Academic journal article Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)

Strange Fruit? Syrian Immigrants, Extralegal Violence and Racial Formation in the Jim Crow South *

Academic journal article Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)

Strange Fruit? Syrian Immigrants, Extralegal Violence and Racial Formation in the Jim Crow South *

Article excerpt

"MOB IN FLORIDA LYNCHES WHITE Man; Wife Slain" announced the bold-type headline of the New York Evening World newspaper on 17 May 1929. (1) The accompanying article describes briefly the circumstances surrounding the killing of "N.G. Romey, white, a grocer," by a mob after a dispute with the local Chief of Police. Other reports in the English and Arabic-language press revealed that the dead man was Nicholas Romey who, with his wife Fannie and their children, was a member of one of two Syrian families living in Lake City, Florida. (2) Early in the morning of 17 May 1929 he became the victim of the state's well-established tradition of extralegal violence, more commonly referred to as lynching, and his death became part of a larger story of the frequency with which Americans brutally inflicted what they called justice on the bodies of the powerless. (3)

But what did it mean that Romey, an immigrant from southwest Asia, was lynched as a "white man?" (4) Was this simply the New York Evening World's way of distinguishing him from the scores of black men who were more typically the victims of "Judge Lynch"? Or, was there something more complicated about Romey's racial status that rendered the designation white as much a problem as a description? This article seeks to answer these questions by interrogating the idea, and implications, of Syrian-Arab whiteness at a particular historical moment, and to ask how might a reexamination of this lynching help frame the agenda of Arab-American activism at the beginning of a new century when the possibility of violence, verbal and physical, legal and extra-legal, seems to threatens the lives of so many Arabs in the United States.


Recent scholarship on the racialization of Arabs in the United States points to the paradoxes of their classification as white in American racial taxonomy) This designation, many argue, is at odds with the lived experience of Arab immigrants and their children who do not benefit from the privileges that whiteness ostensibly confers, nor identify with the white majority. (6) Rather, they face discrimination in the workplace, endure degradation by the media, film and television, and suffer the psychological and physical terror of bombings, vandalism, incarceration and hate-speech. (7) Despite their official status as white, Arabs are a minority without minority status, the "most invisible of the invisibles." (8) According to Therese Saliba, "'Arabs and Arab Americans remain victims of racist policies, even as they are rendered invisible by the standards of current racialized discourses." (9)

The roots of Arab marginalization in the United States have been linked to a number of factors. Helen Samhan describes, for example, a kind of "political racism" based "not so much on Arab origin as Arab political activity," which is the product of the pro-Israeli bias of the major media conglomerates and of American foreign policy. (10) The promotion of the United States' "special relationship" with Israel has not only fuelled anti-Arab attitudes and behavior, it has labeled advocacy on behalf of Arabs (and Palestinians in particular) suspicious and un-American also. Those targeted by this political racism have usually been Arab-Americans associated with activist or scholarly associations that advocate for the Palestinian struggle for national rights. It is this racism that took the life Alex Odeh, blown up as he opened the office of Santa Ana office of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee in 1985. Unleashed by government authorities, political racism has made the lives of the L.A. 8 a living hell; (11) and masquerading tinder the legitimate-sounding name of a Washington think tank, it produced a McCarthy-esque website, aimed at vilifying scholars of the Middle East whose academic activity does not support a neoconservative agenda. (12)

Equally important for understanding the marginalization of Arabs in the United States is the racialization of Islam (13)--the fixing on it of an immutable otherness, the construction of it as anti-modern foreign import, a source of violence and threat to the "American way of life. …

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