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'White without the privilege': Arab Americans demand census recognition

Arab American groups say being counted as white on US census undermines their communities
Even in areas of high concentration of Arab Americans, there is no Arabic translation on ballots (AFP)

Arab Americans are white without the privilege, community advocates say as they press the US government to widen ethnic categories in the US census, which classes even black Sudanese Arabs as "white".

Activists are pushing for a "Middle East and North Africa" box to be included in the next census in 2020, after a study by the US Census Bureau said its inclusion would improve results and give a clearer picture of American society.

Samer Khalaf, the president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), said the lack of the MENA category inevitably leads to the marginalisation of his community.

'We don't enjoy any of the benefits of white privilege as they exist in America'

- Amer Zahr, Palestinian American comedian

"Dearborn, Michigan - considered the highest concentration of Arab Americans in the United States - it is classified as a majority white city. Why? Because all the Arabs are considered white," he told Middle East Eye.

US election laws dictate that if a language other than English is widely spoken in an area, it must be represented on ballot papers.

"There is nowhere where Arabic [translation] is on the ballot because we can't prove that we are a certain percentage in any one district," he said.

The census maps out the US population and demographic features - location, ethnicity, income, household size, age and gender. Its data is available to the public and used by government agencies and NGOs.

Khalaf said having no representation meant the community was invisible; for example, the National Institutes of Health had never conducted a study on Arab Americans because of the lack of demographic data on their communities.

Khalaf said the MENA category was a compromise to include smaller ethnic groups from the Middle East that do not consider themselves Arab, such as the Kurds, Berbers and Assyrians.

‘We are not white'

Amer Zahr, a Palestinian American comedian who produced a feature documentary titled We Are Not Whitesaid he would prefer an "Arab American" category to a MENA one.

He said the term "Middle East" was imposed on Arabs by the west, adding that the different groups who come from the region, including Turks, Iranians and Israelis, do not share the same culture or language as Arabs.

"But look, I'll take what I can get because I think the good from the box outweighs the bad," he said. 

'We can start to address any issues of inequity when it comes to health, when it comes to employment'

- Hassan Jaber, ACCESS executive director

"We don't enjoy, obviously, any of the benefits of white privilege as they exist in America," Zahr added.

Hassan Jaber, the executive director of ACCESS, a Dearborn-based Arab American social services organisation, said adding the MENA category on the next census would have "significant implications" for the community.

"We can actually start to know the needs, the challenges, the makeup of the community," he told MEE.

"We can also start to address any issues of inequity when it comes to health, when it comes to employment, when it comes to small businesses."

He added that census inclusion would give Arab Americans "critical data" to document discrimination and enforce civil rights issues.

But creating a new demographic category to the census is a complicated process, according to Jaber. It requires multiple studies and focus groups before it is adopted by the Office of Management and Budget. It also needs congressional approval.

The research so far has been overwhelmingly in support of the MENA box, he said.

Hassan Jaber says counting Arab Americans on the Census would give them 'critical data' to address discrimination (ACCESS)

The case of George Dow

Although Arab Americans now want to disassociate themselves from the white label, it was early Arab immigrants who fought for and earned that designation.

In early American history, only "aliens being free white persons" were eligible for naturalisation. After the civil war, immigrants of African descent were also able to acquire US citizenship with the passage of the Naturalisation Act of 1870. The law effectively banned Asian immigrants from becoming citizens.

At the turn of the 20th century, the bulk of Arabs in the United States came from the Levant, a part of western Asia.

George Dow, a Syrian immigrant, sued the federal government for turning down his request for naturalisation. After two appeals, he secured a pronouncement from a federal judge in 1915 that Syrians could be classified as white.


The US Census does provide periodic estimates on the number of Arab Americans, based on ancestry data. But the approach leads to drastic undercounting, according to the Arab American Institute (AAI), a Washington-based think-tank.

In 2015, AAI estimated the number of Arabs in the United States to be 3.7 million, more than twice the number calculated by the federal government.

"We have been invisible when it comes to much-needed programmes, services and research, but highly visible and targeted by government programmes that view us through a securitised lens. Both are untenable," Maya Berry, the institute's director, told Middle East Eye in a statement.

But with the prospects of Donald Trump's re-election, some activists fear that census data on Arabs may be misused by the government to crack down on civil rights.

Jaber, who is a member of the Census National Advisory Committee on Racial, Ethnic and Other Populations, has been a fervent advocate of Arab representation on the census. Nonetheless, he acknowledged that the study's data could be utilised to spy on the community.

Trump has hinted at creating a Muslim registry.

'We need to measure this risk, and measure the long-term benefits for our community'

- Hassan Jaber, of ACCESS

Jaber said federal laws prohibit sharing the information of individual respondents with other government agencies, but added that privacy concerns are warranted, especially under the current political climate.

"We need to measure this risk, and measure the long-term benefits for our community… It's a risk that we have to take in order to be included," he said.  

Jaber called for vigilance to protect the community's rights.

Berry, of AAI, echoed his comments, saying the organisation understands and shares the privacy concerns. As examples, she cited government using the census during the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II and the surveillance of Arab and Muslim communities by the New York Police Department after 9/11.

"That is why we will continue to fight for the MENA category while remaining vigilant. A year from this month, we are likely to be looking at the new category for the first time and that is a very good thing. I know we need it," Berry said.

But whether Arab Americans would feel safe checking the MENA box and filling out the census form is a question that needs to be addressed in 2020.

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