White? Black? Other? Arab-Americans face census dilemma

White? Black? Other? Arab-Americans face census dilemma
Middle Eastern and North African Americans could finally have their own 'box' to check on the US census, as authorities mull over the pros and cons of adding a category.
3 min read
01 November, 2016
For decades Arab Americans have had to choose between white, black and other boxes [Getty]

For the first time in more than 45 years, US authorities are considering adding a new racial category to census forms for people of Middle Eastern or North African descent.

Arabs, who for decades had to choose between ticking the "white," "black" or "other race" boxes, will have a new category, to go alongside the already existing "African-American" and "Asian Indian".

"This research aims to improve data on race and ethnicity so that we can provide our country with important information that reflects our growing racial and ethnic diversity," Rachel Marks, a Census Bureau analyst, told AFP.

A review process is almost complete for the new category: "Middle East-North African," however opinion among community members - most of whom are Muslim - is divided.

While some welcome the prospect of being counted in order to gain a greater political voice, others are uneasy about standing out in a time of rising anti-Muslim rhetoric.

"In the Donald Trump era, we fear that this designation could be hurtful. Do we really want to give such a tool to someone who wants to ban Muslims from entering the US or to put them under surveillance?" asked Oussama Jammal, secretary-general of the US Council of Muslim Organizations.

The organisation has yet to adopt a formal position on the matter. 

Time to choose

Despite this, there is a consensus among people of Iranian, Lebanese, Saudi and other origins who remain collectively confused on how to define their official racial category.

"Are we white? We're certainly not black even if some of us come from Northern Africa. Is it a question of skin colour? Of geographical origins? The dilemma faces everyone," Jammal said.

In some countries, recording ethnic data is taboo. But in the United States, official statistics often include information on geographic origins or skin colour.

This allows local authorities to know, for example, that unemployment among blacks is twice that of whites. The census also determines how many seats each state has in the House of Representatives.

US census forms ask the question forthrightly - "What is this person's race?" - and allow respondents to check one or more among 15 boxes. Toward the end of the 1990s, activist organizations began to call for people of Middle Eastern descent to be officially included.

But the attacks of September 11, 2001 and the fear that such information could be used against Muslims called the move into doubt. Controversy broke out in 2004 when the Census Bureau produced information on the locations of Americans who had declared their Middle-Eastern heritage during the 2000 census.

"It created a huge uproar in the Arab-Muslim community because they felt that the Homeland (Security) Department was going to use this for surveillance, which was probably what they had in mind," said Matthew Snipp, professor of humanities and sciences at Stanford.

The episode also recalled sombre memories of the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, which some researchers say the Census Bureau abetted by helping identify them.

As such anxieties diminished over time, some community members called on the Census Bureau to consider adding the new racial category.

"It would help our government to provide the best service possible while taking into account its very diverse population," said Corey Saylor of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

In areas with high concentrations of people of Middle Eastern origin, authorities could be convinced to offer services in Arabic, as is already the case for Spanish, he said.

The matter will be settled at the political level, with Congress having the final say.

Jamal Abdi of the National Iranian-American Council said being counted will give Americans of Middle Eastern and North African origins a greater political voice.

He said fears of persecution should not prevent this.

"It's a legitimate concern but I don't think that the response to this is for us to live in the shadows or to obscure our heritage," he told AFP.