Marking MENA: Civil rights legislation as a catalyst for racial institutionalization

Deniz Uyan, Boston College

Especially since 9/11 and the state-directed “War on Terror,” scholars have documented increased instances of discrimination towards people who have been forcibly identified or associated with the Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) region. Some scholars have turned to theories of race and racialization to explain this type of particularization as evidence of an emerging MENA racial identity. Yet questions of what exactly racialization is, and whether racialization, as such, can serve as an adequate explanatory theory for these instances of discrimination remain unsettled. This paper contributes both empirically and theoretically to this debate by examining how several prominent pieces of legislation, passed during the civil rights movement in the 1960s, may have shaped the terrain on which people understand and advocate for state-recognized Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) racial categorization. I compare Census-produced reports and documents, as well as advocate testimony for a new MENA racial category with secondary and primary documents relating to major civil rights legislation—the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Immigration, and Nationality Act of 1965 in particular—to examine how the critical historical juncture shaped and constrained the bounds of a potentially new racial designation. Given the profound and novel remediation structure introduced through civil rights reforms, coupled with a change in how the state both collects and uses demographic and race-based statistics, I argue that the movement to add a new MENA race category to the census must be further contextualized by the legacy of the civil rights era.

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 Presented in Session 63. Race-Making and the Socio-Legal Imaginary