covered persons with origins in countries East of the Indian subcontinent, but was adjusted after the Association of Indians in America lobbied the OMB to move their group out of the white race category;
- Black: persons with origins in the black racial groups of Africa- this category purposely does not encompass continental Africa to distinguish North African regions and European settler populations; and
- White: persons originating in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa;
The most problematic of all the groups was the Hispanic population, for which the FICE decided to designate an “ethnic” category that referred to Spanish culture or origin regardless of race or region.
The 1978 classification scheme served as the legal framework for the race/Hispanic origin categories that appear in government surveys and reporting requirements, including the census as of 1980. These categories also permeated most record-keeping and application procedures in the public sector, and private sector activity subject to federal state or local statutes to monitor civil rights. Forms used by schools, health professionals, social service agencies and most businesses eventually conformed to the federal standards.
The new impetus for racial classification as a civil rights check transformed dramatically the role of the census, which acquired a political importance that it never had in the past. Equally transformed were assumptions about the subjectivity of race and ethnicity in particular, and the concept of self-enumeration as a census policy. Prior to 1960, when the shift to a mailed census occurred, surveys were administered by an enumerator who processed observed responses to the census questions, including race and ethnicity, following a set of instructions.
This shift in policy and procedure towards the validity of self-identification prompted the census to introduce in 1980 a question on “ancestry”, regardless of racial classification. For the first time, the census transcended the objective identifiers of ethnicity (mother tongue, nativity, parental birthplace, Spanish surname, etc.) for a subjective, open-ended question on ethnic origin. Despite considerable debate among researchers on the validity and reliability of ancestry data and the lack of any common definition of ethnicity, the Census Bureau initiated a question in the 1980 sample survey that identified ethnic origin for the entire population, rather than the immigrant generation and their children as had been the case since 1850.
In some ways, the introduction of the ancestry question responded to the gaps in the federal standards of racial classification. Data on large ethnic groups of European origin, as well as smaller groups like Arabs whose classification was white, was previously unavailable beyond the first and second generations. The benefits of identifying the country’s full ethnic makeup, both for demographic analysis and research or outreach programs for discrete population groups, and encouragement from ethnic organizations and scholars convinced the census to repeat the question in 1990.
Stepping beyond the specific confines of the U.S. census and its evolving role as the national yardstick, it is apparent that the impact of the 1978 federal guidelines was felt well beyond the arena of demographics into the civic, political and economic life of the country. Although this is a discussion that demands more attention than can be offered in this overview, it is important to touch on the general repercussions of race categories to better understand the Arab American response.
Racial categories in the civil rights era could be evaluated as having both positive and negative ramifications for the society at large and for the subgroups themselves. Taken broadly, the societal benefits of classifying the population by race include the ability to monitor the health and welfare needs of a diverse population, protect civil rights, and attempt to narrow the socioeconomic gaps among the citizenry. These same categories carry a negative residue: the citizens are pitted against each other on an immutable rather than needs basis. Similarly for the subgroup, a separate classification can serve to reinforce and legitimize group cohesion, pride and perhaps political clout, as well as tangible and intangible benefits to the group (affirmative action). The unwelcome results of separate categories include becoming targets for stereotyping, resentment, and dealing with issues of government dependency.
An equally compelling sub text of the current debate that is reevaluating racial categories is the addition of immigrant groups (Asians and Hispanics) to the class of disadvantaged persons deserving of certain legal protection and social interventions. Immigration historian Leonard Fuchs argues against including immigrants as the beneficiaries of affirmative action by asserting that while all “people of color” have been historically victims of discrimination, no group, despite their experience of poverty or prejudice, were victims of the pervasive, systemic legal discrimination inflicted on blacks in America. The importance of considering these costs and benefits of minority status is a central issue for future discussion of the direction of Arab identity and classification in America.
Arab Immigrant and Ethnic Encounters with Race Classification
When compared with other non-European groups, the effect of racial classification on the lives of Arab Americans has been relatively minor, with the exception of two distinct periods in their immigrant history. In both periods, issues of race became important because of larger social policies that were shaping views on minority groups; also in each period, the interjection of race issues circled around the proposition that Arabs are not quite white.
The Arabs’ first and most dramatic encounter with classification in America centered around the question of citizenship in the period before World War I. According to nineteenth century immigration categories, the first wave of immigrants from the Ottoman provinces of Syria, Mount Lebanon and Palestine were classified along with other Ottoman subjects as originating from “Turkey in Asia.”
By the turn of the century, reforms of immigration regulations that began in 1893 resulted in new classification for the Arabic-speaking immigrants as “Syrians” after 1899, an adjustment that Naff speculates might have been introduced to deal with the need to differentiate the increasingly diverse national groups still arriving with Turkish passports. Nevertheless, this new immigration category did not spare the Syrians their scuffle with naturalization procedures that reverted precisely to their Asiatic birthplace.
While the early Syrians were by no means singled out by the focus of turn of the century nativism and xenophobia – larger groups (Asians, southern and eastern Europeans) were far more concentrated and conspicuous—by 1909 they did confront a particular challenge to their right to citizenship. Following directives by the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization to crack down on the eligibility to certain immigrants for naturalization (which had previously been virtually automatic), the courts began to question whether the Syrians’ birthplace and racial appearance qualified them as white or, rather, as Asian, and therefore ineligible for citizenship. In several states, petitions of Syrian-born immigrants were challenged on the grounds that having been born in the dominions of Turkey (Asia Minor) and therefore of questionable racial stock, the Syrian was not a white person or person of African descent or birth, as the 1870 statute required.
After the first case appeared in Georgia in 1909, leaders of the Syrian community protested to the ruling by organizing the “Association for Syrian Unity” and sending a delegation to Washington, D.C. to appeal. The immigrant leadership, which included historian Philip Hitti presented historical and genealogical evidence of the Syrian Caucasian origins. Similar cases brought before the circuit courts in Cincinnati and St. Louis attracted enough attention for The New York Times editorial page of September 30, 1909 to comment “Is the Turk a White Man?” In a reply, Lebanese-born journalist Salloum Mokarzel pointed to the central dilemma of his countrymen:
…the main point at issue in this question… is not the practicability of considering the Turk a white man, but the possibility of considering every Turkish subject a Turk, eliminating in this general classification all distinction of race, language and religion.
Mokarzel’s comments underscore another prevalent notion of the era that treated the concept of race in its anthropological dimension (Mongoloid, Caucasoid and Negroid) but also in the common usage to connote national origin. In both cases, he argues, Syrians are not Asiatic:
Is it not a fact that the peoples conquered by the Turks of old retain an indisputable claim to their racial descent? In other words, how could the Caucasian blood of the Greek, the Slav, the Armenian, the Arab and the Syrian be contested, since they were the aborigines of the lands where they now live?
The 1909 case was overturned on appeal. But the Syrians found themselves caught in the midst of policies that were being redefined and laws being reinterpreted to deal with the naturalization of groups who were considered racially borderline. Although the immigration categories as of 1899 classified Syrians and Palestinians as white by race, the courts still were interpreting the 1870 law’s applicability to Arabs, Armenians and other western Asian immigrants. By 1910, their eligibility was further complicated by the U.S. Census Bureau’s classification of these groups as “Asiatic” by nativity, as well as a new directive ordering the courts to reject citizenship applications from aliens who were neither white nor of African descent, a policy in part intended to control illegal naturalization of immigrants for voting purposes.
Similar cases occurred in subsequent years, each resulting in the ultimate granting of the Syrian petition, until 1914 when a judge in South Carolina reopened the wound of ineligibility. In this case, the judge ruled that while Syrians might be free white persons, they were not “that particular free white person to whom act of Congress [I790] had donated the privilege of citizenship,” a privilege he ruled was intended for persons of European descent. Once again the nascent Syrian institutions, notably the Arabic press, rallied around the case and provided lengthy arguments, both historical and cultural each of which was refuted by the judge who clung to contemporary nativist tenets that any “mixture of blood” disqualified one from the white race. The case was appealed in 1915 at which time the court accepted the findings of the Dillingham Report of the Immigration Commission that
physically the modern Syrians are of mixed Syrian, Arabian and even Jewish blood. They belong to the Semitic branch of the Caucasian race, thus widely differing from their rulers, the Turks, who are in origin Mongolian.
Despite this victory, this issue was not finally put to rest until 1923. In that year, the same District judge from South Carolina attempted to deny a Syrian petition for naturalization on the grounds that Syria fell under the 1917 Restrictive Immigration Act, which barred both immigration and naturalization for natives of most countries east of the Persian gulf. At a rehearing, it was shown that Syria did not fall within those wartime restrictions.
As Naff astutely observes, this “yellow race crisis,” while the most intensely discriminatory experience of the early Arab immigrants, did not have a very penetrating affect of their identity nor on their civic assimilation. On the contrary it reinforced the Arab immigrants’ conviction that their heritage was not the true target of these policies – they were simply being confused with others (Turks, Asians). The external classification issues imposed in America did not alienate or even deter their civic loyalty to their new homeland. The outcome of the yellow race crisis no doubt strengthened the immigrants’ resolve to value and cherish their exonerated racial status as white.
In the decades that followed World War I, there is evidence of continued run-ins with racial classification, particularly during the ascendancy of the Ku Klux Klan when the Arabs were often considered “colored” – and their country of origin was less important than skin tone and appearance. Particularly in voting rights, it was not uncommon for recent immigrants to confront disenfranchisement in the segregated South. A candidate for local office in Birmingham in the 1920s passed out handbills that read
They have disqualified the Negro, an American citizen, from voting in the white primary. The Greek and the Syrian should also be disqualified. I DON’T WANT THEIR VOTES. If I can’t be elected by white men, I don’t want the office.
Despite these and other encounters with racial prejudice, which though less frequent did occur throughout the three decades that followed the immigration restrictions of the 1920s, it was not until later in the civil rights era that Arabs in America would seriously revisit issues of racial classification, ethnic identity and the dilemma of being not-quite white.
Arab Americans in the Civil Rights Era
The same twin policies of the 1960s that ushered in civil rights laws and dropped immigration restrictions laid the groundwork for changes in Arab attitudes and experiences with race in America. In the past thirty years, not only did new Arab immigration diversify and expand the Arab American community it brought political cultural and religious identities that contrasted with the assimilated identity of the U.S. born co-ethnics. Where offspring of the first (mostly Christian) immigrants had faced the intensive civic assimilation of that largely European wave, the post-World War II immigrants arrived in a wave predominately from the Third World, a factor that would also characterize their identity and attitudes towards assimilation in general and classification in particular.
Government programs and other structural interventions that developed in the 1970s and 1980s around racial integration and affirmative action certainly contributed to corresponding awareness and societal attitudes of tolerance of diversity in America. An important convergence occurred that affected ethnic identity, including Arab Americans: a developing national awareness driven by federal guidelines and the institutionalization of equal opportunity, with a cultural awakening in which black and other Third World heritages were studied, celebrated and politicized. Into this external arena of expanded ethnic attention and opportunity, the Arab community’s internal generational transformation, diversification and politicization found enough common ground to grow, as it were, a new branch of Arab ethnicity in America. Contrasting with the highly assimilated, European-dominated experience of the American-born generations, this era of multiculturalism and minority rights forged a new paradigm that situated Arab (and later Muslim) culture and politics more squarely outside the white “majority” context.
The current classification system under which Arabs and other persons with origins in the Middle East and North Africa fall under the same white category that identifies the European majority, has been a source of confusion and challenge. The pervasive influence of the four race/one ethnic categories promulgated in 1978 has affected Arab Americans in differing degrees. Since racial categories permeate nearly every bureaucracy, public and private alike, for those Arabs who contest, resent or misunderstand their white classification, the reminders of this identity disconnect are constant. From school and medical forms, job and loan applications, to political caucuses, polls and even market surveys, the race-consciousness of American demographics is such that some Arabs have become accustomed to perennial “other” status, or to straddling their technical white identity with their practical affinity to “people of color” – i.e., every other non-European national origin group.
The confusion created by federal classification as it relates to Arabs is not limited to subjective identification and ethnic preference. School administrators are frequently unclear about where to place immigrant students from the Middle East, since most foreign-born children fall under non-white categories that assist in reporting and outreach efforts. In a 1988 National Longitudinal Study of eighth graders, for example, it was reported that the Asian/Pacific Islander category incorrectly included 15% students actually from countries in the Middle East.
The need to comply with federal guidelines in most cases defines the way in which non-federal entities, and even non-governmental ones, relate and attend to ethnicity. For the most part, diversity programs in organizational and public culture are framed principally by official minority categories (including women), which tend to overlook subgroups now classified as white. Exceptions to the federal standards are found in civic, educational and social science structures, where space is made for religious minorities (mostly Jews but also Muslims) and women.
Not unlike Jewish Americans—and in part because of them -Arab Americans have been able to circumvent the official classification structure to create patterns of inclusion. Individuals and institutions alike have for more than two decades needed to stretch the diversity yardstick to achieve representation in fields of research, education, employment, civic and political life regardless of racial classification. In a few instances, these efforts formally intersected with the federal system; in most cases, however, accommodations have been made by local institutions to incorporate Arab American constituencies and recognize their participation.
Although the debate over the benefit to Arab Americans of formal government recognition as a disadvantaged minority continues to evoke spirited opinion among proponents and opponents in the Arab American community, the issue of discrimination has underscored the initiatives to date that have challenged the official classification of Arabs as part of the white majority. In the case of a Small Business Administration special designation awarded to a Palestinian-American federal contractor, the agency based their decision on the evidence of his particular professional experience – and that he could document specific economic disadvantage based on his national origin. Unlike federal minority designations, this SBA status did not transfer to the entire class of co-ethnics. In an even more ground-breaking decision, the Supreme Court in 1987 expanded the definition of protected classes in civil suits based on discrimination to include national origin or religious groups, in this case Arabs and Jews. In both examples, Arab Americans demonstrated sufficient evidence of discriminatory behavior to stretch the existing definition of protected class.
The structures that have more frequently accommodated Arab American inclusion have been outside the federal arena, and the motivation has centered either on demographic reality or the cultural/academic imperative of recognizing Arab American presence. Examples of when demographic reality is the momentum for change are most common in states like Michigan where the concentration, growth and sheer visibility of the population demands attention. Statewide agencies including the offices of Minority Health and Bilingual Education now classify the Arab/Chaldean populations for purposes of service delivery and statistical research. Similarly, state universities responded to pressure from their student bodies to include the Arab population in their minority achievement programs; curriculum development has been more problematic when federal funding is required to more strictly allocated by official minority designations. In a more recent initiative, the business community in San Francisco asked the city to expand their human rights ordinance that defines groups qualifying for minority contracts. After public hearings and a disparity study to review evidence of under representation of the Arab business population in city contracts, the city agreed to recommend adding Arabs to the groups protected by the city ordinance.
In other aspects of educational life, Arab students and scholars alike have been among the most consistent advocates for including Arab, Muslim and Middle East issues in the ever-expanding framework of multiculturalism in schools and on campus. In public education, the demographic reality, again, often dictates the adaptive strategies school systems follow. The influx of new immigrant families, for example, has required local officials to respond through bilingual programs, PTA outreach, curricula review and cultural activities. In regions like southeast Michigan, northern Virginia, San Francisco, Chicago and Cleveland, Arab and Muslim parents and experts are recruited to serve on local boards and commissions to advise educators and raise concerns.
In higher education the dual visibility of Middle East studies departments and organized Arab student groups has provided its own opportunity for inclusion in multicultural structures. In the United States Student Association, for example, the National Student Coalition of People of Color includes an Arab and Muslim caucus that generates active and vocal leadership. In the broader arena of humanities and social science research, Arab Americans are slowly breaking into the race/ethnic paradigm, frequently finding an already crowded field of diversity-conscious professionals who are willing to make room. When obstacles prevent an open door approach to Arab American inclusion, they have generally been connected with ideological and political struggles of the Arab-Israeli conflict – especially during the 1970s and 1980s – when an Arab presence was obstructed by objections from some pro-Israel counterpart. This phenomenon, of course, transcended academe into political, civic, cultural and employment circles as well.
Despite such tactics and diversions, the resiliency of American multiculturalism and the natural solidarity offered by other people of color has allowed Arab Americans increasing opportunity for a place at the table. The “ripple effect of affirmative action”, as George Bisharat aptly notes, has rendered public institutions, civic coalitions and even private businesses sensitive to inclusion of Arab Americans, regardless of official classification.
One arena where the ripple effect of a diversity-conscious establishment is encouraging for Arab Americans is in civic and political life. Here again attention to inclusion has been driven both by the demographic reality of a local Arab population and even more so by the visibility of Arab Americans in local politics and elections. In the past fifteen years there has developed a causal relationship between electoral activity and public service recognition usually reserved for designated minorities. After the elections of 1988, for example, when many community activists mobilized around the presidential campaigns, especially that of Rev. Jesse Jackson, the new visibility of Arab Americans in both parties was rewarded by appointments to state, county and municipal boards and commissions. Just in San Francisco and Fairfax County, VA alone, Arab Americans were offered close to a dozen posts ranging from commissions on EEOC, planning, aging, education, human rights and economic development. Since in most communities such boards have unofficially designated slots for minority representation, Arab Americans were able to insert themselves into such informal public service “quotas,” establishing a new reality for future politicians to sustain.
In national politics and government, similar systems prone to minority representation have slowly begun to make adjustments for the emerging Arab American presence. In constituency-conscious places like the national party committees or the White House Office of Public Liaison, the inadequacy of traditional “desks” dealing with racial minorities, women, labor, etc. was particularly evident in trying to fit Arab Americans in and resulted in beefing up the underutilized “ethnic outreach” assignments, where Arab Americans now are factored into the mix when White House conferences, appointments, etc. take constituencies into consideration. In preparing for the 1996 conventions, the Democratic delegate tracking system for the first time accounted for Arab Americans. Similarly in 1995 a national voter list broker added the first Arab surname file to its inventory of ethnic registered voter lists . And even in the Census Bureau where the federal government is obliged to match its outreach efforts to existing race and ethnic minority populations, the Department of Commerce in 1995 designated a seat on the 2000 Census Advisory Committee for Arab Americans, the only non-minority population group to merit representation. It was in fact this awareness that racial categories may be too rigid that led the government to review its statistical procedures, a debate in which Arab American issues featured prominently.
Federal Review of Race/Ethnic Classification: Preparing for the New Millenium
In the nearly two decades since the standardization of race and ethnic measurement, policymakers, researchers and statisticians have been seeking ways to refine and reexamine the rationale of the current system. Government initiatives since 1990 have focused the attention of data providers and users alike on the challenge of keeping measurement standards in step with the changing face of the population. In a 1992 international conference on the subject, the U.S. Census Bureau as co-sponsor sought to address the official challenges of measuring an ethnic world within the context of science, politics and social reality . Among the conclusions reached by the conferees:
- ethnicity is multidimensional, continuous and dynamic; surveys need to use consistent definitions but allow for flux in ethnic identification;
- constitutional and legislative needs must be given a priority in collection of data on ethnicity; more research is needed on the impact of data collection on stereotypes and divisiveness; participants noted that race and ethnic data are not neutral and can be used for many purposes, some of which may not be benign.
The issues debated by data providers and data users at this forum underscore the critical connection between the social, political and legal reasons for collecting data on race and ethnicity. At stake are some of the assumptions that precipitated the federal guidelines in the mid 1970s, the need to evaluate the changing social attitudes towards race, and the controversy inherent in that evaluation.
The following year, at the initiation of the congressional subcommittee that oversaw census operations, the government opened a multi-year review of federal directive 15 in preparation for the next major national survey, the 2000 census. Rep. Tom Sawyer (D-OH) kicked off the process by holding public hearings in 1993 to receive comment on the existing race and ethnic categories. Testimonies were solicited from government agencies, scholars, constituency groups and other stakeholders on evaluating the current standards and proposing changes.
It was in this context that the Arab American Institute (AAI), as part of its continuing focus on census and demographic issues, submitted testimony pointing to the growing disconnect between ethnic identification among the Arab American population and the undifferentiated white race category stipulated by Directive 15. Since the guidelines were promulgated as minimal standards that did not prohibit further specificity, the AAI proposal suggested disagregating the non-European population groups (i.e. those with origins in the Middle East and North Africa). Such a regional category could identify Arabs and other ethnic subgroups as distinct from other whites who make up the country’s European-based majority—not as an additional minority class, but in order to deal with the unique data needs of these populations.
The effect of racial classification on Arab Americans thus became one of the topics that continued to be debated throughout the three-year review process. Under the heading of “emerging categories”, the AAI proposal was presented at the next major phase of the review process, a workshop sponsored by the National Research Council in February 1994 to discuss further the federal standards and make recommendations to the Office of Management and Budget. The other principal emerging category issue proposed was the addition to the race choices of a multi-racial check off for individuals of mixed parentage who in the current framework are obliged to select one identifying race. Although other refinements to the federal guidelines were entertained, such as reclassifying Hawaiians as Native Americans and merging Hispanics into the race categories, the mixed race question was clearly the most controversial recommendation, one that generated the most organized public pressure and one that virtually every stakeholder requiring data on race—including the minority communities—oppose on the grounds that it skews continuity of race data and, in effect, serves to undermine policies that implement affirmative action.
Though overshadowed by the mixed race issue, the Arab American proposal continued to be raised in the final phase of the federal review: a series of public hearings sponsored by the OMB around the country during the summer of 1994. By then, a similar proposal for a specific “Arab American” category—as a linguistically-based identifier—was introduced by the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC). Testimony for the regional category (Middle East/North African) with ethnic subgroups (Arab, Iranian, Turk, Cypriot, Assyrian, etc.) was presented alongside support for a distinctly Arab American classifier—a mixed signal cited in the OMB report as a lack of consensus over the definition of the population in question. This was in fact one of several findings cited by the OMB as not justifying further research in this area at this time; another factor was the relatively small size of the population. By September 1997, the review process was complete and the OMB decided against the Arab American proposals, leaving open the possibility of study at some future date.
While those responsible for racial and ethnic statistics for the Census Bureau remained sympathetic to the concerns over Arab American measurement, other, more political, factors were at play, not the least of which was a public mood with strong support in the new congress that increasingly viewed racial or ethnic categories as a symptom of the disuniting of America, rather than a useful tool with redeeming social worth. Even media attention to the OMB hearings and the 2000 census, as limited as it has been, was mostly negative. The conservative press took several swipes at the review process itself, deriding the very utility of race categories, not to mention entertaining new ones.
Current Classification of Arab Americans: the Ancestry Question
Even in the midst of the OMB review, it became evident that adding a new ethnic category was not among the priority issues that would be earmarked for research and testing in time for 2000. By 1995 rumors started to surface in census circles that the only remaining source of demographic data on Arab Americans—the question on ancestry—was in jeopardy of being dropped in 2000. The question, distinct from the race and Hispanic origin questions, had provided intergenerational data since 1980 on ethnicity regardless of race, using an open-ended question based on self-identification of up to two ancestral origins.
Ancestry data on Arabs have received mixed reviews: the undercount (in 1990 the aggregated Arab origin populations did not exceed 900,000) drew concern as did the obvious drawback that the question only appeared on the long-form survey that is sent to a 17% sample of the nation’s households. Nevertheless, census ancestry data on Arabs remain the only official, reliable source of information on this ethnic community. The chance that even this imperfect measure might be eliminated, with nothing to replace it, was cause for concern among researchers and advocates alike. Attention quickly shifted away from the dream of creating a new and more responsive category for ethnic measurement to the reality of needing to safeguard the only governmental tool available to study the mobility, acculturation and participation of the Arab American constituency.
In mid 1996 a coalition of ethnic organizations was organized by AAI to develop a strategy to keep the ethnic question on the 2000 census. By early 1997, a full scale campaign was in place, and the “Working Group on Ancestry in the U.S. Census” encompassed some 80 organizations, scholars and advocates. While the network initially focused on the white ethnic groups for whom ancestry data were uniquely important, it grew to include minority organizations as well. This broad umbrella avoided the appearance of one race group working at the expense of another.
The immediate target of the group was to convince congress by their spring 1997 deadline that the ancestry question should be included in the topics for the 2000 census. The campaign grew to inlude organizing “Ancestry Day” on Capitol Hill in March 1997, the introduction of a concurrent resolution to support the ancestry question, and offering testimony as several congressional hearings on the census. By the spring of 1998, having succeeded in securing the question on the topics proposed by the Census Bureau, the ancestry coalition worked with Rep. Connie Morella (R-MD) on a new resolution reiterating the importance of census data collection to a congress that had begun its own war on the census on the more controversial issue of methodology for census 2000. The long-term goal of the working group remains to ensure that all ethnic constituencies regardless of race are engaged in and supportive of census outreach efforts to assure a full count in the year 2000.
What happens in the area of race and ethnic measurement—and Arab American classification specifically—will depend on a number of factors, all of which require the careful consideration of advocates, scholars, and policymakers. Among the issues that will make an impact are several interrelated themes of identity and classification, each of which demands further analysis.
Foremost among these is to look at Arab American approaches to minority status. From initiatives that began in the early 1980s and the individual cases to new proposals currently being investigated in California, it is important to research what are the compelling reasons for supporting an official minority designation, and what are the drawbacks—to the constituency, to other minorities and to society at large? Furthermore, more discussion is needed about the patterns developing to establish “unofficial” classification when needed, and what elasticity exists in the current federal guidelines to permit localities and states to take independent action.
The dynamics of identity itself demands further attention. Will past experiences with prejudice and exclusion, and the perception of American policies at odds with the Arab homeland, continue to influence the development of Arab American ethnic identity? What role do Arab-Jewish relations have in the inclusion of Arab ethnics into structures set up to promote diversity? Do we anticipate convergence or divergence between those who relate more comfortably with white ethnics and those who see themselves as people of color? What demographic factors influence each affinity and how dominant is religious affiliation in these trends?
These queries are only part of the complexity that surrounds questions of race and identity in America. A constituency at a rather dramatic crossroads, Arab Americans are weighing the critical options of their changing demographics. Differences of class, education, occupation, religious affiliation, geographic location and length of time in America are just some of the variables that complicate previously simple solutions. Balancing objective classification procedures with issues of such subjective import is a daunting task for any bureaucracy, particularly when society as a whole is less satisfied with the formulas of the past, but equally unsure of the path to follow into the new millennium.