Melissa Harris-Perry: Time for a pop quiz, now this is an easy one. It's just a repeat of the question you answered when you completed your census form last year. I mean you did complete your census form, didn't you? Here's the question choose the category that identifies your race white, Black or African American, American Indian and Alaska Native, Asian or native why in other Pacific Islander or you can choose who are more races. Cool pencils down, that was easy. Well, maybe.
What box do you choose if your grandparents are from Algeria, Morocco, or Egypt, all those countries are part of the continent of Africa, would that make you African American? What if your parents recently immigrated from Syria or Lebanon? Should you mark Asian? This is the experience Arab Americans face with each government-required questionnaire from the census to college admissions to job applications.
Speaker: Now on the United States census form, if you check some other race and you put in an Arab country, do you know what happens to that form? Do you know what they do with that form, they don't burn it, they don't give it to the FBI, they actually file it with white people, did you know that? Yes. According to the federal government, we're white, scary, right? For you, not for us.
Melissa Harris-Perry: That was comedian [unintelligible 00:01:18] finding some humor in the distance between how Arab Americans see themselves and how the federal government identifies and responds to the community. Chanting Arab Americans into the category of white Americans but then treating them as not quite Americans and it isn't a new problem. Back in the early 20th century, the Department of Justice heard a case on whether people from the Middle East could claim they were white in order to be allowed US citizenship or if they were Asian which meant they could not.
George Shishim, the Arab American on trial, told the court that he came from the same place as Jesus so, of course, the ruling found that people from the Middle East were now white. Advocates say that people from the Middle East have since become invisible in the US as a result and for decades, Arab American Organizations have pushed the federal government to adjust official forms to stop what they say is an erasure of a community.
The question is, just who is a person of color, and are Arab Americans part of that group? For more, I spoke with historian and professor of American studies and ethnicity at the university of Southern California Sarah Gualtieri and Maya Berry, the Executive Director of the Arab American Institute. Maya started off by explaining the internal and external identifications of Arab Americans as people of color.
Maya Berry: I actually talk about it exactly that way. I start by explaining that there is our identity how we identify as individuals and not even collectively. The sense of how each individual Arab-American will identify and then this externally imposed classification on us that comes from other sources. We're talking about a community of roughly 3.7 million Arab-Americans in this country and they identify with their national origin and ethnicity.
They don't fit in nicely into the racial classifications in terms of how people at least understand this. There are Black Arabs, there are white Arabs, there are brown Arabs so it's a lot like the Latino community in terms of ethnicity and not necessarily a racial classification. We have this burden of being a community that's really often misunderstood for a variety of reasons that I trust we'd get into but it does play into how this conversation plays out.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Sarah, I think I just want to ask you similarly this question of both internal self-identification and external identification of Arab-Americans as people of color.
Sarah Gualtieri: Yes. Well, when I look at the over 150-year history of Arab-American experience of race in the United States, I see so many instances of racial terror that I can't help but understand their experiences being that of a [unintelligible 00:04:03] population. Very sadly, I could spend this entire segment enumerating cases of racial violence from a 1929 lynching of Lebanese grocer in Florida to the 1985 assassination of Alex Odeh who was the West Coast Regional Director of the Arab Anti-discrimination Committee, or the 2015 murder of three Arab Muslim college students in Chapel Hill.
As a historian, I understand this violence to be fueled by ideas about their difference from a group of people understood to be white American. I think that, historically, there has always been this tension whereby Arabs have been pulled out through external factors, they've been pulled out of this category of American. I think that is where we find ourselves in a very fraught situation and where you have longstanding communities in the United States who are quinte essentially American and yet there is a perception that they are always outsiders.
Melissa Harris-Perry: This is interesting. I'm wondering about the moments when that difference gets highlighted. Sarah, as a historian, maybe you can walk us through a few of the key historical moments, and then, Maya, I'll come to you as well.
Sarah Gualtieri: What makes this conversation so interesting and nuanced I think is that there are moments in which Arab communities do access the privileges of whiteness. If we're trying to understand this disconnect why is it that when you look at the senses that Arabs are expected to classify themselves as white and yet the lived experience of so many Arab Americans is clearly not as white citizens, where does that disconnect come from? In the early part of the 20th-century, race was so connected to ideas of citizenship, there was in fact a racial requirement for citizenship. Briefly, the George Shishim case is a really interesting case that unfolded here in Los Angeles in 1909.
One of the reasons I like to talk about this case is because there tends to be a perception that questions of race and racial identity, as they relate to Arab Americans particularly in this early part of the 20th century, that they unfolded particularly in the Jim Crow south and that Shishim case points to the fact that these debates were unfolding nationwide. George Shishim was a police officer in Venice, California, he arrested a young person and was at first unable to give test in court against him because it was deemed that George Shishim was not a white person.
This drew on earlier legislation that basically said that people of color or the language of the statute doesn't use that term but Chinese Black people they could not give testimony in court against a white person. George Shishim decides to get his naturalization to get his citizenship and to do so by conforming to the statute which meant litigating his status as a white person.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Maya, I'm wondering if you can speak a bit to that sense of allyship perhaps in the most recent moment although 20 years now is perhaps not that recent, but I'm thinking the ways that again the post 9/11 moment ends up conflating in American discourse, Arab American identity, Muslim identity and then this outsider status.
Maya Berry: For me, the issue it really does predate even the post 9/11 environment that we see. I always start with Richard Nixon's Operation Boulder and the targeting of Arab students in this country who are engaged in advocacy for Palestinian human rights. It's been a defining issue in terms of the political exclusion that we've faced. The context of your question is American identity white is part of what we're talking about. Now, my answer is no, but the way that it's played out particularly in a post 2016 presidential election, there's like this new way to understand Dubois's new religion of whiteness and the way we fit into that is so interesting.
Partly, for me, based on this most recent election of the mayoral candidate in Boston who is an Arab-American woman who had to deal with a headline that said Boston mayoral candidate says she's a person of color, is she? As a community we are literally rendered invisible by government data. We have been fighting to get a new category on the census on a Middle East and North Africa category that would allow us to go in and collect more accurate information about Arab Americans for decades.
We were there for 2020 until, regrettably, that Trump administration politicized the census in an unprecedented way and then the category movement on the category was abandoned though it was tested in 2015 and found to be a proper way, a more accurate way to gather data on this. We're rendered invisible in that and then highly visible and targeted by government policies that have securitized us as the community that our fellow Americans need to view us as differently.
For me, when I talk about these issues, it's like I have these four buckets I put it in and I always start with the identity piece because I think that's really important which is how I choose to identify maybe different than how Sarah does or how you do, Melissa. That's the point of this conversation, we get to choose that. There's a second piece of it which is how we're classified by our government and the issue of the census is just critical.
It's done real intentional harm to local communities when we don't have the appropriate data to be able to provide things like English as a second language program to appropriate political representation. There's also the way we're seen by others, the way we're perceived by our other fellow Americans. I tell you, for the first time, we do a lot of polling on American attitudes, and for the first time ever, that we got to the point of the majority of Americans not having a negative view of Arab Americans was in 2017 where we finally broke to 52% and by the way that's
Melissa Harris-Perry: When are that question first been asked?
Maya Berry: We started doing polling on American attitudes in the late '90s tracking it exactly the same way from 2010, but we've asked it differently dating back to the '90s. I'll tell you, it broke at 52%. When we asked the question about Arabs, not Arab Americans, we didn't break 50 it was still at 42%. This anti Arab bigotry is real and it's part of it's part of what we have to deal with.
Then the final point I would make is in terms of my buckets of understanding of this is that there's an element here in terms of how we're treated by state power, how we are profiled, how we're viewed in the context of counter-terrorism policies, how we're talked about when it comes to immigration policies. When we talk about working in coalition with partners, the profiling guidance that's in place right now continues to allow profiling on border security, national security, and local law enforcement.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm going to come back to you, Sarah, to talk a little bit about what you hinted at previously around acts of violence. You told us a few of them, some of them are quite familiar to me. Others, not so much. I'm wondering if you could and again, this is tough to do, but if you could help us to understand at least in the past, it'd be two or three decades of reflection on state violence. Then we can talk a bit also about citizen on citizen violence.
Sarah Gualtieri: I think in the case of Arab Americans, you so often seeing this pairing of violence that is carried out against individual Arab Americans. A woman is walking down the street in Chicago and her hijab has pulled off her head or she's a spat upon or so we might characterize that as individualized violence carried up by one person upon another. I think that what's important to hold on to here is that those acts of violence, those incidences of hate that are common frequent carried out in multiple locations, but they are fueled by these policies of exclusion particularly at the federal level, the Muslim ban.
For example, that feeds into a American imaginary of in which Arab Americans are thought of, as I've mentioned before as perpetually foreign. I think that it's hard to disentangle the issue of individual violence or hate incidents as carried out on the bodies of Arab Americans from larger policies including policies that are international rights. This question of how do we understand the racialized experience of Arab Americans, in my view, has to be understood with a transnational lens. We have Arab American in this country for many reasons, but one of them is because many of their families have been rendered refugees by American state policy and most especially the carrying out of wars against Arab populations.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Maya, I wanted to come back to you on the issues that you'd begun to lay out for us around the census. Can you say a bit more about the campaign to include new categories and what that could mean for Arab American communities?
Maya Berry: Oh, absolutely. It'd be transformative when I say rendered invisible in the data. It is because there has been a massive undercount of our community historically. Anywhere from medical research we believe there's a higher prevalence of diabetes in our community and we have medical researchers who tell us, I don't know what the denominator is. I can't conduct accurate research on our community because I don't know how to get that number.
I have to actually just mention this additional point because Sarah was talking about hate crimes and we do a great deal of work on hate crimes. Arab Americans were part of the reason when you look at the Hate Crime Statistics Act that was passed back in 1990, we're actually part of the reason for the passage of that act. There were congressional hearings looking at then FBI director deemed Arab Americans as being what he called a zone of danger.
We were literally targeted with extreme violence and Sarah mentioned the murder of civil rights advocate Alex Odeh was part of that. At the time, we had something called Code 31, which was a category for anti-Arab hate and it existed in the other categories. We lost that category for reasons that are not clear to us as hate crime data progressed from 1990 until 2015, there was no anti-Arab hate category that could be tracked. When you asked me the question about our polling and how far I went back to, I can only sell you hate crime data on Arab Americans starting in 2015.
We go back to when it's time to add a post-9/11 environment Institute, a program like in Sears, and target people Arab countries and deport countless numbers of Arab men back to the Arab world. We can find them when it comes time to identifying victims of hate crimes. When it comes time to allocating trillions of dollars of government resources tied to census data, we can't find us
Melissa Harris-Perry: That was Executive Director of the Arab American Institute, Maya Berry and historian and professor of American Studies and Ethnicity at USC, Sarah Gualtieri. Maya, Sarah, thank you both so much for joining us.
Sarah Gualtieri: Thank you, Melissa. It's been a pleasure to be with you today and also thank you, Maya.
Maya Berry: I'm so grateful for the conversation. Thank you, Sarah. Thank you, Melissa and I think that for a community that's often ignored, the importance of talking about this with your viewers is really appreciated. Thank you so much.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.