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Which Box Should Arab Americans Choose on the 2020 Census?

posted on: May 13, 2020

By: Stephanie Abraham/Arab America Contributing Writer

The U.S. Census Bureau recently extended the 2020 Census deadline to the end of October due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This is good news because it postpones Census workers from going door to door at a time when we should all be social distancing. It also gives extra time to people like me who—in spite of knowing how important it is to get counted—have been reluctant to respond to the decennial survey because of the bureau’s misstep not to include a Middle Eastern and North African (MENA–including Arab Americans) category on it.

I’m not the only Arab American feeling angst about the 2020 Census. At a House of Representatives Oversight and Reform Committee meeting in February, Palestinian American Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib told Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham that because the survey lists Middle Easterners and North Africans as white, it erases them. “Do I look white to you?” she asked.

Granted, the question itself is problematic given that Arabs look a variety of ways spanning the “racial” spectrum, and questions of Arab identity frequently get minimized into debates over physical appearance. As a mixed-heritage Arab American female—the descendent of immigrants from Lebanon and Syria on my dad’s side, and Ireland and England on my mom’s—“you don’t look Arab,” is something I often get told. Most people attribute my light skin, blue eyes, and curly hair to my European roots. But given the complex history of the Levant, it’s not uncommon for some Arabs to “look” like me.

The policing of who looks Arab became increasingly monitored after 9/11 and even more so once Trump took office, with the implementation of the Muslim ban and the spike in hate crimes against South Asians, Middle Easterners, and Muslims, who are often conflated.

Still, Tlaib’s question about whether she looks white makes an important point. Middle Easterners and North Africans—which include people from the 22 countries (defined by the Arab League) should have their own category on the census as well as Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Armenia, and other countries.

Sociologists describe the Arab experience as “not quite white.” When the first wave of Arabs arrived in the U.S. in the early 1900s, they were recorded as immigrants from “Turkey in Asia” and considered part of the “yellow race.” In 1915, at a time when whiteness was a prerequisite to citizenship, Christian Arabs successfully argued in U.S. courts that they were white because they were from Christ’s homeland, and if they weren’t white then Jesus wasn’t either. Since 1944, Arabs have been white according to U.S. law. But there’s a severe gap between this legal designation and most people’s identity and personal experience.

The Irish, for example, were not considered white but it’s been well documented how that changed. Arabs have not been integrated into whiteness in the same way. Any so-called white privilege certain light-skinned folks like me may have disappeared when assessing how communities are treated; especially, when it comes to civil liberties, racial profiling, or “flying while Arab.”

U.S. foreign policy is a case in point. The ongoing wars in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan have resulted in great profits for some individuals and corporations. Stereotypes that represent Muslim men as tyrannical and women as oppressed have been perpetuated by politicians and the media and have helped justify these wars. They have also negatively impacted government policy and personal biases against MENA constituents both in the U.S. and abroad.

These issues show that race is not just an individualized experience based on appearance. It is communal, systemic, and involves layered historic and present-day factors.

For over three decades, various groups, such as the Arab American Institute (AAI), ACCESS, and others, lobbied for a MENA category on the census. A multi-year study under Obama showed the value of having it on this year’s survey. The Census Bureau had planned to add the new category, but the Trump administration rejected the change.

Theoretically, Trump would not want Arabs counted in the white category since he has consistently “othered” them, except those from countries with which he has business relations, such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE. However, preventing MENA communities from being recognized on an official government form that would allow them access to resources is consistent with his policies.

This decision shows that the U.S. race box has always been a political category determined by those in power. Indeed, the first census in 1790 contained only these three chilling options: “Free white males and free white females; All other free persons; Slaves.”

So what should Arab Americans do? 

First, even though we don’t have our own category, we should fill out the survey because we need the resources and representation that result from it. Billions of dollars are allocated in federal funding to state and local programs in education, healthcare, food assistance, transit, and more. AAI research suggests that Arab Americans are significantly underrepresented in Census numbers, which means our communities are missing out on those dollars.

Also, state population numbers are determined by how many people respond to the Census, which dictates how many Congressional representatives each state has. In the last Census, Michigan lost a congressional seat due to a low Census response. We should avoid that type of loss.

Some may feel hesitant for fear of surveillance. The survey does ask the names and birth dates of everyone in your home, which can feel invasive. Yet, according to U.S. law, the Census Bureau cannot release any identifiable information about individuals, households, or businesses, even to law enforcement agencies. The law states that the information collected may only be used for statistical purposes.

Responding to Tlaib, Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham said that they now “have a write-in provision” that allows people to choose the “some other race” category and input their specific “origin.” Many organizations are endorsing this option even though it will not have the same impact that having a separate category would. “Y’alla Count Me In,” a joint coalition between AAI and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, is one of them. They’ve put forth two simple steps: choose some other race category and write in your family’s specific origin (for example, Palestinian, Somali, Yemeni, etc.).

The census lists Lebanese and Egyptian as origin examples to write in under the white category, along with German, Irish, English, and Italian. Some will choose this category. For this reason, the coalition has stated that regardless of the category Arab Americans choose, be it white, black or other, the most important thing is to write in where you or your family are from. This option offers the best chance of getting an accurate headcount and much-needed resources and representation. Hopefully, the 2030 Census will offer us our own category but for now, we must make sure to write in where we’re from no matter which box we choose.


Stephanie Abraham is a writer, media critic, and public relations specialist. Her writings have appeared in numerous publications, such as Al Jazeera, Ms. and the Arab American journal Mizna. She is the marketing and communications specialist at Cal Poly Pomona. 


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