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Arab-Americans Say They Are Uncounted

posted on: Nov 5, 2009

Arab Americans will have no box to check on the census this April. They never have and many community leaders say it is time for that to change.

Technically, Arab Americans are not a legally recognized racial or ethnic minority. The census follows the federal guidelines on racial and ethnic measurements provided by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget. Persons from the Middle East and North Africa, like those of European descent, are classified as white.

“Where are the Arabs? How many are there? With only vague ideas, we’re shooting in the dark,” said Morad Askar, founding member of the Network of Arab-American Professionals’ Chicago chapter.

Formed last year, the Chicago chapter hopes to civically empower Arab Americans. According to the Arab American Institute, there are 3.5 million Arabs nationwide. The Institute reports that Cook County has the third largest Arab-American population in the country.

Askar and other leaders estimate that there are about 300,000 Arabs in Chicago alone.

Activists say Arab Americans’ classification as “white” or “other” has led to their being undercounted in the community. To be classified would lead to a better statistical understanding of Arab Americans and their social and political needs.

“It’s like running a marketing campaign and not having the survey you need,” Askar said. “Until then, we can’t accurately determine which position we want to play and what needs to be fought for.”

After 9/11, the Arab-American community woke up, said Rasmieyh Abdelnabi, facilitator of the civic engagement committee. “Before, it’s as though we were asleep and now we want to say we are a part of this country, too.”

The Arab American Institute Foundation, which partners with the U.S. Census Bureau, pushed to have an ancestry question on the 2010 short-form.

“We tried to convince them but it’s not going to happen,” said Helen Hatab Samhan, executive director of the Arab American Institute Foundation.

The Arab American Institute and others who examine ethnic demographics will still rely on the data from the “Ancestry” question which is collected not on the decennial census, but through the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. The Survey is produced every year and collects data on people’s ancestry, but only uses a randomly selected sample of 250,000 households every month of the year.

“To be frank, every question on the census is mandated by law, and there is no law that says we need to know how many Arab Americans live in the country,” said Roberto Ramirez, chief of the ethnicity and ancestry branch of the U.S. Census Bureau’s Population division.

“We wish we could have a box for everyone, but there is just not enough space. It comes down to real estate,” he said, explaining that Brazilians and those of Caribbean descent have staged similar fights.

Because it takes an act of Congress to alter the questions on the census, Askar says civic participation from the Arab-American community is needed more than ever. The committee encourages Arabs to contact their representatives and voice their concerns.

But traditionally speaking, said Abdelnabi, older generations of Arabs are not prone to be civically active. Most, she explains, come from largely undemocratic nations where the government is only to be feared.

Moreover, Samia El-Badry, a demographer who works closely with Census Bureau officials, claims that Arab Americans do not have a champion in Congress to get such a category.

“I wish there were more recognition for our ethnicity,” said Samir Khalil, president of the Arab American Democratic Club. “It seems that the government considers us Caucasian when they want our votes, but Arabs when we’re placed in a negative context.”

Ray Hanania, host of “Mornings with Ray Hanania” on radio station WJJG-AM and author of “Arabs of Chicagoland” said, “Arab Americans are used to settling for the crumbs and not fighting for our rights as equal citizens.”

Consequently, Hanania refuses to participate in the 2010 Census.

“Not having a box – a place – is demeaning and Arabs lose out,” he said.

Rashad Al-Dabbagh, partnership specialist with the U.S. Census Bureau, argues on his Web site, “The Happy Arab News Service,” that Hanania’s stance is misguided.

If cities with heavily-concentrated Arab populations decline to participate, then government funding will be lost, he wrote. He encourages those to check the “Some Other Race” box and fill in “Arab.”

“To empower the Arab community, it only makes sense that we all participate in the 2010 Census,” Shaman declares.

Still, Askar hopes for official census tracking in 2020, so as to create a stronger voice for Arab Americans in the Chicago area.

“Arabs have this big light shining everywhere and with official recognition by the census, we could focus that light into a laser beam,” he said. “We could truly, officially carve out a place for ourselves.”

Lauren Bohn
Medill Reports