Dr. Loubna Qutami, President’s Postdoctoral Fellow, UC Berkeley

The US Census plays a critical role in distributing billions of dollars in government funding to ethnic communities. It’s the data collected by the Census that is used to determine the numbers of  political representatives, funding, public services, and the essential needs of various communities.  

Finding out who lives in communities across the nation is gathered by the responses provided from census questions that list ethnic categories that you are asked to choose. In some cases, there are several names that can describe an ethnic community that one can choose as the way they identify themselves.

For instance, one category provides a box to check that reads: Mexican, Mexican American, Chicano or another box for those who identify themselves as Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin. There’s a box for Cubans and Puerto Ricans. There is also a box where one can write in their Central or Latin American heritage that may include Guatemalan, Salvadoran, Dominican. 

There is no acknowledgment, however, that within these groups many are of mixed race and self identify as both indigenous, white and black. In fact on the form, it’s written that for this 2020 census those of “Hispanic origins are not races.” This has caused some to check multiple boxes or check off “other” and write in their own ethnic description.     

Unfortunately, despite much discussion and preparation for the 2020 census, the provided distinctions of race and the ethnic categories continues to be flawed.  

MENA Community Left Off Of Census 

This is especially true for people with ethnic heritage from the Middle East and North Africa (or MENA). In the eyes of the Census there is no distinct categorization for them, and they have fallen into the broad selection to define themselves as “white.”  

“Unlike other immigrant communities, Arabs were in-effect by the 1920’s legally classified as white,” said Palestinian American, Dr. Loubna Qutami, a President’s Postdoctoral Fellow at UC Berkeley.

“This is not necessarily because they saw themselves as ‘white,’ this is because ‘whiteness’ was tied to eligibility for citizenship, eligibility for property ownership, and for having certain political, civil, and human rights.”

Middle Eastern immigrants actually successfully petitioned the federal courts to be allowed to identify themselves as “white” to avoid discriminatory citizenship and property ownership policies. 

Those from MENA regions include 22 nations in the Middle East with several subgroups that can include Kurds, Chaldeans, Assyrians, Armenians and the North African countries of Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, Egypt and Libya. Geographically, MENA populations can come from three continents that cover the border of Afghanistan to the tip of Africa. 

Because of their shared Arabic language and Islamic religion, people in the United States from North Africa were lumped together with people of the Middle East to form the MENA acronym.

Following Protests Census Considers Ethnic Categories 

During the strong and persistent push for representation and social justice during civil rights movements of the 60’s and the 70’s, the census began to consider by the 1980’s that various communities weren’t properly counted because of the narrow definitions.  

Change was needed to broaden the census definition away from being solely classified as black or white, however, the MENA and Arab community has continued to be a notable exception for change. 

To date, the Census has not budged in providing a distinct ethnic or racial category for members of the MENA community to check off despite the efforts of the American Arab Institute and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, which began working towards a census reclassification for the Arab community years ago. 

Their community’s fight for a legal census distinction continues. The Census Bureau hasn’t explained why they’ve turned down multiple requests to add MENA to the race categories; it’s only indicated that more “research and testing” is needed.    

 Leaders in the MENA community have pointed out that without census data they’re invisible, and without their communities being able to prove their count and show their demographics they haven’t been eligible for certain pools of funding that other communities receive. Over the years, the MENA community has attempted to collect their own data, and most recently has looked for creative ways to outreach during this pandemic. At grab-and-go food events, they’ve passed out census information to encourage participation.

Write In MENA On Census Forms

Concerned about being under counted, they’re encouraging their communities to participate in the census by writing in MENA on Question 9 which allows respondents to write their specific ethnic group ie: Lebanese, Palestinian, Algerian, Kurd etc.  

They maintain that by continuing the practice to check off the box “white” it   has inaccurately boosted those numbers for a population that may in fact be declining. 

“Legally, in America, I’m classified as white,” says Dr. Hamoud Salhi, associate dean of the College of Natural and Behavioral Sciences at California State University Dominguez Hills. 

“I was born in Algeria, which is part of Africa, so technically I could declare myself as African American, but I can’t.”

“Census data was linked to the allocation of public monies to neighborhoods to schools to community-based organizations.” said Dr. Qutami.  Following the census, the redistricting process begins that considers the demographics and specific needs for a community’s political representation, “who reflect the needs of our communities and hold lawmakers accountable” said Homayra Yusufi, from the Partnership for the Advancement of New Americans. 

MENA community leaders have referred to this situation as “legal invisibility,” which has led to a self-perpetuating cycle where underfunded communities are unable to gather the resources to fight against the systems discriminating against them.   

In the aftermath of  Sept. 11, 2001, and the “War on Terror,” the need became more pronounced for the MENA community to organize and have access to resources.   

“Racial discrimination against Arab Communities and MENA communities was really intensifying, whether it was housing discrimination or employment discrimination, or different forms of state-tolerated or interpersonal violence against these communities. There was this hyper-awareness of so many different kinds of racial stereotypes and discrimination against MENA communities while at the same time our communities were being denied access to be able to mobilize in response to these various discriminatory policies,” Dr. Qutami said. 

“The state was expanding security and  surveillance programs that were infringing on the civil liberties and First Amendment rights of many people of MENA backgrounds.”  

Members of the MENA community are susceptible to discrimination, especially living in an anti-immigrant climate and not having the benefit of political representation that brings advocacy for employment, language assistance, social services and various protections.

“In the city of El Cajon, San Diego, we faced a lot of discrimination, especially when the Syrian refugees arrived. Our children got bullied in school but the schools didn’t want to adopt any bullying policy because we don’t have representation. Representation is very important to us as a Kurdish community, as refugees, and as immigrants,” said Dilkhwaz Ahmed, executive director of License to Freedom. 

“How do we politically mobilize to contest those discriminatory policies without having the access to resources that we might need to mobilize our constituencies and without being able to prove our demographics [via the census] being accounted, for political representation in the United States?” Dr. Qutami  asked.