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  • Racing Religion
  • Moustafa Bayoumi (bio)

The Jew is one whom other men consider a Jew: that is the simple truth from which we must start.

Jean-Paul Sartre

But what exactly is a black? First of all, what's his color?

Jean Genet

Late in 1942, as the Second World War raged overseas, a Yemeni Muslim immigrant named Ahmed Hassan quietly appeared one day in front of a United States District Court judge. The Michigan resident had come to court for a hearing regarding his petition for naturalization, and while we don't know what he wore that day, it was probably something carefully chosen to downplay his "extremely dark complexion," as described in the judge's decision (In re Hassan 1942, 844). Hassan, after all, was making his official appearance in front of the Court to prove that he was a white person and, therefore, eligible for citizenship.

Although Hassan was one of the first Arab Muslims to petition for American naturalization, his case was far from unique. Beginning in 1790 [End Page 267] (Act 1790) and until 1952 (Immigration 1952), the Naturalization Act had limited citizenship to "free white persons" but without exactly defining what makes a person white. Thus, many people, primarily of Asian descent, had appeared in front of the courts before Hassan to argue that they were "white by law," to borrow a phrase from Ian Haney Lopez's book (1996) of the same name. The immigration laws had changed over the years. In 1870, for example, the Naturalization Act was amended to include "aliens of African nativity and to persons of African descent" (Act 1870), and in 1940 (Nationality Act 1940), language was added to include "races indigenous to the Western Hemisphere." Nonetheless, certain Asians, beginning with the Chinese, had been excluded from American citizenship since 1878 (Haney Lopez 1996, 42–45). In 1882, Congress passed the first Chinese Exclusion Act, and in 1917, most immigration from Asia was further curtailed with the establishment of what Congress called the "Asiatic Barred Zone" (Chin 1998, 15). The reasoning here was that the country should not admit people who had no chance of naturalization. Despite all these changes, it was still far from clear just what race Hassan was, especially with Yemen sitting squarely on the Arabian Peninsula in Asia.

Hassan certainly knew he had a fight ahead of him and was aware that the battle would be about his group membership and not his individual qualifications. He understood that the Court would want to know if Arabs were white or yellow, European or Asian, Western or Eastern. He probably knew that the Court would wonder if Arabs, as a people, could assimilate into the white Christian culture of the United States or if they were, by nature, unsuited to adapt to the republic where they now lived. After all, in previous "racial-prerequisite cases," as they are called, such political and cultural questions were commonly asked, although they traditionally narrowed in simply on the color of one's skin. Even then, as Haney Lopez tells us, the courts adopted shifting standards of whiteness, first using scientific knowledge (now largely discredited) or congressional intent and then adopting the test of "common understanding" (1996, 67–77).

We know that Hassan was aware of the impending questions and the legal history of immigration by the fact that he came to Court that day armed with affidavits stating that his coloring "is typical of the majority of [End Page 268] the Arabians from the region from which he comes, which [in] fact is attributed to the intense heat and the blazing sun of that area" (In re Hassan 1942, 844). Under his arm were other affidavits, claims by unnamed ethnologists declaring that "the Arabs are remote descendants of and therefore members of the Caucasian or white race, and that [Hassan] is therefore eligible for citizenship" (846). He had done his homework. He had hope.

Whatever optimism he may have had, however, was soon dashed. Hassan's petition was denied. In his three-page decision dated December 14, 1942, Judge Arthur J. Tuttle straightforwardly stated that "Arabs are not white persons within the meaning...


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