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.
“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.
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.
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.”