Outside the Box: Middle Easterners and the US Census

03.11.2020 Arts & Culture
Ann Lewis
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It’s that time again. Every 10 years, the US Census Bureau sends out a questionnaire to every household in the nation to gather information about the demographics of those living within the United States. With this questionnaire comes doubts, fears, and indifference to the government’s attempt to track race, age, overall population, and other various details of our lives. In 2010 I refused to participate because I didn’t want the government tracking me or having any information about me whatsoever. It’s a distrust that is real for millions of Americans. Considering the first Census in 1870 counted black people as 3/5th of a human being, there are reasons to distrust its intended purpose. 

Since the Civil Rights movement, the Census has been used to dedicate funds to underserved populations — particularly immigrant communities, people of color, and the poor. When people in these communities don’t get counted, they suffer. The size of a population dictates federal funds allocated to a given area. But many in these communities are fearful that completing the form will be providing sensitive data to a government they do not trust. The Trump administration floated a citizenship question, but it was struck down by the Supreme Court. 

It’s essential to track the racial makeup of our communities for several reasons, even if race is a social construct holding social ramifications.

The government’s ability to fully understand where different racial groups reside helps them to track racism, hate crimes, migration trends, housing inequality, health care inequality, and other race-based issues. 

However, as if it wasn’t already hard enough to get a proper count, the racial and ethnic background options on the Census seem to change with every decade. At different points in time, Black people were offered options to delineate how black they were. The Latinx community has options like non-white Hispanic, Mexican, and Spanish. But several ethnicities have been left off the Census completely since it began. Anyone born in or of Middle Eastern descent has always been considered white by the US Census Bureau. 

During the Obama administration, there was talk of a MENA box or a Middle Eastern/North African option. The Bureau recently scrapped it entirely after deciding it “needed to do more testing.” Not offering folks this option is problematic for so many reasons… 

The Arab and Arab American communities have been racially targeted for decades, but it radically intensified after 9/11. If they are categorically ‘white’ on the Census, then the prejudice and brutality they face aren’t recognized by the arm of the government that funds programs to squelch this type of bigotry and discrimination. On the other hand, it’s notable that the US government used the 1940 Census data to round up Japanese people during WWII to place them in internment camps. Some would say our current administration is not above that sort of racist authoritarianism. 

Trump instated the ‘Muslim Ban’ on January 27, 2017. After 9/11, the FBI surveilled Arab and Muslim communities all over the country. While it may be better protection for these communities not to share their ethnicity with the state at all, the reality is, the state already knows where they reside, and if they want to come after people they have the means. 

This leaves people from or with heritage originating from the MENA region with two lousy options: 1 | Check white as previous generations have, or, 2 | use the ‘other’ option. The other option has, in the past, been an exercise in erasure — not allowing people to expand on what ‘other’ means. 

The 2020 Census includes a space in which people can fill in a more nuanced ethnicity option for different sub-groups. So if the person is Persian but doesn’t self-identify as white, they can choose the ‘other’ option and fill in their ethnicity.

It’s callous that the Census does not include a MENA option when it contains various options for other racial groups. They need to get their act together and include an option for the nearly 5 million people in the United States of Middle Eastern and North African heritage. Until then, it seems the best option is not to check white and to choose other — showing the Bureau that there is sufficient reason to include it in the 2030 Census. That is, of course, if one is not worried about being targeted like the Japanese in the 1940s — which in the current climate, is a very reasonable concern. 

Ann Lewis is an artist, activist, and writer based in Detroit. Her artwork reflects upon social and environmental justice issues. 

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