By Whitney Tesi
Middle Eastern and North African communities have been lobbying for their own category on the census for decades, even though they have been classified as “white” since the government first started conducting the survey in 1790.
Although the idea for a Middle Eastern and North African category for this year’s census was considered under the Obama Administration, the plan was shot down two years ago after President Donald Trump was elected.
“More research and testing is needed,” Karen Battle, chief of the U.S. Census Bureau’s population division, said in a public meeting last year.
Many community advocates said they were disappointed in the decision, saying the exclusion of the option ignores the challenges that Middle Eastern and North African people face as a marginalized group.
“It’s kind of creating this system of institutionalized invisibility,” said Amar Shabeeb, member of human rights group Organize 4 Syria.
With the census officially starting in two months, advocates are also afraid that the absence of a Middle Eastern or North African option will result in a lack of resources and awareness toward their communities. More than $600 million in federal funds are allocated to states and counties, which are dispersed according to the population total and breakdown on categories such as race and sex.
“How can we develop programs and services for a community that doesn’t exist?” said Itedal Shalabi, co-founder of the nonprofit social service agency Arab American Family Services. “We don’t have someone that looks like us, that speaks our language, or that understands us and can meet our needs.”
In 2017, the American Community Survey, an annual survey of the U.S. population by the Census Bureau, estimated there were 2 million Arab Americans in the country. The Arab American Institute, a nonprofit organization, said they believe that the government undercounted by 48% and the actual number had been closer to 3.7 million. According to the Illinois Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, the current Arab population in Chicago is around 150,000.
Jihad Esmail, a Palestinian American student at Northwestern University, said he had always felt conflicted about marking “white” as his race when he was growing up. He added that the lack of the Middle Eastern and North African option excludes them from obtaining affirmative action resources that other people of color receive.
“We don’t get different opportunities through minority programs because we have to mark ‘white,’” Esmail said.
Shabeeb said one service the community needed was more language support such as translators, which it couldn’t get if they weren’t recognized.
“It illustrates to the community that the government doesn’t care about you,” Shabeeb said. “They don’t even attempt to reconcile our issues.”
The recent killing of Qassem Soleimani and the resulting U.S. military tensions in the Middle East also have advocates concerned with the Islamophobia and racism they experience in America as a result.
Shalabi said that the fight for the category has been happening for over 30 years. She, along with other activists, said they are urging those who identify as Middle Eastern or North African to mark “Other” on the census and write down their identification.
“We’re teaching our community members about political power,” Shalabi said. “It’s kind of nice to be part of changing the history in a way that’s positive for future generations of Arab Americans. We’re labeled white, but we’re not treated as white.”