In the upcoming 2020 U.S. Census, Arab Americans must choose between identifying as white or not being counted at all. For years Arab Americans have advocated for the creation of a MENA category to properly identify people of Middle Eastern or North African descent. We are disheartened to learn that the Census has decided not to alter their form. The demise of our push for the MENA category was sealed when President Trump appointed a right winger as the deputy director of the Census Bureau. Political considerations played a role in the rejection of a decade-long research on the need and validity to create a new category.
Arab American leaders and organizations welcome the idea of being properly counted in the upcoming census. In 2014, the U.S. Census sought out recommendations on the best ways to adequately account for all the nation’s demographic groups. The objective of these recommendations was to keep pace with the rapidly changing notions of race. Making broad changes to these surveys would end the use of the term “Negro” and offer new ways for Middle Easterners to identify.
Arab Americans have long argued for the need to implement these changes. The current racial options on the census have resulted in a severe misrepresentation of Arab Americans, the prevailing issue being that we do not exist as a distinct ethnic group. Instead we are left to be part of “some other race”; preventing us from our fair share of more than $400 billion in federal grants. Being undercounted and not counted at all has undermined our political power, especially within highly concentrated Arab American areas such as Northern New Jersey.
Based on the 2000 Census, the Arab American community is estimated to be about 1.9 million. The 2010 Census did not release an official count; however, the Arab American Institute estimates the number now closer to 4 million due to continued immigration and higher birth rates.
Critics of the push to create the MENA category are many. The usual criticism from more “traditional” Americans is that an effort to create a new racial category will divide our country further and make it harder to unite under a universal “American” identity. The Heritage Foundation’s Mike Gonzalez goes as far as to call the efforts to create a MENA category a Balkanization of America. These pundits argue Democrats are behind this sinister effort, citing the support received by the Obama Administration.
Conservative leaning Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton said. “By adding ‘Middle Eastern’ to the already divisive government racial categories, Americans can expect all sorts of negative consequences, such as ‘civil rights’ lawsuits over criticism of Islam.”
The issue with this argument is first, based on our country’s history, a universal “American” identity has usually meant being White. By denying Arab and Middle Eastern Americans our own identity, it creates another “color blind” approach that ignores historical legacies and contemporary realities of American racial history.
The second issue with this color-blind argument is that it flies in the face of real and significant demographic changes taking place and the political and cultural shifts that result. Consistently writing about, being “American” in the 21st century is more than just a sense of patriotic loyalty. It is about making real contributions to America’s political, economic and cultural future in the face of globalization, financial crises and the ever-changing political landscapes globally.
While ideally I would be selecting my true ethnicity on this upcoming Census, I like many others will elect to identify as “white” but a white without privilege and one that is likely seen as a lesser American,
Dr. Aref Assaf, President, American Arab Forum, Paterson