Plan to add MENA category in US census draws mixed response
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.