How significant is rejection of MENA category from the 2020 US census?

Sections of the Arab-American community have been pushing for a separate census category for about 30 years.
Sunday 04/03/2018
 An Arab woman holds American flags in Flint, Michigan, last June.  (AP)
Increasingly self-conscious. An Arab woman holds American flags in Flint, Michigan, last June. (AP)

LONDON - After decades of Arab Americans pushing for a “Middle Eastern or North African” category, the US Census will not, after all, have such an option for 2020. But how important is it for Arab Americans to have their own category?

It matters a lot, said Samer Khalaf, president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, who has long worked on the issue.

“Federal, state and civil government divide their funding for various communities based on the census,” he said in a telephone interview. “For example, the social service organisation is providing social care to the Arab-American community and [finds] it hard to find funding. [It has] no way of giving that government entity how many Arab Americans they will be servicing.”

He pointed out the census is used for the distribution of congressional seats. “Every ten years, each state divides up which areas congressmen are going to represent. They look at racial numbers and ethnic numbers. By stating that Arabs are white and not distinct on their own, this causes great disparities in statistics,” Khalaf said.

What of the argument, from some white Americans, that additional racial categories further divide America? Khalaf argued that the United States divides itself by refusing to recognise differences in the reality of various communities.

“It’s easier to say we are all Americans but the problem is we are not all treated the same,” he said. “It’s like a millionaire telling a poor person, what’s the matter? You can’t afford this or that? It’s easy for them to say because they already have the money.

“If we look back in history, people always identified themselves as Irish Americans or Italian Americans. All of a sudden, when people of colour are doing that, they are being criticised.”

Rashad al-Dabbagh, founder and executive director of the Arab American Civil Council, also speaking via telephone, said he was shocked that the census category has not become a reality.

“We all thought this would happen in 2020,”’ he said. “We all saw it going in that direction. In 2010, the bureau hired Arab Americans to reach out to their communities. That wasn’t there in the 2000 census. Perhaps if we had a different president it would have happened in 2020 but I think it’s a matter of time. I am confident it will happen for us in the next decade.”

Sections of the Arab-American community have been pushing for a separate census category for about 30 years.

“We are 95% of the way there,” Khalaf said. “It’s only with the new administration that this was put to a stop. The government spent millions of dollars studying this issue.”

In January, the Census Bureau said there had not been enough research and testing to consider MENA listed as a separate ethnic category.

Dabbagh raised the issue of fear that the Trump “administration does not want us to have an accurate count and have the same benefits other communities get.”

The problem is compounded by Arab Americans’ divergent views on the census category. Khalaf said there was a split with some Arab Americans considering themselves white while others do not.

“There is also the big question of whether we are an ethnicity or a race. I don’t consider myself from the white race even though my skin tone is light,” he said. “There is a consolation prize in that we can identify ourselves as ‘Egyptian’ or ‘Lebanese’ but this is still not going to be very accurate.”

Tarek H. Abu Jabarah, national president of the Network of Arab-American Professionals (NAAP), said working for the category was a chance to strengthen the Arab-American community.

“Post 9/11, Arabs are self-conscious about their identity,” he said. “Although we must work for another 12 years for our category, I expect to see our community working on this to grow and to have a bigger impact on the next census.”

NAAP has been working with organisations in favour of the category.

“The Arab American Institute (AAI) is one of the most prominent ones that have been pushing so we have signed letters to the bureau along with AAI. We have called on our members to submit positive feedback, which the bureau has requested. We hope this empowers our community. We found there were many who were willing to comment on this issue,” Jabarah said.

“Part of me is shocked by the rejection because it was going in the right direction. However, part of me is not so shocked because of the political climate. Nothing really shocks me anymore after the presidential election.”

Some Arab Americans said they were wary of the “Middle Eastern or North African” category because it might help the government surveil the community.

“There have been instances in which our community was targeted,” Jabarah said. “The New York Police Department was surveilling the Arab-American and Muslim community as undercover police officers. However, the benefits of having our category are more than the risks.”