Arabs, Hispanics seeking better US Census recognition

Minority groups could see big changes by 2020 in race and ethnicity categories in decennial US demographic survey

Many community organizations hope for a new Middle East and North Africa category in the next Census.
Alex Gallardo/Reuters

When Hassan Jaber, a Lebanese-American, fills out his Census questionnaire, the race question gives him pause. White? No. Black? No. Asian? American Indian? Native Hawaiian? No, no, no.

So he checks off the only other option: “some other race.”

“The categories really don’t represent us,” said Jaber, executive director of the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS) in Dearborn, Mich. “Even putting it under ‘other’ makes the reliability of the information very questionable.”

But all this could soon change.

In the face of an increasingly multiracial and multiethnic population that no longer fits neatly into traditional classifications set by the government, the Census Bureau has been testing major changes in how it asks people to identify their race and ethnicity.

Hispanic, an ethnicity, not a race, may soon be lumped into a broader “race and origin” category, effectively treating it as a race for the first time.

The line between race and ethnicity has become artificial, said William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., and the author of an upcoming book on the nation’s diversity. “What’s the definition of race? It’s not nationality. It’s not skin color, necessarily,” he said. “It’s sort of a mishmash.”

Last summer, the Arab American Institute sent a letter signed by 30 advocacy groups asking the Census Bureau and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which sets race standards, to create a MENA (Middle East and North Africa) category.

Nicholas Jones, chief of the Census racial-statistics branch, calls the letter “historic.”

Several populations are clamoring for their own categories, but, Jones said, “it’s the only group we’ve received a letter from requesting a separate ethnicity box.”

The objective is to find a way to include all Arab-Americans into a category, which translates into money and political clout. Census numbers are used to allocate almost $400 billion in federal funds every year. They’re also the basis for drawing legislative districts, including U.S. House of Representatives districts.

Classified as white

Two-thirds of Arab-Americans are concentrated in 10 states, with one-third in California (260,000), Michigan (159,000) and New York (153,000), according to statistics from the American Community Survey published on Tuesday.

In Dearborn, Mich., a suburb or Detroit, more than 38,000 people, almost 40% of the population, are of Arab ancestry.

The new data give detailed information about smaller populations, down to the neighborhood level.

Lebanese-Americans are the largest group, making up more than a fourth of all Arab-Americans.

“The majority are being classified as white,” said Jaber, a member of a Census advisory committee. “Even Egyptians and North Africans. The rest are falling under ‘other race.’ So the numbers on Arab-Americans are extremely inaccurate, and there is a huge undercount.”

He estimates that about two-thirds of Arabs are not counted as Arabs. Based on ancestry data, the Census counts about 1.9 million people of Arab descent. He said the true number might be closer to almost 6 million.

“The Census Bureau is being extremely open to discuss this issue,” Jaber said. “It is going to open up all kinds of possibilities for small populations to have more reliable information on them … It is a big deal.”

The numbers on Arab-Americans are extremely inaccurate, and there is a huge undercount.

Hassan Jaber

Executive director, ACCESS

Creating a MENA category and putting Hispanic — the nation’s largest minority, at 52 million, or 16.7% of the total population — would be the most drastic changes to Census questions about race and ethnicity since the 2000 Census, when people were allowed for the first time to check more than one race.

That adjustment was designed to reflect the increase in multiracial populations. Testing and discussions with the OMB are expected to result in changes by the 2020 Census. But modifications could start showing up in surveys before the end of this decade.

About 95% of people who check the “other race” category are Hispanic. When the Census tested putting “Hispanic” alongside existing race categories, asking people to check all that apply, 80% of Hispanics checked just “Hispanic.”

“We want to make sure that whatever changes come out of this discussion (provide) a better way of getting Hispanic data,” said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino and Elected Officials and a member of a the Census advisory committee.

Tests were done on a sample set of forms during the 2010 Census, but Vargas bemoans the fact that none of the tests were conducted in Spanish, though Spanish-language forms were later used in focus groups.

“The fact that you have 20 million individuals answering ‘some other race’ and the fact that more than 90% of them are Latinos suggest that race questions are not working for Latinos,” he said. “There’ll be changes, regardless.”

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