Jessica Rinaldi / Reuters / Landov

Middle Eastern Americans push census change

MENA classification will increase the community’s visibility and influence among policymakers

February 2, 2015 2:00AM ET

Activists have been lobbying the U.S. Census Bureau to grant minority status to Americans with roots in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). The campaign began in 1980s, picking up steam in the last decade in response to government policies in the “war on terrorism.” The bureau has considered Americans of Middle Eastern and North African descent white since the 1920s and has repeatedly rejected appeals for minority status citing the 1997 Office of Management and Budget (OMB) guideline that defines white as “a person having origins in the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East or North Africa.” This changed in December when the U.S. Census announced plans to test a new MENA category for possible inclusion in the 2020 census. The Federal Register is now seeking 5,000 letters in support of the proposed change by Feb. 2, the deadline for the public comment period. 

The bureau’s overture has sparked hope and anxiety. Supporters say a new category would lead to a fuller and more accurate count of their numbers and increase their visibility and political influence. The nonprofit Arab American Institute (AAI) says the changes will “correct the problematic undercount of our community” and is urging people to write support letters to census officials. Its proposal calls for creating “a coherent ethnic category” for MENA, similar to the ethnicity box that exists for Hispanics. 

“We are making progress on this issue, finally, and this is the moment that we have to speak out publicly or wait another 10 years,” Randa Kayyali, who chairs a research group working on the issue, emailed supporters in late December.

Race and racial categories are fluid social and political constructs; groups can experience racial shifts over time. In the United States, nonwhite groups have in the past attained a white status. For example, the Irish, who were once categorized as nonwhite, attained white status in 1878, and Arab Muslim immigrants became officially white in 1943. Similarly, whites can become nonwhite racial minorities, as happened with Pakistani- and Indian-Americans in 1978. But racialization is not only a top-down process driven by state policy; grass-roots social movements can also lobby for new categories or the elimination of old ones. 

Over the last decade several communities in the U.S. have pushed for minority status at either the federal or state level. This includes campaigns by young Americans of Iranian, Arab, Turkish and Nubian descent who grew up under the Patriot Act and witnessed the effects of deportation, rendition, ethnic profiling and wiretapping on relatives and neighbors. At conferences, in the media and through humorous online initiatives, activists argue that their communities enjoy few of the benefits of whiteness.

Since 9/11, discrimination against Americans of MENA descent has risen precipitously as a result of hate crimes and policies associated with the “war on terrorism.” However, community leaders are not able to keep a proper count of those crimes or lobby for policy changes since the official classification lumps together people of MENA descent with whites.

The racial minority label is not contingent on ancestry or physical characteristics; even whites may be granted minority status, as is argued in reverse discrimination cases.

The current classification has a direct effect on the provision of social services and government assistance to new Americans. Muslim community leaders and social workers note that they increasingly work with refugees from countries such as Iraq, Sudan and Somalia. However, social service agencies cannot effectively demonstrate the communities’ needs for benefits such as education and health care without the requisite demographic data.

Different branches of the U.S. government have already started to grant minority status to MENA communities over the last decade. For example, in June 2013 the Department of Justice added a new race/ethnicity category for Arab Americans on the FBI’s 1-699 hate crimes form. The decision to list Arabs as a race/ethnicity came in response to the spike in hate crimes in the aftermath of the April 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, despite objection from the OMB, which wanted to maintain the U.S. Census classification.

The Census Bureau has balked at granting minority status to Americans of MENA descent, noting that the label applies only to racial and ethnic groups with a history of exclusion in the U.S. such American Indians, Asian-Americans, blacks and Hispanics. The racial minority label is not contingent on ancestry or physical characteristics; even whites may be granted minority status, as is argued in reverse discrimination cases. And this is a source of great confusion: What is thought of as race in everyday talk — i.e., how one looks — is not how the Census Bureau defines race and minority status.

“Ideally, minority status should really be just for African-Americans and Native Americans, who have known historic discrimination,” former executive director of the Arab American Institute Foundation, Helen Samhan told me when I was researching my recent book on race and youth movements in America. “What I resist is the fact that virtually all immigrant populations outside Europe except North Africans and Middle Easterners are considered minorities — Asians, Africans, Latin Americans are considered nonwhite.”

As Samhan points out the Census Bureau’s country listings and geographic demarcations are often random. “A Pakistani-American can compete for a small-business loan because he’s from Asia, but an Iranian- or Iraqi-American can’t?” she asks. “Who decided Iraq is not western Asia?”

The minority status campaigners proposal seeks to expand the official definition of the MENA region, by adopting the Arab League’s designation of the Arab world, which encompasses Sudan, Somalia, Djibouti and Comoros. They are also calling for the inclusion of three non-Arab states — Turkey, Iran and Israel, as well as four subnational communities — Assyrians, Chaldeans, Kurds and Berbers.

Proponents say the expanded definition would allow for the counting of Afro-Arab populations, which the U.S. census has historically undercounted. “An ethnic category allows people to self-identify as whatever race they want in addition to MENA ethnicity,” says Kayyali. “After all, there are many shades within the Middle East and North Africa region.”

Hisham Aidi teaches at Columbia University. He is the author of “Rebel Music: Race, Empire and the New Muslim Youth Culture,” a study of black internationalism and global youth culture.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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