After decades of lobbying, Arab-Americans may no longer be counted as white on the U.S. Census. Starting this month, the Census Bureau is testing different ways to allow people to identify as being from the Middle East and North Africa, or MENA. Advocates are seeking changes to the census that accurately reflect the realities of life as Middle Easterners in the United States after the 9/11 attacks, and the fact that a growing number of young Arab-Americans identify as minorities.
"We're being profiled, and we're being targeted, but when we try to raise objections or file complaints, we get lost in the numbers," said Samer Khalef, president of the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee.
Younger Arab-Americans are much more likely to identify as non-white, said Rebecca Abou-Chedid, a lawyer who used to work for the Arab-American Institute. Roughly half of Abou-Chedid's family is descended from Lebanese immigrants who came to the U.S. in the late 19th Century, while the other half has stronger ties to Lebanon. Abou-Chedid is light-skinned and comfortable navigating American culture: If she felt so inclined, she said, she could strive to be perceived as a white American.
And yet, like many of her younger relatives and friends, Abou-Chedid identifies strongly as Arab-American and considers herself a woman of color. This sometimes perplexes her older, more deeply assimilated relatives, whose reasoning Abou-Chedid described as, "Why would you want to make yourself different if — like Italian and Irish immigrants — you could pass as white?"
This generational difference, according to many younger Arab-Americans, has a lot to do with the discrimination Arabs in the U.S. experienced after 9/11. "When a certain part of your identity feels like it's under attack, your response is to assert that part of your identity," Abou-Chedid said.
Linda Sarsour, the executive director of the Arab-American Association of New York, grew up the daughter of Palestinian immigrants in South Brooklyn. Although she always felt connected to her roots, she never wore a headscarf in her childhood or adolescence, and, she said, "could have been Italian, or Russian, or light-skinned Puerto Rican."
Sarsour was 21 years old and had just begun to involve herself in community work when 9/11 happened, and the aftermath of the attacks came to have a permanent impact on her identity. She recalled having Middle Eastern women come to her office on a daily basis saying that men had come to their house and taken their husbands away, leaving behind only a business card. These business cards, representing a smattering of federal and local law enforcement agents, accumulated in a basket that Sarsour kept on her desk.
Meanwhile, following the 9/11 attacks, those perceived as Muslims or Arabs were soon targeted in violent hate crimes across the country that continue to this day. Middle Easterners in the U.S. have also been subject to intrusive state surveillance. Sarsour, for one, learned from AP reporters that, in 2009, the NYPD's Muslim surveillance unit had tried to infiltrate her group's board of directors.
In 2010, Sarsour helped lead a campaign called "Check It Right, You Ain't White," to urge Arab-Americans not to identify as white on the census. Most previous attempts to obtain recognition for Middle Easterners in the census were similarly spearheaded by Arab-Americans, driven largely by a defiant sense of ethnic pride, and sought a designation that was specifically Arab. But these efforts failed to persuade the Census Bureau, in part because there was intense disagreement about how to define the category.
Arab-Americans are also motivated by a strong sense of pride, said Khalef of the Anti-Discrimination Center. Khalef, who was born in Syria to Palestinian and Syrian parents, moved to Paterson, New Jersey, as a child. He lived in an Arab enclave, surrounded by similar pockets of immigrants — Jamaicans, Puerto Ricans, Haitians, and the like — with whom he identified far more than with his white friends.
"You had all these ethnicities that were proud to be different," he said. "They had their Puerto Rican Day parades, their Jamaican festivals. And we were the same way. We never thought of ourselves as white."
Arab Americans may not have thought of themselves as white, but the census ensures that they are counted that way.
Germine Awad, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin who was born in Egypt to Coptic parents and moved to the United States as an infant, recently met with officials from the Census Bureau. She learned that any time someone chooses "some other race" on the decennial census, then writes in an ethnicity or nationality from the Middle East or North Africa, they are promptly re-coded as white.
"That was so shocking," said Awad. She understood that the Census Bureau has no choice — the government has classified Middle Easterners as white for more than a century — but this was a blunt metaphor for the erasure of her and her children's identity.
"Being forced to put that down is not reflecting people's truths," she said. "People just want recognition."
People from the Middle East and North Africa, much like Latinos in the U.S., comprise a broad spectrum of races and ethnicities, representing a long and varied history of immigration. Early groups of migrants from the Middle East, beginning at least as far back as the 19th Century, were largely Christians from present-day Syria and Lebanon, then a part of the Ottoman Empire. Until the mid-1960s, American laws severely restricted the immigration rights of people from Asia. To avoid being pushed into this underclass, Middle Easterners fought hard in the courts to be recognized as white. They succeeded and gradually assimilated, gaining increasing affluence and power over the decades.
This trajectory is very similar to that of other so-called "white-ethnic" minorities, said James Zogby, founder and president of the Arab-American institute. "Our story is the Italian story, and our story is the Greek story," Zogby said.
After 1965, when the U.S. struck down quotas restricting immigrants by nationality, new rounds of Middle Eastern immigrants began arriving in larger numbers. These immigrants were mostly Muslim and often darker-skinned, and many were influenced by the growing ideology of Arab nationalism. With fewer ties to the West and a more distinct sense of national, ethnic, and religious identity, they were less inclined to assimilate, and more likely to be rejected if they tried to.
In the 1980s and 90s, Arab-American interest groups were often sidelined and stereotyped by the political establishment, said Helen Samhan, a longtime leader and advocate. She recalled organizing to donate money to local politicians perceived as sympathetic, only to have the money returned when candidates found out they came from Arab groups. "It was assumed, because we were Arab-American, that either the money was coming from some external source, which it wasn't, or that our intentions were to push some kind of anti-Israel agenda, which we weren't," Samhan said.
While the Arab-American community's effort to get recognition in the census was always motivated by this sense of being excluded, the movement's recent success is due in part to more recent bridge-building with other groups. Groups like the Arab-American Institute and the Anti-Discrimination Center, which have historically led the push for recognition, forged alliances with the numerous non-Arab communities from the Middle East, such as Iranians, Israelis, and various ethnic and religious groups with no nationality — like Kurds, Chaldean Christians, or Amazighs from North Africa (also known as Berbers).
These groups agreed on a geographically defined category, rather than a racial one. Zogby, of the Arab-American Institute, said his group has long pushed for a geographic designation, partly to rebuke outdated and racist categories, and partly because a large proportion of the Arab-American population, having successfully assimilated to American society over the decades, is not in need of affirmative action — a principal reason why the census tracks race.
Many Middle Eastern minority groups that don't necessarily identify as Arab are also happy with the new proposed designation, which will require congressional approval before it becomes final. "Initially, people didn't want to join MENA because they felt excluded by it," said Joseph Kassab, an Iraqi Chaldean community leader in Michigan. But the proposed category, Kassab said, will accurately capture the region's diversity as it exists in the United States. This is especially important, Kassab said, for groups like Christians, which are increasingly under threat in the Middle East from extremists like ISIS.
"What we are doing is trying to bring to the attention of the American community that there are people from the Middle East, who are ancient people, who are indigenous people, whose survival is at stake," Kassab said.
The American Community Survey, which gathers information in between census years, does track Middle Eastern ancestry. But this information is widely considered insufficient, mostly because the ACS samples only a small percentage of the population, whereas the census is intended to capture everyone in the country.
Roberto Ramirez, an assistant division chief with the Census Bureau, told BuzzFeed News that this newfound agreement on how to define the MENA category played a big role in persuading the government to test possible changes. But, in a larger sense, the Bureau was already heading in that direction. "The country is diversifying," Ramirez said. "We have more and more Americans not identifying with our current standards for race and ethnicity."
Sarsour, of the Arab-American Association of New York, agrees. "Race, for me, is a construct, and it's not necessarily about the color of your skin," she said. Instead, it has more to do with a particular group's relation to the mainstream. Does that group suffer discrimination and persecution? Are there disparities in health or education?
By that metric, Sarsour said, the answer for her fellow Arab-Americans in Brooklyn is clear. "This community is not a white community."
An error in the Getty Images caption of the original lead photo in this article misidentified one of the women in the photograph as Arab-American. She is of Pakistani descent. After being informed of the error, BuzzFeed News contacted the woman and confirmed her identity. The photo has been changed.
David Noriega is a national reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Los Angeles.
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