On March 22, Ahmad Al Alawi Alissa allegedly shot and killed 10 people in a Boulder, Colo., supermarket. In a now-deleted tweet, Vice President Harris’s niece Meena Harris remarked, “Violent white men are the greatest terrorist threat to our country.”
Harris deleted her original tweet and issued an apology for assuming that Alissa was White. Some reporting on the shooting shifted from discussions of “White violence,” gun regulation and mental illness to asking whether the shooting was Islamist terrorism. The discussion appears to have changed when Americans learned that the shooter was not just another “violent White man.”
But despite his religious and ancestral background, in the United States, Alissa legally is a White man. This classification is no oversight. Throughout the 20th century, legal battles and federal policies determined that under U.S. law, Middle Easterners are classified as White.
Are Middle Easterners White?
The Naturalization Act of 1870 deemed only White or Black immigrants eligible for naturalization as citizens. This policy updated the original Naturalization Act of 1790 to extend naturalization to Black immigrants, particularly after passage of the 13th and 14th amendments. As a result, immigrants not perceived as neatly fitting either group commonly petitioned courts to be designated White, hoping to become naturalized citizens. East, South, and Southeast Asians were consistently denied White status, but those from the Middle East and North Africa (which political scientists abbreviate as MENA) were often designated White.
In none of these cases did petitioners ever argue for naturalization through claims they were Black, nor did lawmakers think there would be much African migration when drafting the 1870 act.
From 1909 to 1944, 10 naturalization cases involved petitioners from the MENA region. In seven of the 10, federal court judges ruled that MENA individuals were White. Because these cases were typically decided by district court judges and thus were not written up in ways setting legal precedents, the decisions’ rationales did not always align with those in previous cases.
For instance, in 1909, Syrian Christian immigrant Costa Najour petitioned a Georgia district court, claiming Whiteness. The judge invoked contemporary “scientific” evidence, which classified those from Syria as racially Caucasian. The judge wrote that such scientific racial classification superseded physical characteristics in determining White status and ruled that Najour was White.
However, in a 1913 case, a South Carolina judge denied White status to Syrian immigrant Faras Shahid. The judge reasoned that Shahid was the color “of walnut, or somewhat darker than is the usual mulatto of one-half mixed blood between the white and the negro races.” The judge argued that it would be unreasonable to say someone was White based upon scientific race — as was the rationale in Najour’s case — if that person did not look White. In this case, the judge argued that ruling the petitioner as White would not be a reasonable application of the Naturalization Act of 1870 in the way Congress intended.
Where does Islam fit into this decision?
Not just inconsistent court rulings but also religion complicates the U.S. racial status of MENA-born or -descended individuals. Most of the earliest MENA petitioners were Christian; their lawyers used their Christianity as part of the rationale for why they should be considered White. But after 1945, most immigrants from that region were Muslim. Although Islam is a religion, it is also perceived as a racial or ethnic category, as is often true for people with Jewish heritage.
Perceiving Islam as a racial or ethnic marker may seem like a 21st-century construct, particularly after 9/11. But it was already there in the 1942 decision in In Re Ahmed Hassan. A Michigan judge denied Yemeni immigrant Ahmed Hassan White status, and thus citizenship through naturalization, partly because he was not Christian. The judge wrote that Arabs are “a part of the Mohammedan world and that a wide gulf separates their culture from that of the predominately Christian peoples of Europe.” The opinion reveals that religion and race were associated long before 9/11 and modern-day Islamophobia.
What White means today
In 1924, Congress passed the National Origins Act, which classified MENA individuals from the Levant as White, albeit with restricted immigration quotas, much as applied to Jews, Greeks, Poles, Slavs and Italians. By 1977, the Office of Management and Budget determined that MENA individuals are to be classified as White for all federal records on race and ethnicity, which remains federal policy to this day. However, recent research suggests that how the government classifies MENA individuals does not connect with how everyday Americans assign racial labels, as suggested in the brouhaha over Meena Harris’s tweet. White may not be the most appropriate racial label for this group.
But what markers should be used for determining who is considered White? Is it merely a question of geographic ancestry, or do physical characteristics such as skin or eye color influence how Americans assign racial labels? And where does religion fit?
As news coverage revealed that the Boulder shooting suspect is a Syrian Muslim, some observers, like Harris, issued retractions for assuming he was White. Others insisted that the fact that he was taken into custody alive classifies him as a White man. Still others declare that being Muslim is not a race or an ethnicity but a religion.
In images, Alissa looks White. More significantly, he is legally White.
Much of the discussion suggests that determining Alissa’s race may influence how Americans assess motive in the mass shooting: mental illness, a “bad day,” White violence, Islamic terrorism, or something yet to be revealed. Despite legal classifications by the state, Alissa is not universally perceived as White. Americans may feel that they know “White violence” when they see it. But do they know Whiteness when they see it?
Correction: An earlier version of this article gave an incorrect date for the Boulder shooting. We regret the error.
Amanda Sahar d’Urso (@asdurso) is a PhD candidate in political science at Northwestern University.