Don’t Call Us MENA In US Census, Call Us Arabs! – OpEd


In continuation of his efforts to change the US census, President Barack Obama has proposed a new classification to identify “Middle Eastern and North African” people in a new category called “MENA.”

Although many are hailing Obama’s efforts, placing Arabs in the “MENA” category might actually dilute American Arab empowerment by avoiding the word “Arab.”

We should be called “Arabs” because that is what we are.

Classifying people by race and ethnicity began during the 1960s Civil Rights era and focused mainly on the status of African Americans but by the 1970s was expanded to allow for the US census to provide detailed statistics on up to 29 ethnic and sub-ethnic identities.

America conducts a population census every 10 years. Data from the census is used to ensure that minorities receive their fair share of American society.

The census is used to enforce the Voting Rights Act, and drawing congressional and state legislative district boundaries. It is used in Federal affirmative action and evaluating employment discrimination claims in the private sector. It is used to fight racial discrimination in housing and mortgage lending, and to enforce school desegregation. The census also defines how identified racial and ethnic groups receive Federal grants and small business loans.

The census empowers identified minorities. When excluded from the census, you are excluded from that empowerment.
Discussions began in the 1990s to create a category recognizing “Arabs.” But no action has been taken. In the canvass for the last census in 2010, the form listed 30 specific racial categories, excluding “Arabs.”

They were: Hispanic (Latino or Spanish Origin), Mexican, Mexican American or Chicano; White; Black, African American or Negro; American Indian, Alaskan Native (with a space for tribe name); Asian Indian, Japanese, Native Hawaiian, Chinese, Korean, Guamanian or Chamorro, Filipino, Vietnamese, Samoan or Other Asian (with a line to designate specific Asian race specifically Laotian, Thai, Pakistani, Cambodian “and so on”); and, Pacific Islander, Fijian, Tongan.

Arabs were encouraged to write themselves in on a line at the end of the list called “Other,” a demeaning option for a people who have contributed fully and energetically to this country, as thoroughly as any other of the ethnic and racial groups defined in the census.

My father George immigrated from his home in Jerusalem to Chicago in the 1920s and enlisted in the US Army with his older brother, Musa, the day after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. They served four years fighting and defeating the Nazis. My brother later served in the US Marines, and I served in the US Air Force during the Vietnam War.

What the absence from the census declares is that no matter how patriotic and “American” that Arabs are, it is never enough to be accepted as equals.

In 2008, I and other American Arabs demanded the US government include the word “Arab” on census forms.

There are approximately 4.5 million Arabs in America, and about 7 million Muslims. Arabs make up only about 22 percent of the Muslim American population. The majority of American Arabs are Christians, more than 65 percent.

Not being included in the census means those estimates cannot be confirmed. And in America, if you are not counted, you are not empowered. Exclusion has resulted in the denial of voting rights privileges, federal funding to promote and support ethnic and cultural identities, and the creation of districts that might elect American Arab representation.

An example is Chicagoland which, unofficially, has as many as 450,000 Arab residents. Excluded from the census, that number cannot be confirmed. Consequently, we are denied political empowerment privileges and funding support to promote our culture.

If we were included as “Arabs,” the government would be obligated to create voting “districts” to make it easier for American Arab voters to elect American Arab representatives to the Illinois legislature and to the US Congress, something that is now done for Hispanics, Asians and Blacks.

Last year, Obama proposed changes in how minorities are defined in part to eliminate derogatory words like “Negro.”

The new categories, approved this year, are: “Asian American, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander, African American, Hispanic, Puerto Rican, Native American, or Alaska Native” for purposes involving economic impact programs and federal funding for minority business enterprises.

Obama then placed the census under his direct control in the White House and announced he would create a classification to cover Arabs in a broad classification called MENA (Middle East and North Africa) if enough people in the public supported the move. The overview of the proposal is available on the US Government website at:

Public comment will end on Oct. 31 of this year.

Unfortunately, the MENA designation will not provide detailed demographic data on American Arabs. We will be crowded into a larger category that undermines our rights and will continue to deny us federal funding and federal program benefits.

I think Obama knows this but also recognizes that recent years of anti-Arab racism might block the plan entirely if the new designation were “Arab” rather than “MENA.”

I disagree. “Arab” needs to be included in the 2020 Census so we can precisely define American Arab demographics and then use data to demand political empowerment and true American equality.

Electing an American Arab office shouldn’t be a rare exception. It should be the reality. Arabs in this country are American. We deserve to be treated fairly, just like everyone else.

So don’t call us MENA. Call us Arabs.

Ray Hanania

Ray Hanania is an award-winning Palestinian-American former journalist and political columnist. Email him at [email protected].

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