Not-quite-white: Middle Easterners adrift in the US’s racial hierarchy
Posted by adiamondinsunlight on September 26, 2008
One of the things that I learned from living in Damascus and then Beirut is that if one is an English-speaker, one almost invariably seems to wind up with a number of friends who work as journalists. Thanks to them, I pay much more attention to how American and Canadian media cover Syria, Lebanon, and other Middle East countries and issues.
And thanks to two of them who have each spent time as the Chronicle of Higher Education‘s correspondents in the region, I also pay much more attention to the Chronicle. Its not a mass-market paper – its a weekly newspaper-print magazine that covers American colleges and universities, and its primary audience is an academic one: professors and administrators.
The Chronicle‘s articles can be a bit specialized, so I tend to pick and choose what I read. (I’m most interested in articles that relate university issues to the broader picture – like the issue of lowering the US drinking age and how university presidents and other administrators have reacted to this proposal.)
I particularly like its commentary pieces, which are often very thoughtful reflections on issues that any professional can not only understand but relate to.
Yesterday, I read an absolutely fascinating piece about race, and how Arabs, Iranians and other Middle Easterners often fall through the cracks of the almost exclusively black-white racial divide that characterizes the US. I’ve read before that Middle Easterners fall into the unhappy category of “not-quite-white”: legally white, which allowed them to immigrate to the US in years when Asians were barred; but like Irish, Italian and Russian Americans, considered “less white” than the British, French, German and other North-Western Europeans who formed the first block of immigrants.
I’ve read about this issue in academic terms, but this piece helped me think about it in human terms:
Middle Easterners: Sometimes White, Sometimes Not
By JOHN TEHRANIAN
A few years ago, I was invited to interview for a tenure-track position as a law professor. I spent a pleasant day meeting with my prospective colleagues and received strong indications that I would receive a job offer. But a bloc of professors opposed my candidacy, and I ended up one vote short.
One faculty member called me to relay the unhappy news. Although disappointed, I was not disturbed until he said: “You shouldn’t take any of this personally. The group that voted against you thought you’d be a great colleague and a wonderful addition to the law school. It was just a race issue.” Confused, I muttered something about my opposition to discrimination against minorities.
That surprised my caller. “No, no, John. They objected to the fact that you’re white. They insisted that we hire a minority candidate.”
Although the professors who voted against me were apparently progressive liberals in favor of diversity in the law-school faculty, they seemed to have no concern about its lack of a full-time professor of Middle Eastern descent — an absence brought into relief by the large number of Arabs, Persians, Turks, and Armenians in the student body and local community. I asked, “They do know that I’m Middle Eastern, don’t they?”
“Yes, of course,” he said, “so they consider you white.”
Utterly perplexed, I muttered: “White, huh? That’s not what they call me at the airport.”
Ultimately, university administrators determined that the faculty’s actions were illegal and offered me the job, which I politely declined. But the underlying premise of the entire debacle — the whiteness of Middle Easterners — remained unexamined. And so it remains in both the academy and society.
The Middle Eastern question affects some of the most pressing issues of our time: the wars in Iraq and on terrorism; the growing tension between preservation of our national security and protection of our civil rights; and the debate over immigration, assimilation, and our national identity. Paradoxically, scant attention is given to our domestic Middle Eastern population and its place in American society.
Middle Eastern Americans are caught in a Catch-22. Our government, our educational institutions, and the private sector almost uniformly classify individuals of Middle Eastern descent as white. On paper, therefore, they appear identical to a blue-eyed blond of North European descent. In reality, however, Middle Eastern Americans have faced growing discrimination in recent years — through targeted immigration policies, racial profiling, a war on terrorism with a decidedly racist bent, and increasing workplace harassment and hate crimes.
Unless you belong to the group, however, it might be hard to see that. Middle Eastern Americans have little collective voice, as they are not considered a minority in official government data. Despite our heated discourse about diversity, therefore, Middle Easterners have remained surprisingly absent from the debate.
The academy has the ability to lead a vigorous colloquy about Middle Easterners and diversity. But government classifications for tracking admissions and hiring decisions have crippled us. As a result, bureaucratic reductionism has trumped critical thinking about what race and ethnicity mean, and what constitutes diversity.
For example, a recent newsletter from the American Bar Association celebrated significant increases in minority hiring for law-school faculties: From 2000 to 2004, minorities increased their share of full-time faculty positions from 13.9 percent to 16.0 percent, leading to plaudits for “meaningful progress in diversifying the law school community.”
Like almost all accounts of diversity, however, that report paid no attention to Middle Eastern representation. While we have specific counts for law professors of African, Asian, Pacific Island, Latino, and Native American descent, the official data camouflage professors of Middle Eastern descent in the majority, with European-Americans.
That approach causes several problems. First, efforts to quantify minority representation in education and industry have brought to light systemic discrimination and underrepresentation, thereby leading to efforts to improve minority recruitment. By failing to measure the representation of Middle Eastern Americans, we cannot ascertain the degree to which they may suffer from discrimination or underrepresentation.
Second, by whitewashing Middle Easterners, we unwittingly send the message that they do not contribute meaningfully to diversity. The Supreme Court has allowed institutions of higher education to use diversity policies to promote cross-racial understanding, enervate invidious racial stereotypes, and enliven classroom discussion. Greater representation of Middle Eastern Americans could advance all three goals.
Of course, ethnic diversity does not guarantee a diversity of opinions, and the majority is not de facto incapable of relating to minority experiences. But a diversity of perspective helps, and a more visible Middle Eastern presence in academe could promote further exploration of the important, but underappreciated, issues raised in this essay and my forthcoming book on the subject, Whitewashed: America’s Invisible Middle Eastern Minority.
Re-examining our notions of diversity is particularly important at this juncture, when race-conscious policies are coming under increasing attack. Indeed, the recent experiences of many Middle Eastern Americans readily belie the Panglossian trope of colorblindness that has permeated recent Supreme Court jurisprudence and fueled attacks against affirmative action. Arguing that the use of race-conscious policies to redress past discrimination is never constitutional, Justice Antonin Scalia once optimistically posited that “in the eyes of government, we are just one race here. It is American.”
Reflecting the ascendance of that view nearly a decade later, the Supreme Court effectively ended the use of affirmative action at secondary schools in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, with Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.’s famous proclamation that “the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”
Although Grutter v. Bollinger, which upheld the University of Michigan law school’s race-conscious admissions policy by the thinnest of margins, has not been overturned, the current composition of the Supreme Court and the Seattle decision make the viability of any remedial policies precarious at best.
Surprisingly, however, various branches of government have continued to promulgate race-conscious policies, thereby undermining the colorblind rhetoric. Consider the continued tolerance of racial profiling — a practice that often targets individuals with Middle Eastern appearance or names in airports. Roberts’s tautological edict against discrimination apparently gave a federal appellate court no pause when it declared earlier this year, in Cerqueira v. American Airlines, that the “race or ethnic origin of a passenger may, depending on context, be relevant information in the total mix of information raising concerns that transport of a passenger ‘might be’ inimical to safety.” On that basis, the court took the remarkable step of reversing the jury verdict for a plaintiff who, because of his Middle Eastern appearance, had been forcibly deplaned despite clearing all security checks.
Colorblindness is also still lacking in segments of the private sector. Yet courts have shielded certain discrimination from adequate legal remedies. For example, in 2005, a federal jury held that Abdul Azimi, a Muslim immigrant from Afghanistan, had suffered years of vicious racial invective and physical abuse at his workplace. The evidence established that co-workers had regularly taunted Azimi with the N-word, linked him to Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, and left him notes with swastikas and profanity-laced vituperations against his faith. They even assaulted and battered him, forcing pork into his mouth and pockets as they denounced his religion in the crudest terms imaginable. Shortly after Azimi finally filed a complaint against that hateful and abusive treatment, and just a few weeks after the attacks of September 11, 2001, he was summarily fired.
Despite agreeing that Azimi had suffered discrimination, the jury found that the unlawful harassment had not caused Azimi “to be damaged by emotional distress, pain, suffering, emotional anguish, loss of enjoyment of life and/or inconvenience.” Azimi appealed, in Azimi v. Jordan’s Meats (2006), but the unfathomable verdict was affirmed and Azimi did not receive a single penny in damages.
Such a precedent threatens to provide carte blanche for the targeting of Middle Easterners in the workplace. Shockingly, Azimi’s case was a relative success: In the year of the Azimi decision, courts ruled on 69 employment-discrimination cases involving claims by Muslims, many of Middle Eastern descent. Azimi’s, with its acknowledgment of discrimination, was — in the words of The New York Times — the “only … victory, if you can call it that.”
Historically, no country has ever been more open and welcoming to immigrants than the United States, and no country has ever demonstrated a greater respect for civil rights and the protection of minorities. However, we still have work to do. At a time when issues related to Middle Eastern Americans have risen to the forefront of our country’s debates about national security, assimilation, and civil rights, there is no reason for those Americans to be excluded from the debate over diversity. As academics, we have an opportunity to lead the way.
One thing that I particularly like about this piece is that its author, John Tehranian, is not a specialist in Middle Eastern history or Iranian studies. He is identified as a law professor at Chapman University – in other words, while heis a scholar, this isn’t his field. But it apparently has become an issue that he has chosen to pursue at a professional level. The Chronicle ends this piece by noting that Professor Tehranian will publish a new book in December – a book called Whitewashed: America’s Invisible Middle Eastern Minority. Having read this commentary, I can’t wait to read the book.