Between Muslim and White: The Legal Construction of Arab American Identity
69 N.Y.U. Ann. Surv. Am. L. 29 (2013)
35 Pages Posted: 24 Nov 2014
Date Written: November 22, 2014
This Article examines the legal origins of Arab-American identity during the racially restrictive Naturalization Era (1790 through 1952), when whiteness was a prerequisite for American citizenship. Ten of the 53 naturalization hearings during this era involved a petitioner from the Arab World. Judges during the Naturalization Era viewed “Arab” as synonymous with “Muslim” identity. Because Muslims were presumed to be non-white, and Arabs were presumed to be Muslims, Arabs were presumptively ineligible for citizenship. But this presumption could be rebutted. Arab Christians could – and did – invoke the fact of their Christianity to argue that they were white. These arguments sometimes secured citizenship for Christian petitioners, but did not always rebut the presumption that every immigrant from the Arab World was Muslim.
Legal scholars have paid insufficient attention to the Arab naturalization cases. These cases reveal not only how judges viewed religion as a proxy for race, but also the ways in which they conflated Arab identity with Muslim identity to do so. This conflation persists today in that many people continue to believe that Arab is synonymous with Muslim, a conflation that is especially salient following the September 11th terrorist attacks. Almost all of the current literature on Arab-Americans centers on how the government’s response to 9/11 made people who are perceived to be Arabs, Muslims, or Middle Eastern vulnerable to legalized forms of racial surveillance, subordination, and violence.
While this body of work is important, this Article introduces a preface to the post-9/11 racialization of Arab-Americans – the racial conflation of Arab and Muslim identity during the Naturalization Era. The courts during this era rendered Arab Muslim immigrants presumptively non-white and inassimilable, while sometimes finding Arab Christians eligible for citizenship and white by law. The legal construction of Arab-American identity in that earlier period helped shape contemporary understandings and misunderstandings of both Arab and Muslim-American identity today.
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