Are Arab Americans White? Maybe Not, according to US Census

Posted November 18th, 2015 at 9:56 am (UTC-4)
25 comments

Members of the Arab American Heritage Council meeting in Flint Michigan on Sept. 14, 2012. (Photo by Flickr user Deb Nystrom via Creative Commons license)

Members of the Arab American Heritage Council meeting in Flint Michigan on Sept. 14, 2012. (Photo by Flickr user Deb Nystrom via Creative Commons license)

For 71 years, the United States has classified Americans of Middle Eastern and North African ancestry as “white”, but the federal government is now considering a plan to give this group of Americans its own classification on the next U.S. census.

It’s a move Arab American civil rights groups have spent decades advocating for because, while people of Middle Eastern and North African ancestry are legally white, the reality is that, in everyday life, this population is rarely perceived—or treated—as white.

Graphic: Arab American Institute Source: 2010 American Community Survey 1-Year Estimates– U.S. Census Bureau

Graphic: Arab American Institute Source: 2010 American Community Survey 1-Year Estimates– U.S. Census Bureau

Rima Fakih, Miss USA 2010,  is an Arab American of Lebanese ancestry. (AP Photo)

Rima Fakih, Miss USA 2010, is an Arab American of Lebanese ancestry. (AP Photo)

“You have popular perceptions of Middle Eastern and North African Americans as non-white and more than just non-white, but as prospective terrorists, national security threats, subversives,” said Khaled Beydoun, an assistant professor of law at Barry University in Florida. “You have this rift between legal status, and popular and political conceptions of Middle Eastern and North African Americans’ identities.”

A new classification, “Middle East or North African [MENA],” is currently being tested and could make its debut on the next census in 2020.

The U.S. census, which takes place every 10 years, seeks to count every resident in the United States. States use the census information to redraw their congressional districts, while communities use it to plan where to build schools, roads, and hospitals. The data is also useful to governments when it comes to the allotment of funds and support.

No one knows exactly how many Arab Americans there are. The U.S. Census estimates there are 1.9 million. However, the Arab American Institute (AAI) puts that number at 3.7 million. Hassan Jaber, executive director of the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS) in Dearborn, Michigan, thinks the true number could be closer to almost 6 million.

The majority are concentrated in 10 states, including California, Michigan and New York, according to statistics from the American Community Survey.

The first Arabs to immigrate to America came in the 1880s. This photo of an Algerian immigrant was taken by  Augustus Sherman, the chief registry clerk on Ellis Island from 1892 until 1925. (New York Public Library)

The first Arabs to immigrate to America came in the 1880s. This photo of an Algerian immigrant was taken by Augustus Sherman, the chief registry clerk on Ellis Island from 1892 until 1925. (New York Public Library)

AAI has long advocated for a special category for the Arab-American community, which it believes has been severely under-counted.

“The undercount, apart from stemming research on these communities, has severe consequences on access to certain services—from language assistance at polling places to the enforcement of equal employment opportunities—that are based on Census data,” AAI’s Margaret Lowry wrote on the institute’s blog.

A stand-alone designation could also lead to other legal benefits for MENA Americans, such as access to government-based grants and loans, and race- and ethnicity-conscious affirmative action in higher education.

The proposed reclassification of Arab Americans from white to MENA is perceived by many to be a significant moment of racial progress.

Eva Hetty, a Lebanese immigrant and Detroit factory worker, in 1929. (Image from “Arab Americans in Metro Detroit: A Pictorial History”)

Eva Hetty, a Lebanese immigrant and Detroit factory worker, in 1929. (Image from “Arab Americans in Metro Detroit: A Pictorial History”)

However, it comes during a time of increased state surveillance and the emerging Countering Violent Extremism program, a new national security effort steered by the FBI, which works in conjunction with local police departments to combat terrorism. The effort, in effect, localizes national security and anti-terror policing, says Beydoun.

“If you have this MENA box which passes in 2020, the ability of the government to collect more precise and comprehensive data about communities that it associates with terrorism is greatly enhanced,” he said. “Even though that is a possible peril that arises from the MENA box, I’m still a strong supporter of it.”

Beydoun succinctly summed up the MENA dilemma facing Arab Americans in an essay he wrote for the Michigan Law Review.

“For a population boxed out for decades,” he wrote, “closer scrutiny reveals that being boxed in may be an even more perilous position.”

25 responses to “Are Arab Americans White? Maybe Not, according to US Census”

  1. Alice says:

    Arabs who live on the Mediterranean Sea look no different than the other peoples who reside by the Mediterranean. That is to say they look like Greeks, Italians, Spaniards, etc. Let us also not forget the ancestors of these same Muslim Arabs were Christians who often spoke Aramaic, Latin or Greek as their mother tongues before being forced at the point of a sword to convert to Islam and learn Arabic.

  2. Sami Faltas says:

    America has done quite a good job of uniting all its ethnic groups into one nation. We Europeans could learn a thing or two from you. But why do you Americans go on labelling people by the presumed colour of the skin? Grow up.

    • Cookie says:

      I moved from Eastern Europe to Western Europe 20 years ago. I am white. Was discriminated against at every corner from being from the Balkans. Was not a skin issue, was a nationalist issue. You grow up, too.

    • Grant says:

      the reason the goverment wants to know the correct label, is they say they need it in order to catalogue and watch trends. to see the trends in college rates and this could determine if the fed will give out money for college or welfare due to unfairness. so in short its to track trends based on a number of different demographics and not just race and we have been doing this for a few centuries now. thats how you get those nifty little charts and graphs that say how many whites graduated college and how many whites own homes compared to other races.

    • Alicia says:

      I think that many of the inmigrants who arrived in America at the end of the 19th century or at the beginning of the 20th century just wanted to be Americans and not labeled as per their skin color. Besides this, many got married to Eurpeans inmigrants or changed their family names. How can a person be identified as belonging to one particular race?

  3. humanity are the same the only thing dividing is now religion.

  4. Ruth says:

    Just leave it alone. Why do they have to be classified? They ARE white. Talk about fixing something that isn’t broken. It is just another way for government to keep track of you.

  5. omar driza says:

    I am an Arab American from north African decent . In my birthplace My Family is considered white . We have blacks that live along side whites. I look may be Italian or Spanish and My 6 born in the USA children look white so who is to say who is white and who is not ? I am against being classified to a certain race because it is a lot more complicated then just the color of the skin. My original ancestors from my Father’s side came from modern day Turkey over 500 years ago and My Mother’s side came from the Arabian peninsula In Asia so what does that make me ? majority of the population in north Africa came from other places.

    • Sami Faltas says:

      “What does that make me?” An excellent question that demonstrates what complete nonsense this whole classification according to colour is. I would say: You are Omar. Ahlan wa sahlan.

  6. Nick says:

    Why do we need even more racial classifications? But if we’re going to go down this road, maybe there should be MENAM [Muslim] and MENAC [Christian] subcategories? Ha.

  7. steve says:

    Just another obama attempt to make sure there aren’t too many whites for his liking. Absolutely nuts.

  8. Solaris says:

    Arabs are descendants of prophets. from their paternal sides they are Jews cousins, from their maternal side they are African. So they are white and they are not, that is the paradox. Forget about the ancestry but never ever let the US become a place like the middle east where you can’t say who is who. Mixing things together leads to ambiguity and obscurity which itself leads to destruction, this is the base of a terrorist organization ideology.

  9. Alex says:

    Arabs are NOT WHITE……White is a person with an European decent and European culture. There are some Hispanic whom are blonde but are Hispanic Not white……Keep the white people white please….Arabs should be categorized as none-white middle eastern or whatever but not white..

    Alex in Sweden

    • Grant says:

      I am offended that you use that term white! we are eurpoean americans. Please! ;p

    • mcw says:

      Uh, believe Hispanic originated from Spain which is part of Europe and yes, believe there are some blonde Spaniards but Europe would also include Italy and Greece. Do not believe all countries in Europe have same culture nor coloring.

    • MarvelFan says:

      First not all arabs are white, but arabs that are from Lebanon looks like europeans, and why do you want to classificate people?

    • Johan says:

      What is European culture? Thats too vague
      It’s like saying “Asian culture,African culture,North American,culture,South American Culture”

  10. mthokozisi xaba says:

    Its funny how u aguing abt being white…now I undrstnd why blacks where so discriminated in their own countries..by Europeans ..made to hate their own colour…now its has turned to xenophobia in africa….this has been going on too long..and t has too end

  11. amir says:

    Arab americans should be defined as African decent or African-Arab American point blank

    • mcw says:

      Why? Haven’t Arabs been in the mid-east for centuries, so in Asia as well as N. Africa? I am not being negative
      to you, just wondering. Maybe I need to do some studying. I understand that some Arab people want to be
      reclassified. I get that. THEN I wish we could get to the point where it wasn’t necessary but it isn’t going to
      come anytime soon. Ever?

  12. Lena says:

    As a Lebanese American, I do not consider myself white. We do not benefit from white privilege. We do not have any way of showing who we are racially. This is not about skin color, my mother is a light-skinned Arab, my father is dark. They’re from the same country, and it is in Asia. We are not white because white people are decended from European countries. I adore the idea of MENA, and I’m glad it is a thing that will hopefully one day exist

    • Lena says:

      Also, white passing or being lightskinned does not make one white. Someone from South or Central America can look “white” but they are undeniably Latinx. It is, or should be, the same for Arabs. Your melanin levels don’t determine your race, your overall genetics do.

  13. Sami Faltas says:

    @Lena: And what is the genetic pattern of a “Latin” person? Native American like Evo Morales? African American like Pele? Swiss and Croatian, like Nestor Kirchner? Spanish like Cristina Kirchner? Lebanese like Carlos Menem? Italian like Pope Francis? French like Michelle Bachelet? Don’t you see that genetics is a lousy basis for social classification?

  14. SPSP says:

    Arabs close to the mediterranean are genetically and phenotypically very impossible to distinguish from South-south east european. Genetic studies have proven that many western european countries have significant “Mesopotamian” genes.
    Stop creating further racial divisions in this country , we are already having problems as it is..
    If I was middle eastern , i would continue to put Caucasian on my form.

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