By Ray Hanania
The Unites States Census Bureau announced last week that it will not include the term “Middle Eastern or North African” in its next census in 2020. The decision ensures that not even a diluted effort to count the number of Arabs in America will be conducted.
I worked as a volunteer with the US Census for many years beginning back in the 1980s, with the goal of adding the category of “Arab” to the national Census, which is conducted every 10 years. In fact, I spent so much time fighting to get it included that the Census gave me a certificate of gratitude for those efforts.
But, over the years, the American government has resisted making this change to the Census, which defines in specific detail the racial, economic and social lives of the American population, which currently stands at 323 million. The Census even had Arab activists on its payroll to write against me, rejecting my views.
The Census excludes Arabs, but includes as many as 29 other racial and ethnic groups, such as White, Black, Hispanic, Latino, Spanish Origin, American Indian, Alaska Native, Asian, Native Hawaiian, Other Pacific islander, German, African American, Mexican, Navajo, Asian Indian, Samoan, and Tongan.
Ironically, Arabs lobbied to be included in the white category, but that reflected the racism of the day, when Arabs were included along with others that were banned. Since Arabs were never given the opportunity to be identified for what they were, they chose to be included in a category that they hoped would minimize the increasing racism they experienced not just in American society, but from the US Government. In 1924, the US limited immigration of Asians and Arabs. That limitation was not overturned until 1965.
I have always believed Arabs should be identified in the Census for very specific reasons: Right now, no one knows how many Arabs actually live in the US, with estimates varying widely from 1.5 million (from Census data in which Arab Americans actually wrote in that they were Arab in a space marked “other” on the forms) to 4.5 million, which many Arabs believe is more accurate.
Why would Arabs want to be identified in an America that is so paranoid about Arabs, fueling anti-Arab racism and bigotry? Well, when you are identified in the Census, you are given special privileges as Americans. The federal government uses the data to draw electoral district boundaries in an effort to augment the vote of different ethnic groups.
In Illinois, for example, the US government created a specific congressional district that looks like two separate circles connected by a thin string. It’s one of the strangest drawn boundaries, but it is not unique. The intent was to draw a boundary that includes as many “Hispanics” as possible in order for them to gather their voting strength to elect their own representative to the US Congress. That principle extends not only to congressional districts, but also to local districts.
Additionally, the federal government distributes hundreds of millions of dollars in grant money to fund things such as cultural awareness and cultural identity based on race and religion. Because Arabs are not identified, they lose out here too.
Being identified also helps communities and law enforcement to define instances and patterns of racial discrimination. For example, in many American cities, local police are required to report the racial and ethnic makeup of individuals who are stopped for traffic violations in order to prevent minorities such as black people, Hispanics and Asians from being targeted by police agencies.
Many black people use the data to identify patterns of racial misconduct by police. But, because Arabs are not included in the census, municipalities are not mandated to report how many Arabs are arrested, stopped for traffic accidents or are involved in accusations of criminal activities. Are Arabs being targeted by racist policing agencies?
We can’t know because our absence from the Census prevents it.
In 2014, as a result of continued criticism from American Arabs like myself, the US Census decided to test the use of a compromise term: “Middle Eastern or North African,” rather than the more specific “Arab.” I objected but many national Arab American organizations, like the prestigious Arab American Institute, were in favor.
The Census announced its decision rejecting MENA on January 26, saying: “The 2020 Census race and ethnicity questions will… not include a separate Middle Eastern or North African category.”
Many American Arab activists made a mistake by not demanding the more specific category of “Arab” to be added to the Census. They may have believed they lacked the influence to successfully lobby for a dramatic change. They thought that a broader category of MENA would be a compromise that included Arabs unofficially and would result in larger numbers. Instead of just 4.5 million Arabs being identified, the MENA category would have included Arabs and non-Arabs from a broader region.
The battle for Arab rights in America continues. One day the majority of Arab Americans will be recognized for the good they do, rather than just for the bad a small minority does. We will be able to pressure the government for our share of the American system, demanding that districts be created to augment the Arab vote, not dilute it. We will be able to more forcefully identify acts of racism and discrimination and not be ignored. We will also be able to demand and receive our share of the hundreds of millions of dollars in funds that are taken from our tax dollars and given to everyone else but us.