by John Tehranian. New York: New York University Press, 2008. 256pp. Cloth. $35.00. ISBN: 9780814783061.

Reviewed by Steven Tauber, Department of Government & International Affairs, University of South Florida. Email: stauber [at] cas.usf.edu.


Middle Easterners living in the United States face a glaring contradiction concerning their racial status. On the one hand they have experienced the same kinds of discrimination that other racial and ethnic minority groups (e.g., African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, and American Indians) have experienced. Middle Eastern Americans have been subjected to employment discrimination, race-based harassment, and racial profiling, especially since the attacks of September 11, 2001. In fact, whereas civil rights has improved for Blacks, Latinos, Asian Americans, and American Indians, the civil rights situation for Middle Easterners has deteriorated. Despite this discrimination, Middle Easterners are not officially regarded as a racial and ethnic minority group. The American government formally treats them as white for the purposes of the census and does not include them in affirmative action programs.

Despite this glaring contradiction in the treatment of Middle Easterners, most public policy makers, legal scholars, historians, and social scientists have ignored Middle Easterners in their analyses of minority group law and/or politics. Fortunately, John Tehranian’s WHITEWASHED: AMERICA’S INVISIBLE MIDDLE EASTERN MINORITY addresses this gaping hole in the extant literature, and he provides an important contribution to the dynamic study of the legal and political status of racial and ethnic minorities in the United States.

Tehranian bases his analysis of the racial status of Middle Easterners on three theoretical frameworks. Tehranian employs Said’s Orientalism approach, which critiques Western scholars for viewing Middle Easterners through the lens of their Western culture – a form of scholarly imperialism. He also frames his analysis through the social construction of race literature, which emphasizes how the law, culture, and the media have constructed race in general and the status of Middle Easterners in particular. Finally, Tehranian uses critical race theory, but unlike previous critical race scholarship that focused on Blacks, Latinos, Asian Americans, or American Indians, he critically examines the treatment of Middle Easterners.

The first part of the book traces legal and political history of the construction of race in United States. Chapter One explains how the concept of race is socially, not biologically, determined. Moreover, Tehranian’s analysis of nineteenth century immigration cases demonstrates that the law has contributed heavily to the social construction of race in general. Despite the common view that racial categories are based on physical features, such as [*415] skin color, Tehranian shows that they are based on how well legal actors believe a group can assimilate into American society. He refers to this standard as “performing whiteness;” that is, how much does a group act as if it is white in terms of language, economic achievement, and cultural assimilation. Chapter Two analyzes the history of immigration law concerning Middle Easterners in particular, and it demonstrates that they have been traditionally regarded as white. Chapter Three expands this focus by explaining that throughout much of American history Middle Easterners acted white and assimilated into the dominant culture and economy; however, in recent years, especially after September 11, 2001, Americans have perceived Middle Easterners as alien and in some cases dangerous. Out of fear of facing discrimination and profiling, many Middle Easterners have hidden their cultural and religious identities to act more “white.” Chapter Four blames the media, especially the entertainment industry, for perpetuating the stereotype that Middle Easterners are violent, intolerant, and misogynistic.

The second part of the book focuses more on the contemporary legal status of Middle Easterners. Chapter Five examines how Middle Easterners have lost civil rights and civil liberties in recent years. Tehranian analyzes case law and relates specific examples of discrimination, harassment, and racial profiling. Finally, Chapter Six proposes reforms to alleviate the problems that Tehranian identifies. This chapter emphasizes having the American government treat Middle Easterners as a protected racial and ethnic minority, especially for the purposes of empirically assessing discrimination against them. Tehranian also argues for a greater Middle Eastern presence in academics, and he prods scholars to include Middle Easterners’ racial status as part of their inquiry and debate.

WHITEWASHED makes a major contribution to the study of race and American law. In general, critical race theory scholarship has brought a lively debate to the fields of law, history, and political science. Even those who reject its fundamental tenets must recognize that critical race theory has shaped key controversies over the past two decades. WHITEWASHED undoubtedly adds to that significant debate. However, Tehranian’s work goes even further because it changes the landscape of the critical race theory field, which has been confined mainly to African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, and American Indians. By forcing critical race theorists to examine Middle Easterners, who have previously been neglected, Tehranian has succeeded in expanding the scope of a dynamic discipline.

WHITEWASHED is also successful because Tehranian does an excellent job presenting his argument. His analysis of the case law is exhaustive, thoughtful, and well-cited. Not only will legal scholars, historians, and political scientists benefit from Tehranian’s profound scholarship, but this book will also be a tremendous benefit to law students, graduate students, and even advanced undergraduates. In a rare achievement for legal scholarship, Tehranian offers writing that is both erudite and accessible. His lively accounts of personal experiences nicely complement the technical legal analysis. [*416] Readers will be most impressed with the writing in Chapter Four, dealing with the entertainment industry. Tehranian deftly blends sarcasm and pointed criticism to reveal the media’s culpability in the negative portrayals of Middle Easterners.

Despite these strengths, there are a few problems with this book. The discussion is often repetitive, and at times unorganized. For example, Chapter Two focuses on the history of immigration law pertaining to Middle Easterners, but on page 38 the discussion deviates towards the current treatment of Middle Easterners in airports, which was already discussed in the Introduction and covered in great detail in Chapter Five. Additionally, Chapter Four’s main focus is on the entertainment industry’s portrayal of Middle Easterners, but the last part of that chapter (starting on page 106), discusses specific examples of actual discrimination, which again belongs in Chapter Five. There are other isolated examples of this problem throughout the book.

Considering the scholarly quality and thoroughness of this book, the end is somewhat disappointing. At the beginning of Chapter Six (page 165) Tehranian lists eight reforms that would alleviate the problems he uncovers in the first five chapters; however, he neglects to explain in detail most of those reforms in the remainder of the chapter. He should either discuss in detail all the reforms he mentions, or only list the reforms that he plans to discuss. Finally, a two page conclusion for an almost 200 page book is insufficient. Readers, particularly graduate students and law students, require a more substantial summary of Tehranian’s complex argument and a discussion of the implications it has for American law and politics. Although this drawback leaves the reader with a negative impression at the end of the book, the work as a whole is definitely worth reading.

© Copyright 2009 by the author, Steven Tauber.