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Arab American Institute

Of being “White” or “Other” on the Census

Here’s something I hadn’t thought about before.

When Randa Kayyali reached the race and ethnicity portion of the 2010 Census, she stared at the form for a while.

Her options were white, Hispanic and/or Latino, black/African-American, Asian, Native Hawaiian and American Indian. She didn’t see a category for herself on the survey: Arab American. So she checked “Other.”

Kayyali is among millions of Middle Easterners living in the U.S. — hundreds of thousands in Texas and Houston — who are severely undercounted because they don’t have a precise category to denote their background on census surveys, researchers and advocates say.

Currently, the bureau defines “white” as those of European, Middle Eastern or North African descent. But many people of Middle Eastern and North African origins and descent argue otherwise— saying their background, culture and overall experience in the United States makes it clear that they are not white, nor viewed as white.

The U.S. Census Bureau came close to including a “MENA” category (for Middle East and North Africa) in the 2020 Census, recommending it as an optimal addition in a 2017 study. But in 2018, the bureau announced that it would not include the category at the direction of federal budget officials.

The communities have responded in frustration, fury, and in some cases, lawsuits. Not only are they being rendered invisible, but advocates fear they are losing out on political representation and services for their unique economic, health and educational needs. According to the 2020 Census website, the survey results determine the distribution of over $675 billion in federal funding.

“It’s really unfortunate,” said Hassan Jaber, who is president of the Arab American nonprofit organization ACCESS and previously served on the Census Advisory Committee for six years. “All the research for the past six years indicated that if it were available, communities from MENA backgrounds would choose MENA instead of white.”

[…]

According to the group’s estimates, there are 3.7 million Americans of Arab descent. The census had estimated just 1.9 million. Texas has the fourth-largest Arab American population in the country at over 124,000, according to the Arab American Institute.

A Houston Chronicle analysis of long form census data found that the Middle Eastern population — which includes people from Turkey, Iran and Israel — was over 281,000 in Texas for 2013, and over 98,300 in the Houston metro area. However, the limited data yielded margins of error of 24,400 and over 27,700, respectively — decreasing the data’s reliability.

“There are many segments of our community that don’t recognize themselves on the existing race/ethnicity questions, and this could provide more encouragement for them to participate,” said Helen Samhan, executive director of the Arab American Institute. “It’s extremely important because many local, state and county governments rely on census data to provide services to their immigrant and foreign-speaking populations, and one of the ways those services can be allocated appropriately is if there is official data counts from the U.S. Census.”

As the story notes, people of Middle Eastern/Arabic descent had once fought to be classified as white in the Census, as there has always been an advantage to being considered white in America. But people don’t want to deny their own heritage, and that is the more prominent concern these days. There’s no question that the Census would have more accurate data with a more accurate set of categories, and it is likely that some people who aren’t responding to the Census because they feel there’s no designation that includes them would participate if there were one. I’d like to see us have a thorough discussion over what racial and ethnic categories the Census includes – and while we’re at it, let’s have the same discussion over gender categories – because it’s in everyone’s interest to have the most accurate and representative count of who is living in the USA. This will have to wait until we have a President that cares about things like representation, accuracy, and data, but let’s not wait any longer than that.