Plan to add MENA category in US census draws mixed response

Sunday 20/11/2016
Copy of flier sent to Arab and Muslim communities by the Network of Arab-American Professionals (NAAP)

Washington - A plan by the US govern­ment to give people from the Middle East and North Africa a chance to describe their regional and ethnic affiliation in greater detail in the next census is drawing mixed responses from the community.
Under the proposal, worked out by the US Census Bureau in talks with Arab-American and Muslim- American groups, people from the MENA region would have their own category in the 2020 Cen­sus. The US Congress is to decide whether to include the new cat­egory in 2018.
In the 2010 Census, members of the MENA community were count­ed as “White”. Census Bureau rules define “White” as a “person hav­ing origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East or North Africa. It includes people who indicate their race as ‘White’ or report entries such as Irish, Ger­man, Italian, Lebanese, Arab, Mo­roccan or Caucasian.”
The last time the US Census, con­ducted every ten years, formally added a new category was in 1980, when Hispanic people were given the opportunity to identify them­selves as people of “Spanish origin or descent”. The category has been further refined, enabling respond­ents to describe for themselves “a more detailed identity”, a state­ment by the Census Bureau said.
MENA activists want the census to make room for their own group. One of the results of Census Bu­reau’s consultations with MENA groups was “the Middle Eastern and North African population say­ing that they did not see them­selves in the current categories”, Nicholas Jones, director of race and ethnic research and outreach at the Census Bureau, told the Atlantic magazine.
There are no hard data about the size of the Arab-American and Muslim-American communities. Estimates of the number of Mus­lims in the United States range from 3 million to 8 million.
Many Arab-American associa­tions and activists welcomed the plan for a MENA category, saying it would raise recognition of the community and produce hard data that can lead to improved services, including employment opportuni­ties to language courses.
“We are invisible,” said Sarab al-Jijakli, founding director of the Network of Arab-American Profes­sionals (NAAP). The planned offer of a MENA box on the census form would be “the culmination of a decades-long effort” by activists to get their community more recogni­tion.
Hassan Jaber, executive direc­tor of the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS), welcomed the Census Bureau’s proposal. “For almost all people from the MENA region, the ‘White’ category does not reflect who they are,” he said. More ac­curate information could be used to improve services in health, em­ployment and education and might even prove useful in tackling hate crimes, he added.
Maya Berry, executive director of the Arab American Institute (AAI), agreed. “Improved data collection can have a real impact on people’s lives,” she wrote in an article for the Hill, a Washington publication. The new category could provide “visibility for a group of Americans that are seen only by our govern­ment when it comes to counterter­rorism programming, and miss out when it comes to education, health care research or English proficien­cy classes”.
Some point to potentially nega­tive side-effects of the proposal, however, especially because of experiences of profiling and dis­crimination after the al-Qaeda ter­ror attacks of September 11th, 2001. Coming after a divisive presidential election campaign that saw de­mands for a stronger surveillance of Muslim Americans, portraying them as a potential national secu­rity threat, the idea of giving US au­thorities more detailed data about the community raises concerns.
“It is a double-edged issue,” said Ibrahim Hooper, director of com­munications at the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), an umbrella group. Acknowledging that a new census category could lead to new “hard data”, there were reservations as well.
“In today’s environment, we have to have concerns about the possible misuse of this data,” Hooper said. “We have had too many problems in the post-9/11 era when the American govern­ment singled out Arab Americans or Muslim Americans for profiling.”
Supporters of the new category say those concerns must be taken seriously but do not mean that the plan is counterproductive. “We need to continue to push for pro­tection for people from the MENA region,” Jaber said. In the long run, better data about the MENA com­munity in the United States would “help us to track violations against people from the MENA region”.
Jajikli said existing pressures on Arabs and Muslims in the United States, such as profiling by security agencies, would not cease if census categories were kept as they are now. “We are already targeted; that has nothing to do with the census,” he said.