Between Arab and White: Race and Ethnicity in the Early Syrian American Diaspora

Between Arab and White: Race and Ethnicity in the Early Syrian American Diaspora

Between Arab and White: Race and Ethnicity in the Early Syrian American Diaspora

Between Arab and White: Race and Ethnicity in the Early Syrian American Diaspora

Synopsis

This multifaceted study of Syrian immigration to the United States places Syrians-- and Arabs more generally--at the center of discussions about race and racial formation from which they have long been marginalized. Between Arab and White focuses on the first wave of Arab immigration and settlement in the United States in the years before World War II, but also continues the story up to the present. It presents an original analysis of the ways in which people mainly from current day Lebanon and Syria--the largest group of Arabic-speaking immigrants before World War II--came to view themselves in racial terms and position themselves within racial hierarchies as part of a broader process of ethnic identity formation.

Excerpt

Without being able to define a white person, the average man
in the street understands distinctly what it means, and would
find no difficulty in assigning to the yellow race a Turk or
Syrian with as much ease as he would bestow that designa
tion on a Chinaman or a Korean.

James Farell, Assistant U.S. Attorney,
In re Halladjian (1909)

In December 1909, a twenty-three-year-old Syrian immigrant named Costa George Najour appeared in Atlanta’s circuit court to hear arguments related to his petition to become an American citizen. He had already filed his first papers and fulfilled the five-year residency and English proficiency requirements of the U.S. Naturalization Law. The question to be decided was whether Najour met the racial requirement of the law, which dictated that, to acquire citizenship, persons not born in the United States—that is, “aliens”—had to be either “free white persons” or of “African nativity or descent.” Ignoring the possibility that Najour was the latter, the lawyer for the government argued that he was not a white person but “Asiatic” and that he could not, therefore, be accepted into the American citizenry. Najour, with the help of his lawyer and a Syrian voluntary association that mobilized to assist him in his case, mounted a strong defense in support of his whiteness. The presiding judge supported Najour’s claim that Syrians were Caucasian and therefore white and admitted him to citizenship. Najour thus became the first applicant for citizenship, among all ethnic groups, to successfully litigate his status as a white person in a U.S. federal court. When the Atlanta Journal’s reporter learned of the decision, the paper announced, “Najour Is Now a Real Citizen,” underscoring the link between whiteness and full-fledged citizenship in the United States. Costa Najour later recounted how his victory in court helped establish that the Syrians were . . .

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