“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 20th century? How did Syrian participation in their racialization impact social relations at different times and in different places? (23) This process of stock-taking will encourage debate not only on the history of discrimination against Arabs in the United States, but also on the ways they have sought to position themselves within and to benefit from racial hierarchies that perpetuate racist discourse, most frequently and detrimentally directed at African Americans. By better understanding the history of the production of racist attitudes, including within their own communities, Arab-Americans will be in a better position to build coalitions that seek to dismantle them. Over time, this endeavor will reveal that where there has been collaboration with white supremacy, there has been resistance forged through partnership and dialogue with people of color. (24)


The practice of lynching, in which mobs of varying sizes apprehended persons, often while they were in police custody, and executed them, had been on the rise since the late 19th century when the “New South” began to adopt its infamous Jim Crow laws. (25) These laws erected a stringent policy of racial segregation, disenfranchised blacks, and encouraged the exercise of frequent and horrific violence against those who allegedly violated community standards.

While historians and sociologists have noted the varying types of lynchings (depending on region and time-period for example), the underlying intent of the vast majority of lynchings in the post-Civil War was the same: to enforce a system of white supremacy. They occurred in the North, Midwest and Far West, but the highest numbers were in the South where lynch mobs killed all estimated 3,943 persons between 1880 and 1930. (26) The state of Florida was especially prone to lynching. Between 1921 and 1946, Florida witnessed sixty-one recorded lynchings, more than twice the number in Alabama and Louisiana, and only slightly less than Georgia. (27)

In the Jim Crow South, it was overwhelmingly black men who were subjected to lynching’s gruesome violence. (28) They were the “strange fruit” of which Billie Holiday later sang in her haunting melody, hanging from the poplar trees, their bodies tortured and defiled, left for public display and, increasingly, public consumption in the form of commodified spectacle and dismemberment. Thousands came, for example, to be spectators at Sam Hose’s lynching in Newman, Georgia in 1899–many in specially-chartered trains. A crowd of men, “souvenir seekers,” rushed to cut off pieces of his body, parts of which were sold at “inflated prices” in the market that developed for such things. Sam Hose’s knuckles were later displayed in a grocery store window, an event that became seared on the mind of scholar, W.E.B. Dubois, and undoubtedly thousands of other African-Americans. (29)

Although the circumstances surrounding the Romey lynching are not entirely clear, it is known that his killers preferred to riddle his body with bullets, rather than torture him slowly and end his life with a hangman’s noose. They left his body in a ditch where it could be detected, but it did not become a public spectacle around which crowds gathered in unabashed celebrations of white supremacy. In this and other regards, the Romey lynching did not seem to “fit” the prevailing pattern of extralegal violence in the Jim Crow South. No one suspected him of raping a white woman or committing murder (the two most common accusations made against lynching victims), and he was officially white. The Syrians had after all emerged victorious from a hard-fought battle to claim their whiteness in federal naturalization courts, and their community leaders initially used this victory to argue that Romey’s murder was a terrible injustice. (30)

They could not argue that the lynching of a purported white man was a total aberration, since the South did have a long history of lynching whites. In the antebellum period, the majority of persons lynched were white, not so much because blacks escaped condemnation for alleged criminal activity, but because lynching them would have involved destruction of slave property–something planters were unlikely to condone. (31) The lynching of whites continued in the post-Reconstruction era, but in much smaller numbers. (32) Of these, historians have focused on a few highly publicized cases: those of Leo Frank (Atlanta, Georgia, 1915), a Northern Jew accused of raping and murdering a young female in his employ; John Hodaz (Plant City, Florida, 1930), a Hungarian immigrant accused of dynamiting the home of a Florida farm-family, and Joseph Shoemaker (Tampa, Florida, 1935), a labor activist who was tortured and killed for his socialist views. (33) According to historian Fitzhugh Brundage, these cases involved whites who were perceived to have “merited” lynching because they had “deviated from community standards of behavior, whether by abusing their spouses and children or by holding unorthodox moral, social, or political beliefs.” (34) The lynching of whites in his estimation “had nothing to with race,” but was about punishing violators of southern codes of honor, deference and respectability. (35) Did, then, the killing of Romey fit this pattern of extralegal violence? Was it to use Christopher Waldrep’s term, a “nonracial lynching?” (36)

In a way yes, since it can be argued that Romey (and, perhaps more interestingly, his wife) defied police authority and thus Lake City’s “community standards.” But his lynching was also far more complicated, for it did have much to do with race, or the work race as an ideology could do in the era of Jim Crow. More specifically, Romey’s death at the hands of lynch mob stands as an important episode in the history of the racialization of Syrian Arabs as “in-between” peoples, that is, neither fully white nor black, in the Southern racial scheme. (37)

My contention that the Romey lynching was about race is not merely an argument that Syrian Arabs were the victims of white racism more commonly directed at blacks. Nor does this article intend to claim a separate history of Arab racialization in the United States, one that would help break down the black-white paradigm that has until recently dominated the field of race studies. Rather, I am suggesting that this lynching forces us to interrogate the idea of Arab whiteness within a particular social formation, and to ask how Arab racialization related to that of other groups. The racial pre-requisite cases had extended to Syrians the privileges of (white) citizenship, but these cases did not settle the question of race for them. And while the New York Evening Herald described Romey as a “white” man, the events surrounding his lynching and other instances of violence reveal, the whiteness of Syrians is best conceived as being probationary, its credibility periodically called into question by government authorities and public opinion. (38) In this regard, Romey’s lynching echoed some of the complicated racial dynamics of the Leo Frank case which, as Matthew Frye Jacobsen argues revealed him to be “inconclusively white.” (39) Complicating the matter is the fact that Syrians often chose a strategy of resistance to racism that reinforced exclusionary ideologies and practices. The Romey lynching provides insight into this process, for it engaged the Syrian immigrant community around questions of racial violence and the proper response to it. Not only does the case provide evidence as to how Syrians were racialized by dominant white society, it reveals also a history of conscious race-making on the part of Syrians; a history of defining their status as white in opposition to blacks and Asian-Americans.


The obvious question that begs to be answered is: Why? Why was Nicholas Romey in police custody in the first place and what could have been so egregious about his alleged offense that it prompted a private mob to snatch him from jail, circumvent state authority and lynch him? If we follow Brundage’s argument that whites were lynched for holding “unorthodox moral, social, or political beliefs,” then we are still left puzzled. While, for example, Leo Frank was accused of rape and murder, John Hodaz of attempted murder, and Joseph Shoemaker of harboring radical political beliefs, Romey faced none of these charges. He was guilty simply of challenging white authority, of talking back when clearly his killers expected him to remain silent. John F. Baker, Lake City’s chief of police, embodied this authority, and the challenge began with an argument over a seemingly innocuous display of vegetables. (40)

By the 1920s, Syrians in the South had begun to transition from peddling into grocery and dry-goods. Their success in this particular economic niche was the result of years of thrift and capital accumulation that they channeled into the purchase of stores in urban areas. In addition, as Paula Stathakis argues, Syrians were “able to find places in the local economy where they could function and blacks could not.” (41) Their arrival in many areas was in fact viewed by native middle and tipper class whites as a way to deprive blacks of potential economic opportunity. Syrians were not, in the words of a South Carolinian senator, “our kind of people”, but they nonetheless contributed to a culture of segregation in which their economic success did not threaten the livelihood of native whites. (42)

The Romey’s, like so many of their compatriots, owned a grocery store, outside of which they displayed produce for sale a practice that may have been contrary to the city ordinances. (43) In the second week of May 1929, John F. Baker appeared at their store and ordered Fannie Romey to remove her vegetables from the sidewalk. At this point, the reports of the incident begin to vary widely. The Lake City Reporter indicated that the Chief of Police had had “trouble with Mrs. Romey” over her use of the sidewalk. (44) According to the Miami Herald, which carried the story of the lynching on the front page, Mrs. Romey “resented the order” to remove her produce and warned Baker: “We’re going to kill you before Sunday.” (45) The Syrian World. which based its report on the investigation conducted in the town by a Syrian lawyer, F. S. Risk, provided a substantially different account. According to its report, Mrs. Romey had protested the order but her defiance was met with swift action on the part of Baker and his men who began to drag her across the street towards the patrol car. However, her arrest was foiled by the intervention of some of the town’s “leading citizens.” (46) The Syrian World’s report contained additional information on events leading up to the vegetable dispute, which shed light on why Baker had descended on the store in the first place. Apparently one week earlier, the eldest Romey child (Esau/Icer) had taken his three siblings out for a drive around the lake. (47) They were struck by a speeding car, which later turned out to be stolen. The police arrested the occupants of the stolen vehicle, absolved Esau Romey of all blame and promised him that the reckless driver would be responsible for covering the cost of repairs to the damaged car. This last piece of information is crucial, for it led to the dispute between Baker and Mrs. Romey that ultimately ended in tragedy.

His car fixed, Esau called on Baker to make good on his promise, but the police chief denied having made it and refused to settle the claim. Mrs. Romey then challenged what must have appeared to her as blatant unfairness and abuse of power, confronted Baker and called him a liar. The chief of police did not take lightly this charge from a bold Syrian woman and he quickly decided on a course of action to assert his authority and, it would seem, his masculinity. He headed for the Romey store and asked to see either Nicholas or Esau. Finding neither, he began arguing with Mrs. Romey and demanded that the offending vegetables be taken inside, a strange request since other grocers also had outdoor displays and thus a special punishment for Mrs. Romey’s outspoken behavior.

Several reports related that the chief of police’s altercation with Fannie Romey infuriated her husband. Perhaps feeling that his own honor was at stake, he phoned Baker to convey his anger and inform him that he had again put his vegetables out on the sidewalk. This conversation resulted in a second and more deadly visit from the chief of police. Again reports differ, particularly over the question of who fired the first shot. The Syrian World claimed that Baker and his men began firing in the store “without the least provocation, but presumably for purposes of intimidation only.” (48) When Romey attempted to hide behind the counter, one of the policemen struck him in the head with a gun, causing him to fall to the floor. Fannie Romey rushed to the front of the store and, seeing her husband lying in a pool of blood, shot at the Chief of Police who returned fire, mortally wounding her. While she lay on the floor admonishing her son not to intervene one of the policeman shot at her several more times “with a curse and the exclamation ‘Aren’t you dead yet?’ (49)

The Florida newspaper reports and the testimony given by the police officers and a witness claimed that Fannie Romey had fired at Baker first, when he attempted to remove her husband from the store. In response, as the Florida Times Union put it, “Baker was said to have fired live times, several of the shots taking effect in the woman’s body.” (50) Nicholas Romey was carted off to the local jail where he was “reported to have made threats to get even for the shooting of his wife.” (51) Later that night, a mob removed him from his cell and killed him. According to the Miami Herald, “An examination of Romeo’s [sic] cell in the city jail failed to show any marks of an instrument having been used to pry off the lock,” although the Lake City Reporter reported that the sheriff had found a “heavy iron pipe,” and a “twisted and bent lock.” (52) Typical of so many lynchings at this time, both the sheriff and the chief of police claimed to have no clues as to the identity or size of the murderous mob. (53) Members of the coroner’s jury impaneled to hear the investigation of his lynching determined that “Romey came to his death at the hands of persons unknown to us.” (54)

It is difficult to know what to make of the misspelling of Romey’s name in some of the Florida newspaper reports. (55) Why did he appear first as N.G. Romey, but then as E.R. Romeo or Romero? Was he being confused with another Mediterranean immigrant group, the Southern Italians, who had also filled the economic niche of grocery and fruit stands and had been the victims of lynch mobs in the South? Was Romey’s “crime” that he forged close economic relationships with the blacks of Lake City just as the Sicilians of Talloulah, Louisiana had done, thus violating the “white man’s code?” (56) Moreover, is it possible that Nicholas was lynched because his wife, the person who allegedly inflicted the gunshot wound to Chief Baker, was already dead? The reports, after all, described the primary quarrel as being between Baker and Mrs. Romey, with the Lake City Reporter running the headline “Woman Killed in Pistol Battle With Police Chief; Husband Taken from Jail, Lynched.” Future research may help to answer these questions.


The literature on whiteness has consistently underscored its invented quality by examining how immigrant groups claimed, appropriated, and ultimately defended the status of being white. (57) A central goal of this literature has been to render whiteness visible, to recognize it as a racial construct, to have “it speak its name.” (58) Most importantly, critical studies of whiteness reveal it to be a “site where power and privilege converged and conspired to sabotage ideals of justice, equality, and democracy.” (59) Understanding this process of “becoming white” has helped historians of ethnicity tackle the complexities of race in America, but it has also revealed that it is not always easy to distinguish between the two. As Stuart Hall argues, race and ethnicity play hide-and-seek with each other. (60)

In the story of Nicholas Romey’s lynching, race and ethnicity appear to have come together in the mob’s decision to kill him. Legally Syrians were white, but to view Romey’s death as just one of those rare occurrences when mobs lynched white men to enforce “community standards” would be to miss the more complex work of race at this particular time and this particular place.

Like other north Florida towns, Lake City had a large black population. According to the 1930 Census, the majority of the population (954 out of 1,682, or 57%) was black. (61) In this context, any challenge to white authority in Lake City could be interpreted as a threat to the system of privilege and domination over a more populous non-white segment of the community. Lynching was a way to preserve this domination and perpetuate “the ascendancy of an entrenched group.” (62) In Lake City, where there were only twenty persons of foreign birth, native whites were concerned primarily with maintaining their ascendancy over blacks, and they had already demonstrated a willingness to use intimidation and violence in order to do so. In 1920, for example, B.J. Jones, the black chairman of the Columbia County Republican Club of Lake City barely escaped with his life when he challenged the political status quo. Jones had riled the white citizens of Lake City and Jacksonville with his efforts to encourage blacks, particularly black women, to vote. He was reported to have visited churches, lodges, and night schools “and carrying on a propaganda to have negro women expelled if they failed to exercise the franchise.” (63) In an effort to silence him, a mob snatched him from his home at night and carried him several miles from Jacksonville. They put a noose around his neck, but “after being.” (64) allowed to think he would be lynched, [he] was allowed to escape.

Several months before Romey’s death, the news of Lake City had been focused on the November 1928 election, with the local paper citing Southern newspapers that decried the possibility of a win by the Republican Party and “its anti-lynching plank.” The Atlanta Constitution combined gendered and racist rhetoric to sound the alarm: “In the pending national campaign, the question of white supremacy is paramount and supercedes every controversial issue–it strikes at the very hearthstone of every white man’s home in the South.” (65) The Republican Party did win the election, an event that no doubt angered many white Floridians. Two weeks later, and perhaps entirely by coincidence, the Elks club of Lake City hosted a blackface minstrel show and urged attendees to “lay aside your worries, and enjoy the occasion.” (66)

At this time of native white anxiety over political and economic power, the lynching of Romey served a dual purpose: to punish an outspoken Syrian immigrant, and remind blacks of the terrible fate that could await them should they also challenge the Southern caste system. In this regard, it is significant that the two incarcerated black men who might have served as witnesses to Romey’s abduction from jail claimed that they had seen and heard nothing. The point is that for blacks–those who had the most to fear in the Jim Crow South, and on whose bodies lynching had acquired its terrifying significance–the whiteness of Romey must have been secondary in importance to the exercise of mob violence on a perceived “outsider.”

Black outsider-ness in the South was linked to their systematic exclusion from white-controlled spaces and institutions, and to the psychological scars inflicted by slavery’s exploitation and de-humanization. In contrast, Romey was an outsider because of his foreignness, because he lacked roots in the community and belonged to a “suspect” immigrant group. The suspicion that Syrians were unfit to become American citizens because they were “aliens other than white,” had led to the series of racial pre-requisite cases between 1909 and 1915. (67) After numerous appeals and intense intervention by the Syrian immigrant elite, government officials declared Syrians to be white for the purposes of naturalization, a legal decision that Nicholas Romey benefited from in 1916 when he and his wile naturalized. (68) The racial prerequisite cases helped save Syrians from the restrictive immigration polices imposed on other Asian groups in 1917 and 1924. The Immigration Act of 1917, for example, not only excluded certain classes of Asians from immigrating into the United States; it also underpinned the 1923 Supreme Court decision in United States v. Thind that denied the right to naturalize to Indians. (69)

Syrians, in contrast, won the legal battle for their whiteness but it nonetheless remained provisional, and they continued to be targeted by a reinvigorated nativism and reminded of their precarious status in the American racial hierarchy. In 1920, a candidate for a political campaign in Birmingham, Alabama circulated a handbill that read: “They have disqualified the negro, an American citizen, from voting in the white primary. The Greek and Syrian should also be disqualified. I DON’T WANT THEIR VOTE. If I can’t be elected by white men, I don’t want the office.” (70) A few years later, terrorists (allegedly from the Ku Klux Klan) dynamited the home of a Syrian family in Marietta, Georgia, (71) and only a few weeks before the Romey lynching, Syrians were outraged by Pennsylvania Senator Reed’s description of them as “the trash of the Mediterranean, all that Levantine stock that chums around through there and does not know what its own ancestry is.” (72) The bombing and the derogatory comments were representative of a wider anti-immigrant feeling in the nation. It is possible that in a town like Lake City, with a white minority unaccustomed to seeing immigrants, let alone non-European ones, Romey’s Syrian-ness, his “cultural distance” from the town’s inhabitants, made him a “not quite white” outsider, vulnerable to extra-legal violence. (73) As if to confirm their outsiderness, the bodies of Nicholas and Fannie were returned for burial to Valdosta, Georgia, where they lived several years before moving to Lake City, and which had a sizeable Syrian population. (74) It was a resident of Valdosta, George Lahood who, “representing [a] number of Syrian citizens,” had sent an anguished telegram to Florida Governor Carlton urging that he intervene to ensure the safety of the eldest Romey child, Esau. (75)

George Lahood’s appeal to the Governor was part of a limited effort by Syrians in the South to demand an inquiry into the lynching. Members of the Syrian community in Jacksonville attempted to organize a committee to bring the case to trial, but it soon folded due to lack of “public support.” (76) Perhaps Syrians hoped that the incident would fade from memory, and they were thus unwilling to confront the established power that had reminded them that the path towards assimilation in America would be replete with obstacles. They may have been consoled by the fact that three Lake City clubs, the Rotary, Kiwanis and Woman’s, condemned the lynching publicly in the Lake City Reporter. The Rotary Club regretted that “the peace and dignity of our community have been shamefully and grievously violated;” while the Woman’s Club announced that “such disregard for law is repulsive to all right thinking people and brings great reproach upon our community.” (77) None of the denunciations mentioned Nicholas Romey by name, but referred to him as “the prisoner” and “a citizen … killed before he had been brought before any court for hearing.” (78) Indeed, it was the specter of lawlessness that provoked the white establishment of Lake City to express concern over the lynching and not, it would seem, the extinguished life of two immigrant members of the community.

Syrian leaders in New York City, home of the largest Syrian settlement, were tentative about how to react to the lynching. Naoum Mokarzel, veteran defender of Syrian rights and owner and editor of the popular Arabic-language paper, al-Hoda (The Guidance) hired a lawyer to investigate but cautioned his readers against a rush to judgment, especially in a case that involved police officers. His brother, Salloum (editor of the Syrian World) was equally cautious and wrote in an editorial that: “A certain feeling of prejudice undeniably exists against the Syrians in some parts of the South and any rash action on their part might tend to aggravate matters unnecessarily.” (79)

The reaction of members of the Syrian community to the Romey lynching also revealed what had been an important development during the naturalization controversy of 1909-1915: a Syrian discourse about, and affirmation of, whiteness. The reasons for this development should be obvious enough whiteness meant access to citizenship and the privileges it afforded, and non-whiteness meant, as the Syrian immigrants could clearly see, frequent disenfranchisement and degradation. This is why the Syrian elite reacted defensively to any act that called into question their racial status. In a telling response to Romey’s death, the Syrian newspaper al-Shaab exclaimed: “The Syrian is not a negro whom Southerners feel they are justified in lynching when he is suspected of an attack on a white woman. The Syrian is a civilized white man who has excellent traditions and a glorious historical background and should be treated as among the best elements of the American nation.” (80) The commentator in al-Shaab was arguing in other words that Romey had been the victim of racial misidentification, and that his lynchers had not understood what he believed to be true: that Syrians were fully white. His use of the adjective “civilized” was significant and harked back to the arguments made by candidates for naturalization in the racial prerequisite cases that asserted Syria’s place as the birthplace of Western civilization. But the main purpose of the article was to argue that the Syrian was “not a negro,” and in doing so the writer appeared unconcerned that black persons were regularly the victims of extralegal violence.

In a broader sense, the lynching of Nicholas Romey underscores how the racialization of Syrians made sense, or acquired meaning, in relation to a racialized other, namely African Americans. Romey’s “whiteness” mattered to Syrians because his lynching summoned fears among them that they had become, in that instant, surrogate blacks. Understanding the link between the racialization of Syrians and blacks helps explain why the Syrians continually reaffirmed and invested in their whiteness. They did so in letters, court cases, newspapers, interviews, and, although it is much harder to document, in social relations. Like other immigrant groups (the Irish, Italians, and Jews) they “grasped for the whiteness at the margins of their experiences” (81) rather than challenge the premise that whiteness was a legitimate prerequisite for social, economic and political privilege. When confronted with violence and discrimination in the period of Jim Crow, their response often reinforced racist and even eugenicist discourse instead of challenging it. All this confirms what is unfortunately obfuscated in everyday discussion of race in the United States: that whiteness is not a biological fact, but a result of longstanding social structures and of choices made within a particular historical context. (82) The aftermath of the Romey lynching suggests that Syrians in the South increasingly supported and re-inscribed their position on the white side of the color line. There is evidence, for example, that they participated in one of the major processes of white confirmation, movement into neighborhoods that excluded non-whites in the post-World War II period. (83)

A great deal of work still needs to be done on the kind of choices made by Syrians and the implications of these choices for their relationships with other racialized groups. Why for example did influential Syrians get involved in assisting the naturalization of a South Asian immigrant, but not lend help to the NAACP anti-lynching campaigns? (84) The simple answer is that Syrians were a small immigrant community, lacking in power, and trying to make a difficult life better by defending their right to naturalize as citizens. As a marginal group in the segregated South, they had to “know their place,” and not risk losing the security of their whiteness by voicing opinions that were contrary to the prevailing views of the white majority. But what would rejecting whiteness have implied for Syrians and for other groups at this time and at other historical moments? These are the types of questions that have not been asked in Arab-American studies, but that analyses of other cases of Arab engagements with race would answer.

In conclusion, this article is an attempt to use the Romey lynching to probe larger questions about race and ethnicity in the United States, and to analyze the ways in which Syrians positioned themselves within and understood racial classification in the first half of the 20th century. The lynching reveals the racially ambiguous status of first-wave Arab immigrants in the United States, but it also demonstrates how immigrants strove to resolve that ambiguity by affirming their whiteness. One of the legacies of their success in doing so is the racial classification of Arabs as “white” in federal statistics, including the Census. Arab-Americans are, however, increasingly dissatisfied with this classification because, as the record of discrimination in the post-1945 period makes clear, they continue to be racialized as “not-quite-white” or “inbetween” peoples, and to suffer discrimination because of this. Unlike Italians and Jews, with whom they shared earlier experiences of racialization, the whiteness of Arabs in the United States has proved to be profoundly unstable.

Arab-Americans have addressed the problem of their racial classification in a number of ways. Encouraged by the ethnic revival of the 1960s, and dismayed by their vilification after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, they formed pan-ethnic organizations that asserted their Arab identity as a political strategy for countering racism and claiming rights. (85) Two of these organizations, the Arab American Institute and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, lobbied Congress to change the classification of Arabs as “Caucasian” on the 2000 Census to either a separate “Middle Eastern” or “Arab-American” category. (86) Their arguments for doing so were multi-faceted, ranging from the desire to have a more accurate count of the Arab population in the United States, to more strategic implications of a new category; namely, that minority status would render Arabs eligible for federally funded programs, and provide greater protection under anti-discrimination laws. The Office of Management and Budget decided not to introduce a new category, citing a lack of consensus and the relatively small size of the community as two important reasons. (87) it is worth noting that since 11 September 2001, Arab-Americans have become less convinced of the utility of an official minority category, as it could lead to a greater convergence of ethnic classification and racial profiling. (88)

Arab-American feminists, more than any other segment within the community, advocate identification with people of color with whom they share a history of marginalization and objectification by white, middle-class Americans. (89) This position has also been the springboard for coalition building across the lines of ethnicity as when Japanese-Americans, Jewish-Americans and Arab-Americans joined forces to oppose the infringement on the civil rights of Arab-Americans during the 1991 Gulf War. “Such coalitions”, Lisa Majaj notes, “make clear that it is possible to bridge the insularity of identity politics without diminishing the specificity of ethnic concerns.” (90)

A third area in which Arabs in America reject whiteness is in literary and cultural production. Nowhere is this position flamed more bluntly and provocatively than in Lawrence Joseph’s poetic manifesto “Sand Nigger,” which stresses the links between Arab-American and black marginalization and resistance. (91) This position builds on the radical politics of the 1960s when African-American and Third World leaders like Malcolm X and Gamal Abdul Nasser connected the histories of peoples of African and Arab descent in a common anti-imperialist, anti-white supremacist struggle. More recently, identification with blackness is manifested in the appropriation of hip-hop style and not in a politics of affiliation per se. It is also possible, as Hisham Aidi points out, for this trend to work in reverse in what is being called “the other September 11 effect.” The rise in conversions to Islam in Europe, Latin America and the United States represent a new movement of protest against the hegemonic white West, but the interest in things Arab and Muslim can take odd turns. The wildly popular Brazilian telenovela El Clon, for example, offered a “profusion of Orientalist imagery,” as did the coupling of a burka-like veil and lingerie in a photo-shoot of rapper Li’l Kim. (92)

I have argued elsewhere that the disavowal of whiteness by Arab-Americans cannot be productive in itself and therefore should not be done without consideration of the history of how and why Arabs “became white” in the first place. (93) The idea of Arab whiteness in the United Sates is mainly a legacy of Syrians’ encounter with naturalization law, and of the continued conscious and strategic decisions during the first half of the 20th century to separate themselves from nonwhites, notably blacks and Asians. That these decisions could follow in the wake of the lynching of a member of their community reveals the power of racial violence to silence opposition and dissent. As Brundage observes, “there are many lingering questions about how generations of blacks and whites repressed, forgot, and reshaped their memories of lynching.” (94)

If Arabs in America now disclaim whiteness, they must acknowledge how they benefited from it through access to citizenship, the right to purchase property, and to participate on the white side of the color line in the segregated south where this meant advantages over nonwhites in housing, schools, politics and jobs. Doing so may open up channels of dialogue with groups on whose backs these privileges were gained, and whose fight against racism can be instructive to Arabs who seek ultimately to dismantle race privilege. These efforts may also serve to uncover the submerged history of Syrians like Nicholas and Fannie Romey, whose untimely death form part of the sediment oil which later racialization projects were, and are, being built.


* An earlier version of this article entitled “The Lynching of Nicholas Romey” was presented at the conference on the Lebanese Diaspora, Beirut, Lebanon 2001 and will be published in the proceedings (forthcoming Notre Dame University). This text has authority. I thank Michelle Hartman, Melani McAlister, Maria Elena Martinez and Theresa Mah for their careful reading and suggestions on how to improve the argument. Thanks also to an anonymous reader at Arab Studies Quarterly for several helpful comments, and to my colleague Mike Ross for reading an early draft.

(1.) The article appears in the papers of the NAACP, Part 7, The Anti-Lynching Campaign, 1912-1955, Series A “Anti-Lynching Investigative Files, 1912-1953,” Reel 10, University Publications of America, Inc., 1987.

(2.) Although the Lake City Reporter erroneously described them as “native born Assyrians,” 24 May 1929, p. 1; Miami Herald, 18 May 1929, p. 1, Florida Union Times, 19 May 1929, p. 19; New York Times, 18 May 1929, p. 18, Meraat ul-gharb (Mirror of the West), 23 May 1929. “Syrian” refers to persons originating from the late-Ottoman provinces of bilad al-Sham, or geographical Syria. This area included the present states of Syria, Lebanon, Israel/Palestine and Jordan. While the majority of emigrants from bilad al-Sham to the United States were from what became the Republic of Lebanon, they described themselves as “Syrian,” and were referred to as such in the sources used for this paper. As for Romey’s name, it is most probably an anglicized version of the Arabic “Rumi”, while his first name, Nicholas, is anglicized from Niqula. His wife, Fannie, (who was Syrian) may have also changed her name.

(3.) Syrian World, Vol.3, No. 12 (June 1929), p. 46; Miami Herald, 18 May 1929; New York Times, 18 May 1929.

(4.) I use the term Asia to be consistent with the census terminology of the day. Syrian immigrants were listed as “foreign born white” under the broad category of Asia. See figures for 1910-1940 in U.S. Bureau of the Census, 16th Census of the United States: 1940, Population (Florida), Vol. 2 (Washington: G.P.O., 1943), p. 33.

(5.) By “racialization” I mean, following Thomas C. Holt’s succinct definition, the processes by which groups were “made into races.” In the United States, these processes typically included land expropriation, exploitation of labor and popular and official debate over racial classification. “Race” is thus a historically contingent category that acquires meaning within specific relations of power. See his The Problem of Race in the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000), p. 53. See also, Rohit Barot and John Bird, “Racialization: the genealogy and critique of a concept,” Ethnic and Racial Studies, 1.24, No. 4 (July 2001), pp. 601-618.

(6.) Among the recent interventions in the field dealing with race and racialization of Arabs are, Therese Saliba, “Resisting Invisibility,” Helen Hatab Samhan, “Not Quite White,” and Lisa Suhair Majaj, “Arab-American Ethnicity: Locations, Coalitions, and Cultural Negotiations,” all in Arabs in America, Michael W. Suleiman (Ed.), (Philadelphia, 1999); Joseph Massad, “Palestinians and the Limits of a Racialized Discourse,” Social Text 34 (1993): pp. 94-114; Nadine Naber, “Ambiguous Insiders: an investigation of Arab American invisibility,” Ethnic and Racial Studies 23 (No. 1, 2000): pp. 37-61; Sarah Gualtieri, “Becoming ‘White’: Race, Religion and the Foundations of Syrian/Lebanese Ethnicity in the United States,” Journal of American Ethnic History 20, No. 4 (2001): pp. 29-58.

(7.) There is quite an extensive literature documenting the emergence and circulation of Arab stereotypes in television, film and textbooks, as well as politically motivated violence and intimidation. Among the pioneering and more comprehensive studies are: Janice Terry, Mistaken Identity (Washington, D.C.: American-Arab Affairs Council, 1985); Jack Shaheen, The TV Arab (Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1984); Michael Suleiman, The Arabs in the Mind of America (Brattleboro, Vt: Amana, 1988); Nabeel Abraham “Anti-Arab Racism and Violence in the United States,” in The Development of Arab-American Identity, Ernest McCarus (Ed.), (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997) and Susan Akram, “The Aftermath of September 11, 2001: The Targeting of Arabs and Muslims in America,” Arab Studies Quarterly, Vol. 24, Nos. 2&3 (Spring/Summer 2002): pp. 61-118.

(8.) Joanna Kadi, “Introduction,” Food For Our Grandmothers: Writing by Arab-American and Arab-Canadian Feminists (Boston: South End Press, 1994), p. xix.

(9.) Saliba, “Resisting Invisibility,” p. 305. On this point see also, Salah D. Hassan, “Arabs, Race and the Post-September 11 National Security State,” in Middle East Report 224 (Fall 2002), p. 21.

(10.) Helen Hatab Samhan, “Politics and Exclusion: The Arab American Experience,” Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. XVI, No. 2 (Winter, 1987), p. 16.

(11.) The LA-8 is a group of 7 Arab-American men and one Kenyan woman (wife of one of the men) arrested in Los Angeles in 1987 on “terrorism” charges. The INS claimed that their distribution of pro-Palestinian literature constituted a threat under the provisions of the McCarran-Walter Act, and has fought for their deportation ever since. See Akram, “Targeting Arabs and Muslims in America,” pp. 70-72. Nadine Naber, “Ambiguous Insiders,” pp. 47-48.

(12.) I refer here to Campus Watch set up by Daniel Pipes. See

(13.) This is Nadine Naber’s term in “Ambiguous Insiders,” p. 52

(14.) Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad, “Maintaining the Faith of the Fathers: Dilemmas of Religious Identity in the Christian and Muslim Arab-American Communities,” in The Development of Arab-American Identity, pp. 61-84: Yvonne Haddad (Ed.), The Muslims of America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991).

(15.) Submission to the United States Commission on Civil Rights, Testimony of James J. Zogby, 12 October 2001, in Arab American Institute, “Healing the Nation: The Arab American Experience after September 112” (September, 2002), p. 27.

(16.) “Report on Hate Crimes and Discrimination Against Arab Americans: The Post-September 11 Backlash,” Hussein Ibish (Did.), (Washington: American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, 2003), p. 65.

(17.) This literature is influenced by critical approaches to race which stress its social construction, and is also a reply to earlier scholarship that stressed the benefits of assimilation, including (although implicitly) within whiteness. See, for example, Soheir A. Morsy, “Beyond the Honorary ‘White’ Classification of Egyptians: Societal Identity in Historical Context,” in Race, Steven Gregory and Roger Sanjek (Eds.), (Rutgers, 1994), pp. 175-198: and note 5 above.

(18.) Suad Joseph “Against the Grain of the Nation–The Arab”, in Arabs in America, p. 268 and Kathleen Moore, “A Part of US or Apart from US? Post-Semptember 11 Attitudes Toward Muslims and Civil Liberties,” Middle East Report 224 Fall 2002 (p.33)

(19.) Ronald Stockton, “Ethnic Archetypes and the Arab Image,” in The Development o/Arab-American Identity, p. 138.

(20.) Ibid.

(21.) Nancy Faires Conklin and Nora Faires, “‘Colored’ and Catholic: the Lebanese in Birmingham, Alabama,” in Crossing the Waters, Eric J. Hooglund (Ed.), (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1987), pp. 69-84.

(22.) Thomas C. Holt, Unpublished “Response to George Sanchez’s ‘Foreign and Female’,” Dean’s Symposium, University of Chicago, 7 November 1997, p. 7.

(23.) A brief discussion of how Syrian and Greek whiteness facilitated their move into the niches of groceries and restaurants in the Carolinas can be found in Paula Maria Stathakis, “Almost White: Greek and Lebanese-Syrian Immigrants in North and South Carolina, 1900-1940,” Ph.D. Dissertation, University of South Carolina, 1996. Soheir Morsy and Kathleen Moore have hinted at the problems associated with claiming whiteness, namely that it has promoted racialist, even eugenicist criteria to construct identity and affiliation with the dominant social group, but more thorough investigations on the implications of these choices are needed. See Morsy. “Beyond the Honorary “White” Classification of Egyptians” and Moore, Al-Mughtaribun: America, Law am/ the Transformation of Muslim Life in the United States (Albany: SUNY Press, 1995), p. 43.

(24.) As recent work on Italians indicates. See Vincenea Scarpaci, “Walking the Color Line: Italian Immigrants in Rural Louisiana, 1880-1910,” in Are Italians White? How Race’ is Made” in America, Jennifer Guglielmo and Salvatore Salerno (Eds.). (New York: Routledge, 2003), pp. 60-76. There is also quite an extensive literature on mutually supportive relationships between; blacks and Jews. See for example. Arnold Shankman. Ambivalent Friends: Americans View of the Immigrant (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1982).

(25.) James R. McGovern notes that what distinguishes lynching from murder is community approval, “either explicit, in the form of general participation by the local citizenry, or implicit, in the form of acquittal of the killers with or without trial.” See Anatomy O/a Lynching. the Killing of Clouds Neal (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1982), p. x.

(26.) W. Fitzhugh Brundage, Lynching in the New South Georgia and Virginia, 1880-1930 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993), p. 8. For statistics outside the South (and superb analysis of how race and gender came together in the practice of lynching) see, Jacquelyn Down Hall, Revolt Against Chivalry: Jessie Daniel Ames and the Women’s Campaign Againts Lynching (New York: Columbia University Press, 1979), p. 134.

(27.) Mississippi had the highest number at 88. See U.S. Congress, Senate, Committee on the Judiciary, “Crime of Lynching” (Washington: GPO, 1948), p. 100.

(28.) Between 1881) and 1930, 3.220 of those lynched in the South were black, while 723 were white. Brundage, Lynching in the New South, p. 8.

(29.) Thomas C. Holt. “Marking: Race, Race-making, and the Writing of History,” American Historical Review v. 100, No. 1 (1995): p. 3: Grace E. Hale. Making Whiteness: vs. The Culture of segregation in the South, 1890-1940 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1998). p. 214.

(30.) On the history of the Syrian racial prerequisite cases, see Sarah Gualtieri, “Becoming ‘white,'”: pp. 29-58.

(31.) Blundage, Lyching in the New South, 5; Hall. Revolt Againt Chivalry, p. 131.

(32.) E. M. Beck and Stewart E. Tolnay argue that the decline in white lynching was linked to the development of the South and the establishment of more formal avenues of punishment. The lynchings of blacks, however, were “so intimately intertwined in the broader race conflict and competition that extended far into the new, century” that they continued to be tolerated by legal authorities. See “When Race Didn’t Matter: Black and White Mob Violence against Their Own Color,” in Under Sentence Of Death: Lynchings in the South, W. Fitzhugh Brundage (Ed.), (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1907), pp. 150-151.

(33.) Frank was lynched after his sentence was commuted. For an especially interesting analysis of the Leo Frank Case (which includes a critique of the literature), see Nancy MacLean, “The Leo Frank Case Reconsidered: Gender and Sexual Politics in the Making of Reactionary Populism,” The Journal of American History 78, No. 3 (1991), pp. 917-948. On Shoemaker and Hodaz see Walter T. Howard, Lynchings: Extralegal Violence in Florida during the 1930s (Selinsgrove: Susquehanna University Press, 1995).

(34.) Brundage, Lynching in the New Smith, p. 87.

(35.) Howard, Lynchings, p. 136; Brundage, Lynching in the New South, p. 86.

(36.) Christopher Waldrep, The Many Faces of Judge Lynch: Extralegal Violence and Punishment in America (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), p. 125.

(37.) On the concept of “inbetween-ness” see ,lames R. Barrett and David Roediger, “Inbetween Peoples: Race, Nationality and the “New Immigrant’ Working Class,” in Journal of American Ethnic History, Vol. 16, No. 3 (1997): pp. 3-44.

(38.) I borrow this term “probationary” from Matthew Frye Jacobson, Whitness of a Different Color, (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1998), p. 8.

(39.) Jacobson, Whiteness of a Different Color, p. 65

(40.) A colleague suggested that John Baker could in fact be Syrian, his last name being the anglicized version of the Arabic “Bakr.” None of the documents suggest this. He and his father were born in Florida, while his mother was born in Kentucky. See entry for John F. Baker, line 56, Enumeration District 12, Lake City, Columbia County, Florida: Manuscript Census of Population, National Archives Microfilm Roll T626-308, 15th Census of the United States, 1930, downloaded from

(41.) Stathakis, “Almost White,” p. 100.

(42.) Stathakis, “Almost White,” p. 57.

(43.) On the history of how Syrian immigrants occupied this particular economic niche, see Alixa Naff, Becoming American. the Early Arab Immigrant Experience (Carbondale: Southern Illinois Press, 1985); and Oswaldo Truzzi, “The Right Place at the Right Time: Syrians and Lebanese in Brazil and the United States: A Comparative Approach,” in Journal of American Ethnic History, Vol. 16, No. 2 (1997): pp. 1-34. On the ordinance see the transcript of the testimony by Arthur Hall (Police Sergeant) in the Lake Cin Reporter, 24 May 1929,

(44.) Lake City Reporter, 23 May 1929.

(45.) Miami Herald, 18 May 1929. It was most likely this report that was translated and printed in the popular New York Arabic-language newspaper, Meraat ul-gharb [sic] (Mirror of the West). See Meraat ul-gharb, 23 May 1929.

(46.) The Syrian World, Vol. 3, No. 12, June, 1929, p. 46.

(47.) The Syrian World listed his name as Esau, a transliteration most likely of the Arabic name, ‘Isa. He is enumerated in the 1920 Census as Icer, and this name was used in several of the English language reports.

(48.) Syrian World v. 3, No. 12 (June 1929), p. 47.

(49.) Syrian World, June 1929, p. 47

(50.) Florida Times Union (Jacksonville), 17 May 1929, p. 5

(51.) Lake City Reporter, 24 May 1929.

(52.) Miami Herald, 18 May 1929, p. 22; Lake City Reporter, 24 May 1929.

(53.) Miami Herald, 18 May 1929, p. 22 and Florida Times Union, 19 May 1929, p. 19.

(54.) Lake City Reporter, 24 May 1929.

(55.) Ibid.

(56.) On the lynching of Italians in the South see, Thomas A. Gugliehno, “No Color Barrier,” Italians, Race, and Power in the United States” in Are Italians White? Jennifer Gugliehno and Salvatore Salerno (Eds.), (New York: Routledge, 2003), pp. 29-43; and Jacobson, Whiteness of a Different Color, pp. 56-62; and the classic work on American nativism by John Higham, Strangers in the Land. Patterns of American Nativism (New York: Atheneum, 1993), p. 169.

(57.) This literature is very extensive. Among the works I have found most useful for this project are David Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class (London: Verso, 1991); Noel Ignatiev, How the Irish Became White (New York: Routledge, 1995); Matthew Frye Jacobson, Whiteness of a Different Color; Karen Brodkin, How Jews Became White Folks and What that Says About Race in America (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1998); Shelley Fisher Fishkin, “Interrogating ‘Whiteness,’ Complicating ‘Blackness’: Remapping American Culture,” American Quarterly, Vol. 47, Issue 3 (September 1995), pp. 428-466; George Lipsitz, The Possessive Investment in Whiteness (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998).

(58.) George Lipsitz, The Possessive Investment in Whiteness, p. 1.

(59.) Fishkin, “Interrogating ‘Whiteness,’ Complicating ‘Blackness,” p. 430.

(60.) Cited in Theories of Ethnicity: a classical reader, Werner Sollors (Ed.), (New York: New York University Press, 1996), p. xxxv.

(61.) United States Bureau of the Census, 15th Census, Reports by States [Florida], 1930 (Washington: G.P.O., 1933), p. 437

(62.) Robert P. Ingalls, “Lynching and Establishment Violence in Tampa, 1858-1935,” Journal of Southern History 53, No. 4, 1987, p. 615.

(63.) New York Times, 7 October 1920, p. 2.

(64.) Ibid.

(65.) Lake City, Reporter, 3 August 1928.

(66.) Lake City Reporter, 9 November 1928.

(67.) See Gualtieri, “Becoming ‘white’.

(68.) See entry for Nola Romey, line 32, Enumeration District 129, Valdosta City, Lowndes County, Georgia; Manuscript Census of Population, National Archives Microfilm Publication; 14th Census of the United States, 1920; Los Angeles Public Library.

(69.) United States v. Thind 261 U.S. 204 (1923). For more detailed discussions of the shared racial logic of immigration and naturalization law see, Jeff Lesser “Always ‘Outsiders’: Asians, Naturalization, and the Supreme Court,” Amerasia, 12, No. 1 (1985-86): pp. 83-100; Mae M. Ngai, “The Architecture of Race in American Immigration Law: A Re-examination of the Reed Johnson Act of 1924,” Journal of American History 66, No. 1, 1999: pp. 67-92.

(70.) Cited in Conklin and Faires, ” ‘Colored’ and Catholic,” p. 77.

(71.) Dispatch of Jusserand to Poincare, 3 January 1923, Levant 1918-1940, Syrie-Liban (SL), v. 407, Ministere des Affaires Etrangeres (MAE), Paris.

(72.) Congressional Record 71, pt. 1, 29 April 1929, 638. Senator Reed included other groups in addition to the Syrians in his description of the “trash,” [which] “came here in large numbers from Syria and the Turkish Provinces and from different countries of the Balkan peninsula and from all that part of southeastern Europe.” He did, however, single out “Arabs” when he linked fitness for immigration to self-government. “How can anyone expect an Arab, who has lived under some patriarchal government where he did not even dare whisper his views, to come here and participate intelligently in the American processes of democracy?”

(73.) Ingalls, for example, noted the connection between outsiderness and vulnerability to mob violence in his study of lynching in Tampa, Florida. At the time of the lynching, Romey had been in Lake City for four years, having moved there from High Springs, Florida. Roberta Senechal de la Roche aruges that “lynching varies directly with cultural difference” expressed in symbolic aspects of social life such as language, religion, cuisine, clothing and entertainment. See “The Sociogenesis of Lynching,” in Under Sentence of Death, Brundage (Ed.), p. 58.

(74.) Miami Herald, 18 May 1929; Florida Times Union, 19 May 1929, p. 19. The four children were taken by a relative to Birmingham, Alabama. Nicholas Romey is listed in the 1920 Census as a “retail merchant” with a fruit stand in Valdosta City. His wife, Fannie, son, leer, and daughter, Emmaline are also listed. See entry for Nicholas Romey, line 32, Enumeration District 129, Valdosta City, Lowndes County, Georgia; Manuscript Census of Population, National Archives Microfilm Publication: 14th Census of the United States. 1920; Los Angeles Public Library.

(75.) Miami Herald, 18 May 1929, p. 22.

(76.) Syrian World 4, No. 1, September 1929, p. 53.

(77.) Lake City Reporter, 24 May 1929.

(78.) Ibid.

(79.) Syrian World 3, No. 12, June 1929, p. 48.

(80.) Cited in the Syrian World 3, No. 12, June 1929, p. 42.

(81.) David Roediger, “Whiteness and Ethnicity in the History of ‘White Ethnics” in the United States” in Towards the Abolition of Whiteness (London: Verso, 1994), p. 190.

(82.) Ignatiev, How the Irish Became White, p. 2.

(83.) This subject merits more thorough investigation. Preliminary evidence can be found in Stathakis, “Almost White,” pp. 213-217.

(84.) Syrians in New York helped Bhicaji Franyi Balsara become naturalized in 1910. His petition for naturalization had originally been turned down on the grounds that he was an “alien other than white.” See United States v. Balsara, 180 Fed. 696 (1910). On the NAACP campaign, see Robert L. Zangrando, The NAACP Crusade Against Lynching, 1909-1950 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1980).

(85.) Naber, “Ambiguous Insiders,” p. 41. For an individual profile of this “conversion” to an Arab identity, see Don Unis’ story in Andrew Shryock, “Family Resemblances: Kinship and Community in Arab Detroit,” in Arab Detroit: From Margin to Mainstream, Nabeel Abraham and Andrew Shryock (Eds.), (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2000), p. 601.

(86.) Michael W. Suleiman, “Introduction: The Arab Immigrant Experience,” in Arabs in America, p. 15; Therese Saliba, “Resisting Invisibility,” p. 309: and Helen Hatab Samhan, “Not Quite White,” pp. 222-223. For an interesting discussion of how the debate on racial classification points to a split within the Arab-American community between those in favor of maintaining formal classification as “‘whites,” and those wishing to ally with people of color, see Lisa Suhair Majaj, “Arab-American Ethnicity: Locations, Coalitions, and Cultural Negotiations,” in Arabs in America, p. 322.

(87.) Samhan, “Not Quite White,” p. 223 and Arab American Institute’s “Statement to the House Subcommittee on Census, Statistics and Postal Personnel” by Deputy Director, Helen Samhan, June 30, 1993. My thanks to Helen Samhan for providing me a copy of her statement.

(88.) Hassan, “Arabs, Race and the Post-September 11 National Security State,” p. 21.

(89.) See, for example, the collection edited by Joanna Kadi, Food for Our Grandmothers, and the interesting analysis of it by Michelle Hartman in this volume.

(90.) Lisa Suhair Majaj, “Arab-American Ethnicity: Locations, Coalitions, and Cultural Negotiations,” in Arabs in America, p. 323.

(91.) Excerpted in Arab Detroit From Margin to Mainstream, p. 24.

(92.) Hisham Aidi, “Let Us Be Moors, Islam, Race and “Connected Histories,'” in Middle East Report 229, Winter 2003, pp. 42-52.

(93.) Gualtieri, “Becoming ‘white,'” p. 52.

(94.) W. Fitzhugh Brundage (Ed.), Under Sentence of Death, p. 15.

Sarah Gualtieri is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Loyola University, New Orleans.



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  1. Well not to be a reviosnit, the arab stratagiy was based on pan africanism, but zionist desired to seperate arabs from black africans. i can give u some historical references but i type w 2 fingers. great post

  2. Conner

    N.G. Romey who was Syrian would have been considered a white man because he was not black and like those of so many other ethnic groups who came to America walking over the backs of black people, he would be white in the eyes of native whites, eventually. The race towards whiteness became important to those who were neither “black nor white”, as they saw what life awaited them if they were on the side of black people, as your post stated here:

    “The literature on whiteness has consistently underscored its invented quality by examining how immigrant groups claimed, appropriated, and ultimately defended the status of being white. (57) A central goal of this literature has been to render whiteness visible, to recognize it as a racial construct, to have “it speak its name.” (58) Most importantly, critical studies of whiteness reveal it to be a “site where power and privilege converged and conspired to sabotage ideals of justice, equality, and democracy.” (59) Understanding this process of “becoming white” has helped historians of ethnicity tackle the complexities of race in America, but it has also revealed that it is not always easy to distinguish between the two. As Stuart Hall argues, race and ethnicity play hide-and-seek with each other. (60)”

    It became do or die for the Syrians as it has for those who came before them (Irish, Jews, Germans, etc.)–bow to whiteness or face the consequences.

    They saw the writing on the wall and decided to cast their lots with whites, and black people be damned:

    “The reaction of members of the Syrian community to the Romey lynching also revealed what had been an important development during the naturalization controversy of 1909-1915: a Syrian discourse about, and affirmation of, whiteness. The reasons for this development should be obvious enough whiteness meant access to citizenship and the privileges it afforded, and non-whiteness meant, as the Syrian immigrants could clearly see, frequent disenfranchisement and degradation. This is why the Syrian elite reacted defensively to any act that called into question their racial status. In a telling response to Romey’s death, the Syrian newspaper al-Shaab exclaimed: “The Syrian is not a negro whom Southerners feel they are justified in lynching when he is suspected of an attack on a white woman. The Syrian is a civilized white man who has excellent traditions and a glorious historical background and should be treated as among the best elements of the American nation.” (80) The commentator in al-Shaab was arguing in other words that Romey had been the victim of racial misidentification, and that his lynchers had not understood what he believed to be true: that Syrians were fully white. His use of the adjective “civilized” was significant and harked back to the arguments made by candidates for naturalization in the racial prerequisite cases that asserted Syria’s place as the birthplace of Western civilization. But the main purpose of the article was to argue that the Syrian was “not a negro,” and in doing so the writer appeared unconcerned that black persons were regularly the victims of extralegal violence.”

    Outstanding post.

    Thanks for putting this up.

  3. Sergio

    Judging from how Syrians will be treated if they come to this part of the world, they will be held above black people as better than black people. Syrians who come from present day civil war torn Syria, will fall for the okey-doke as soon as they set foot on American soil and join hands with the racist white man and racist white woman oppressor.

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