Strange fruit? Syrian immigrants, extralegal violence and racial formation in the Jim Crow South *.

JurisdictionUnited States
AuthorGualtieri, Sarah
Date22 June 2004

"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." The distortion of Islam is an old habit in American orientalism, but it became more virulent in the post World War II period. Not coincidentally, this corresponded to a change in the religious make-up of the Arab immigrant community during the 1950s and 1960s. What had been a largely Syrian, Christian population became more diverse in terms of profession, religion and national origin. Many immigrants of this new wave were inspired by the politics of Arab nationalism with its secular, anti-imperialist stance, while others gravitated toward resurgent Islam and its call for a new politicized piety. By the 1970s, the majority of immigrants from the Arab world to the United States were Muslim, and they developed an impressive institutional base for the religious and cultural needs of their communities. (14) While contributing to the image of American pluralism and to the articulation of diasporic Islam, Arab Muslims, like Muslims of other ethnicities, faced the stigma of outsiderness. It frequently have been the markers of Muslim piety (such as turbans, head-scarves, and beards) that in the eyes of racists have replaced phenotype as the emblems of otherness. Confirming that racist behavior operates on a desperate, irrational logic, it has not mattered whether victims of this racism are Muslim or not. In the aftermath of 11 September 2001, for example, Jim Zogby, president of the Arab-American Institute and a third generation Christian Lebanese-American received a death threat from a caller describing him as a "towel head." (15) And, among those killed in hate-crimes following 11 September was Balbir Singh Sodkh whose turban signaled to his murderers that he was Muslim, despite the fact that he was Sikh. (16)

These factors--political intimidation and violence and the racialization of Islam--have led scholars to argue that more accurate designations of Arabs in the United States are "not-quite-white" or "honorary white." (17) Because of the way that race and fitness for citizenship have historically been intertwined in the United States, this not-quite-white status renders Arabs suspect in the American polity. They are in fact considered a threat to it on the grounds that they originate in countries that are perceived as fanatical and backward. By this logic, not only are Arabs not-quite-white, they are not-quite-free also. They are, as Suad Joseph argues, subject to "the hyphen that never ends." (18)

The body of scholarship on questions of race in the Arab-American experience is now quite extensive, but it must be supplemented. One area that warrants more thorough and specific attention is the history, particularly in the period before World War II, of Arab racial ideas and social practices in the main areas of settlement in United States. For while we have quite a substantial literature on how Arabs have been racialized in relation to foreign policy crises, and in the mainstream media in the post-war era, we do not have an adequate understanding of their racialization in earlier periods. This is not just an issue of a gap in the literature related to chronology. There is also a great deal of conceptual and empirical work to be done on the question of how Arab racialization has related historically to that of other groups. We need more studies like that of Ronald Stockton whose analysis of American images of Arabs found them to be primarily derivative, that is rooted in older "hostile archetypes" that targeted blacks and Jews. (19) He demonstrates how themes of sexual depravity, physiological and psychological inferiority, conspiracy and "secret powers" were familiar in the repertoire of American racism and anti-Semitism, and were transferred to Arabs, particularly during moments of crisis, such as the oil embargo of the early 1970s. In 1989, for example, at the height of the Palestinian uprising against the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza strip, a national monthly on Middle East affairs published a cartoon entitled "Reading the Arab Mind" that was strikingly similar to one published ninety years earlier depicting "The Jewish Mind." The cartoon shows the "Arab mind" compartmentalized into categories like "vengeance," "fanaticism," "double talk," "blackmail," while the "Jewish mind" is divided into images depicting the "worship of money," "cowardice," and "theft". As Stockton notes, "both minds center upon socially hostile orientations to the world and rigid mental compartmentalization with thought processes alien to normal humans." (20) Like all stereotypes, both images impose a set of negative, unchanging traits upon an entire group, effectively taking it out of history.

Stockton's work demonstrates the linkages between racist imagery of Arabs, Jews and African Americans, and his analysis helps move the discussion to a new level, where the locus on discrimination is coupled with an examination of how patterns of exclusion build upon those of the past. Toward this goal, scholars of Arab racialization could examine how the epithets and images used to discredit Syrians as "trash," and unworthy voters in the 1920s owed much to an evolved ideology about Asian alien-ness and black unworthiness for full participation in the American polity. (21) As historian Tom Holt argues, "from the poison tree of these 'original sins' as it were flowed much of the ideological justifications, discursive formulations, as well as the asymmetries of power that made subsequent racialization projects possible." (22) [italics added]

Efforts to trace similarities in racialization projects must also account for their differences. What, for example, were the ramifications on both the Arab-American community and other communities of the Syrian struggle to be recognized as white in the early part of the...

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