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Dept. of Justice Affirms Arab Race in 1909

Dept. of Justice Affirms in 1909 Whether Syrians, Turks, and Arabs are of White or Yellow Race

In 1909, the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., took a hand in the controversy whether Middle Easterners belong to the white race and are therefore entitled to naturalization as American citizens, or the yellow race, and are to be excluded from the privileges of citizenship, as contended by Chief Richard K. Campbell of the Bureau of Naturalization of the Department of Commerce and Labor. William H. Harr, the attorney general’s assistant for naturalization matters, announced that instructions would be sent to attorneys throughout the country to hold in abeyance all proceedings until the matter could be further investigated.

George Shishim won his case with the Federal Government. It started when Shishim, acting in his capacity as a policeman in Venice, California, Los Angeles County, arrested the son of a prominent lawyer for disturbing the peace. This incident started the legal fight for Shishim’s eligibility to citizenship. The arrested man claimed Shishim had no right to arrest him because Shishim was not and could not become an American citizen, because he was not of the “white” race. Having been born in Lebanon, part of Asia, Shishim was considered of Chinese-Mongolian ancestry.
As the legal fight heated up, Syrian-Lebanese community leaders in Los Angeles, including Phares A. Behannesey, Mike George, and Elias Shedoudy, Nick Baida, Saleem Sawaya, and John Safady, met at the office of Mike George. They pooled their resources and secured a leading attorney, Byron C. Hanna.

Behanessey wrote to many universities asking them for the ethnological background of Lebanese-Syrian and Arab ancestry. The answer was: “from the white race.” This document and others were presented in court, and Judge Hutton of the Superior Court of Los Angeles ruled that Shishim was eligible for citizenship and that the Lebanese and Syrians belong to the “white race.”
During the court hearings, Shishim stated:

“If I am a Mongolian, then so was Jesus, because we came from the same land.”. Thus, California set a precedent upon which other states based their decision on this matter, granting U.S. citizenship to Lebanese, Syrians, and all Arabs.

The following article was published in the Los Angeles Herald, November 5, 1909:
“Assured, temporarily at least, that the mantle of citizenship placed on their shoulders by Uncle Sam’s naturalization officers will not be removed, 17,000 Syrians scattered throughout the length and breadth of the land will breathe easier when they hear of the decision rendered yesterday by Judge Hutton of the superior court, to whom the first challenge to reach the test stage was submitted a month ago. Judge Hutton holds that Syrians are eligible to citizenship, and if a different construction is to be placed on the meaning of the law it is for Congress to so declare. The test case was made on the application of George Shishim of Venice, Los Angeles County, California, for citizenship papers by Fred Jones, naturalization examiner, who, acting in accordance with instructions from Washington, opposed the application on the ground that Syrians belonged to the Mongolian race and should therefore be excluded. Judge Hutton’s decision, which has been eagerly watched for in all parts of the country, was as follows:

‘This is an application by one George Shishim, a Syrian, to be admitted to citizenship. The federal government, acting through the department of justice, objects to his admission, basing its objection on the sole ground that he is not a member of the white race in contemplation of section 2169 of the revised statutes of the United States.

‘The court has listened to arguments of counsel representing the Department of Justice and counsel representing applicant and various friends of the cause who have appeared in the case, and has read their briefs with much care and great interest. If this were a new question, I might agree with the government, but as it is by no means new. I am convinced that this court would not be justified in resolving a question of such doubtful construction contradictory to the rulings of other courts throughout the United States that have for many years admitted to full citizenship thousands of Syrians in the same position as applicant at bar. The courts of this nation, both state and federal, have, whenever called upon for more than a century, construed the term “white persons,” or members of the white race, to include Syrians. If at this late date a different construction is to be placed upon the meaning of this very doubtful statute Congress should so declare. The objection of the government is therefore overruled.’

“Shishim, with his attorney, Byron Hanna, and a number of Syrian friends were in the courtroom when the decision was read. He had already shown himself qualified for citizenship in other respects and the oath of allegiance was administered.


“I believe that even as your fathers come to this land to produce riches, you were born here to produce riches by intelligence, by labor.”

Read more from Kahlil Gibran’s article published in the first edition of The Syrian World Magazine, New York, July 1926, addressing “Young Americans of Syrian Origin”