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Living While White: How a Lack of Representation in the U.S. Census has Affected Arab Americans

posted on: Jul 20, 2022

By: Jordan AbuAljazer / Arab America Contributing Writer

The United States census is the formal collection of information from the American population. Since the year 1790, the census has taken place every decade. The most recent U.S. census occurred in 2020, and many communities in the United States will be affected by the results. All United States residents filling out the census will in some part define the allocation of funding in regard to healthcare, education, and infrastructure. The information obtained by the census will also determine the allocation of seats on the House of Representatives given to each state and the number of votes given to states for the electoral college.

The census is a vital way in which communities of the United States are recognized and given aid, influence, and awareness. However, the census has historically been criticized for its failure to accurately represent the demographics of the United States. Contributing to this controversy is how Arab-Americans are forced to identify on the census. Those who look to results of the census for information on Arab Americans and those struggling to fill out the survey themselves will find there is no category to recognized people of Arab descent. Instead, they are forced to identify as “white,” resulting in Arabs becoming an “invisible minority” hidden behind a mistaken association between Arab heritage and whiteness.

There is a deep history explaining why Arab Americans are identified as white on the census. Established in the same year of the first census, the Naturalization Act of 1790 dictated that only white persons may become citizens. In their effort of achieving the full rights offered to United States citizens, Arab immigrants would argue in court that they were white and, therefore, could become citizens. While this was functionally useful for many Arab Americans until the repeal of racial restrictions on citizenship in 1952, the lives and diverse experiences of Arab Americans are significantly different from those of white Americans. Following events such as September 11th and the Trump-era Muslim ban, the experiences that divide the Arab community Arabs can no longer remain a minority categorized under whiteness. Many feel the U.S. census should be changed to recognize the unique experiences and needs of Arab Americans.

A lack of recognition on the census has already tremendously affected the Arab American community. A lack of data on the demographics and presence of Arab Americans limits a great deal of research that can be done for the benefit of Arab Americans. Also taken from Arab Americans is the ability to be accounted for political representation, social services, and legal protections. For example, Arab Americans have a lesser capability to fight against discrimination in the United States because they are not recognized officially as a racial group despite often being targeted by discriminative legal policy and individual discrimination. It is also contradictory to the reality of the attention given to Arab Americans by the United States government. The government surveillance, targeted immigration bans, and racial profiling of Arab Americans reveals that the United States is already acutely aware of Arab Americans. However, it is in the interest of the surveilling government to keep certain legal protections and awareness away from Arab Americans.

The awareness of how a lack of recognition on the census affects Arab Americans is certainly not new; however, official governmental efforts to add the recognition of Arab Americans to the survey have been made since the Obama administration. The solution suggested by many Arab Americans is to add the term MENA, meaning Middle Eastern and North African, to the census as a racial group. This term is not without criticism, however. Some feel the census should identify Arab Americans as “Middle Eastern or North African” so that their identities could be more accurately represented.

The effort of adding a MENA category to the U.S. census has been most recently championed by Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, who has of June 2022 sent a letter the US Census Bureau advocating for the census recognition of Arab Americans on the census. In it, she writes “To better understand the health outcomes, socioeconomic conditions, political representation, and life changes of Americans of Middle Eastern or North African descent…we strongly urge the Census Bureau to follow through on the President’s promise to ‘support the creation of a new Middle East North African (MENA) category.’”

The “President’s promise” refers to the official political agenda of the Biden administration including the addition of such a racial category for Arab Americans. The newfound support of President Joe Biden may result in the inclusion of a MENA category on the 2030 census. However, actions like that of Rashida Tlaib must be taken to ensure this change follows through for the benefit of Arab Americans.

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