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Arab-Americans Have a Message for the Census Bureau: We’re Not White!

Arab-Americans Have a Message for the Census Bureau: We’re Not White!

It might seem like we just had a Census, but the government is already gearing up for 2020 because planning a Census is serious business. It doesn’t just involve training thousands of temporary workers, printing millions of forms, and preparing to process a considerable volume of data. The Census Bureau also has to think about how it wants to structure the forms in order to get the most accurate and exacting answers from participants so as to understand the makeup of America.

This matters, not just because it provides interesting insights into who is living in the United States, but because demographic breakdowns determine things like how federal aid is distributed, how Congressional districts are apportioned, how many electoral college votes states receive, and more. If this information is incorrect, Americans might be shortchanged–and unfortunately, it’s often minorities who bear the brunt of such inequalities, as they’re the most in need of the safety net of governmental support, as well as legal protections.

One of the most important questions on the Census has to do with race, and it’s also one of the most fraught. In 2010, more people than ever were selecting “some other race” because they felt like none of the categories on offer described them. While respondents wrote in their own race, the Census didn’t necessarily respect that classification. Case in point: Arab-Americans, who identify as Arab-American, not white, yet are considered “white” for legal purposes.

The reasons for that classification are a fascinating and horrifying glimpse into US history that highlights how long the effects of racism can linger.

When people from the Middle East first began emigrating to the US, many faced considerable prejudice and discrimination, much of which was written directly into the law. As non-whites, they weren’t allowed to own property, marry white people, start businesses, or engage in other basic acts of daily living, because of state laws and regional restrictions. In response, the Syrian and Lebanese communities began fighting to be legally recognized as white in order to receive access to the same social benefits the white community had. They won, but it’s turned out to be a Pyrrhic victory for the new generation, which is proud of its heritage and doesn’t see itself as white–though there are, of course, some who feel otherwise.

As the Census begins to think about what should be on the new form and how it should be worded, it’s facing a considerable and complex discussion about race, ethnicity, and personal identity. While the Census wants to collect broad general information that will help it offer meaningful statistics, it also needs to consider the fact that the categories and descriptors it’s familiar with may no longer fit the United States as a country, or as a culture. Should the agency override personal feelings about identity in the interest of statistics? And, how accurate are those statistics if they don’t reflect the reality of the communities they’re supposed to be tracking?

One thing is certain: the Census form we see in 2020 is likely to be quite different from 2010′s, and that’s a good thing.

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Photo credit: Esmar Abdul Hamid.

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118 comments

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12:47AM PDT on Jul 18, 2014

Thank you for sharing!

1:19PM PDT on Jul 16, 2014

Yesssss...of courrrrssssse... Arrrrrab!.. allas verrrry besssssst.!

11:00AM PDT on Jul 16, 2014

The race thing is odd to begin with. Wish they'd either completely omit it or create a question not based on skin color.

5:41PM PDT on Jul 15, 2014

Thanks

7:06AM PDT on Jul 15, 2014

Thanks for the article.

11:48AM PDT on Jul 14, 2014

OK, I'll bite. What, if 'not-white' sometimes, or historically 'white', what do they propose? In Anthropology, I learned that the world population can be divided into 4 major races: namely white/Caucasian, Mongoloid/Asian, Negroid/Black, and Australoid. Altho, since then, there has been no universal acceptance for the term 'race', and the UN prefers 'ethnic groups' of which there are over 5,000. Since the purpose of the census is to collect demographics, listing thousands of ethnic groups would be absurd. Every nation has the duty to determine the racial makeup of its citizens and whether needs are being met. That is one of the primary purposes of the census.

10:32AM PDT on Jul 14, 2014

do any one like to see only one kind of rose plant in a garden or full of different kind and color flower plants which give happiness for mind and beauty for eyes
a decent and innocent mind is similar to a small child ! child never see any hate with anything unless you teach so do not mention irritating commends hurt people mind

10:08AM PDT on Jul 14, 2014

Good points made in the replies. I'd like to know what people who have one black and one whiter parent or one Hispanic and one white parent etc. are supposed to mark? Do they just go by the color of their skin or what. I guess they just take their pick.

9:08AM PDT on Jul 14, 2014

Thank you.

10:55PM PDT on Jul 13, 2014

If there is a separate box for "Vietnamese," why not one for "Arab" or "Middle Eastern."

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