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The 2020 Census--Arabs Need Not Apply

posted on: Feb 7, 2018

J. Michael Springmann/Arab America Contributing Writer

On January 26, 2018, the U.S. Commerce Department’s Bureau of the Census announced that it “will not use…a separate Middle Eastern or North African” category on the census form.” However, the 2020 Census will still contain unchanged questions on race and ethnicity such as those delineating people of African and Hispanic origin as well as other more obscure racial derivations. These include Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander or Filipino or Vietnamese and will further break down the existing Hispanic category by countries and regions.

Response from the Arab side in America has been swift and uncomplimentary. Ranging from practical (Arabs are not accurately counted) to knee-jerk Trumposition (he’s playing politics with the census), the feeling seems to be that efforts to re-introduce the sought-for category will go on.

Origins of the controversy appear to go back to the 1980s, as the Arab-American Institute (AAI) alleges. It was then that organizations began to seek an “Arab” category in the census. AAI asserts that the U.S. Arab population is woefully undercounted, 1.9 million versus 3.7 million. This leads to a series of issues discriminating against people from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA):

Language Assistance and Voting Rights

 Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act protects minority language populations by ensuring the availability of foreign language ballots and translation services at polling places. The groups included are determined by the Census, excluding Arab Americans from protection under Section 203.


 …it is impossible to address diseases that are [MENA] ethnic-specific, such as lactose intolerance or the prevalence of diabetes among Arab Americans. Inclusion on the Census will foster greater access to health information and services for Arab Americans, as well as funding for services for the elderly and disabled.


 Inclusion on census surveys will allow for more equitable allocations of grants for assisted learning services to school districts with larger populations of children with limited English proficiency, as well as funding for cultural competency training for educators working directly with Arab American communities…


Census data is used for monitoring and enforcing equal employment opportunities, and the new ethnic category could be used to protect Arab Americans from discrimination in hiring practices…

In short, “Hassan Jaber (Executive Director of ACCESS), a longtime advocate for including Arabs in the census, told MEE [Middle East Eye]… when Arabs are not counted, they remain invisible to the federal government.”  One Palestinian-American told the author that this undercount is the key point that must be resolved.

One strong argument for listing Arab Americans as Arab rather than white/Caucasian is put forward by Christine Tamerlane: “The classification of Arab Americans as officially ‘white’ in the census, while society perceives Arab Americans as socially “black,” is problematic. It denies a group that is historically and presently suffering discrimination the benefits and protections of minority status, as well as the benefit of official recognition as a way of conferring identity.”

Photo Credit: AP

Historically, Arabs were classed as and saw themselves as “White/Caucasian” because being described as any other color often resulted in their not being admitted to the United States.

“Early Arab immigrants desperately pursued whiteness and performed it in immigration proceedings. The law officially mandated whiteness as a prerequisite for US citizenship until 1952. Key judicial decisions in 1915 and later 1944, solidified the legal designation that Arabs were white by law…

A social and political currency like no other, to be white in the US is to be free from the presumption that you are foreign or inferior. Whites are simply “American”, unfettered by the qualified or hyphenated identities compelled upon Asian, African, Latino, or Arab Americans. [A point repeatedly brought home to the author by naturalized Arabs who don’t see themselves as “American”; they seem to believe “real” U.S. citizens are those of European-American origin.]

However, there is also a dark side to these statistics. Namely, equipping the department of homeland security and local police with more precise demographic data about Arab American households, blocks, and communities – in short, making surveillance easier and more incisive.

On one hand, the end of Arab American ceremonial whiteness may mark a moment of racial progress – and on the other, may indicate racial retrenchment.

Regardless of how Arabs are racially classified in the US – white, MENA, or otherwise – their sociopolitical designation as “presumed terrorists”, “terrorist sympathizers”, or “radicals” will always trump whatever identity they choose to write on paper.

Reforming structural understandings of Arab identity, ultimately, is more important than the racial labels affixed to them.”

COMMENT: Article I, Section 2 of the federal Constitution provides for a census, to be taken every 10 years. The United States was the first country in the world to require a systematic counting of its inhabitants. Beginning with the sum of free white males and females and slaves in 1790, the Census moved on to age divisions of those tallied in 1800. With each subsequent survey, more and more questions were added, some apparently very intrusive. In 1860, the government sought information on marriage, real estate owned, place of birth, and literacy. At the turn of the 20th Century, the 1900 Census asked when people immigrated, were they naturalized, their occupation, did they speak English, was their house mortgaged. In 1950, the Census Bureau queried the respondent’s street address, level of education, income other than from earnings, and were they a war veteran. Later in 2000, Hispanic ethnicity formed part of the questionnaire, along with what language people spoke at home. Additionally, the government sought information on mental, physical, or emotional disabilities. Details on commuting to work were included.

In light of the steady increase in questions, particularly concentrating on race, it may not be so farfetched to want to include people from MENA. While it may give too much information to the inaptly-named Department of Homeland Security, a better counting of Arab Americans might help unify and provide badly-needed benefits to a diverse group of people.

Some have suggested using the category “other race” if it is carried over from the 2010 Census to 2020. Writing “Arab” into the space provided is problematical. (1) Would enough people do it to make it worthwhile and obtain an accurate count? (2) Would Census accept this and total the responses? Or, (3) would this result in a less-than-accurate tally by people fearing to single themselves out?

For Census Questions from the last decennial survey in 2010, see


Michael Springmann is an attorney, author, and political commentator. He has written Visas for Al Qaeda: CIA Handouts That Rocked The World and a second book Goodbye, Europe? Hello, Chaos? Merkel’s Migrant Bomb. Both are available on Amazon. The books’ website is: