By Amanda Sahar d’Urso, Northwestern University

The following blog post is a summary of the research that won the Midwest Political Science Association’s Lucius Barker Award (for research presented at the 2021 MPSA Annual Conference).

Who do White Americans consider to be White? Is it simply a matter of ancestral origin, or does religion influence how White Americans assign racial categories to other people (i.e., grouping individuals into different ethnoracial categories based on religion)? This paper argues religion is a unique attribute in determining who is White. Along with country of origin, religion independently influences how White Americans assign boundaries of inclusion into Whiteness. Moreover, legal classifications schemes do not necessarily align with societal perceptions. That is, even if a group is legally classified as White, White Americans do not necessarily place those individuals into Whiteness. In a practical sense, if the legal definition of Whiteness and the societal understanding of Whiteness do not align, then there exists a group of people for whom institutional recognition does not exist in the face of societal visibility. Ultimately, who counts as White influences perceptions of who is American. This in turn influences positionality in the American racial hierarchy and incorporation into the American polity.

To investigate the role religion plays in understanding the boundaries of Whiteness, this paper uses the case of Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) and Muslim individuals in the US. The case of MENA individuals is intriguing since MENA individuals have been classified as White in the US since 1909 (and codified as such in 1977). But due to the racialization of MENA individuals and Muslims—an important but by no means the only religious group of MENA individuals—the White label may be neither suitable nor practically used by society-at-large. That is, Americans “on the street”, may not think of MENA individuals as White. Using court cases and an empirical study, this study shows religion plays a part in understanding the racialization of MENA individuals both into and away from Whiteness.

This paper incorporates an analysis of racial prerequisite cases—court cases which determined who was legally White, and thereby could naturalize. Most accounts of racial prerequisite cases only include the country of origin or race of the petitioner. This paper also includes the petitioner’s religion. When both pieces of information are present, an interesting pattern emerges. In every case when the petitioner was Christian, they were awarded White status, and thus could naturalize to be US citizens. However, in two of the three cases wherein the petitioner was Muslim and from the MENA, they were not ruled to be White. This suggests religion plays a role in how people assign ethnoracial labels to others.

Following the historical analysis, this paper uses a survey experimental design. In it, respondents are given a profile of a hypothetical man who is either Christian or Muslim and who has written their country of origin under ‘Some Other Race’, either Russia or Iran. They are then asked to select what they believe is the correct ethnoracial category for the individual. The findings suggest that people use both country of origin and religion in equal measure when assigning racial labels to others. Individuals who were Russian Christian were the most likely to be assigned White while the Iranian Muslim was the least likely (this is in spite the legal classification of White). Those who were either Russian Muslim or Iranian Christian were in between and classified as White at levels comparable to each other. This finding also extends to perceived skin pigmentation, with the Iranian Muslim. Accompanying each profile was a black and white image of a racially ambiguous man. Each respondent saw the same picture, and yet the way they assessed the skin pigmentation of that individual differed based on both country of origin and religion, with the Iranian Muslim perceived as darker than any other profile.

Ultimately, this paper encourages scholars to reconsider the role religion plays in understandings the racialization of certain groups. Religion can help us better understand people’s attitudes toward other ethnoracial groups, and this is by no means a new phenomenon. Recentering that role of religious identity in understanding ethnoracial identities can help us contextualize and better understand inter-ethnoracial interactions in the US. Thus, when considering the parameters of race scholarship investigates—the personal, societal, or political—it might also include the role religion plays in the formation, understanding, and maintenance of ethnoracial identities.


Pictured above: Amanda Sahar d’Urso receives the Lucius Barker (for research presented at the 2021 MPSA Annual Conference) during the Awards Ceremony at the 2022 MPSA Annual Conference in Chicago.