Count­ing Amer­i­cans: A sen­si­tive Mid­dle East box on cen­sus


DEAR­BORN, MICH. | Zahraa Ball­out isn’t “white,” and she cer­tainly isn’t “some other race.” If the gov­ern­ment gives her the choice of check­ing a new “Mid­dle East/North Africa” box on a cen­sus form, would she?

Yes, she says, de­spite some reser­va­tions about what it would mean to stand out af­ter Amer­i­cans elected a pres­i­dent who wants to ban travel from some coun­tries in the re­gion and has spo­ken fa­vor­ably of reg­is­ter­ing Mus­lims in the U.S.

“I would feel some wari­ness be­cause you don’t know ex­actly the con­se­quences or what’s com­ing next af­ter you check the box,” says 21-year-old Ms. Ball­out, a stu­dent in Dear­born, Michi­gan, who has been in the coun­try three years. “I don’t want to fool my­self to think that check­ing another box [other than the new one] is go­ing to pro­tect me in some way.”

Ms. Ball­out’s risk-ben­e­fit anal­y­sis re­flects a new cau­tion sur­round­ing the way the U.S. gov­ern­ment counts Amer­i­cans, an ev­ery-decade ex­er­cise man­dated in the Con­sti­tu­tion that in­flu­ences the na­tion’s day-to-day op­er­a­tions in ways big and small. That in­cludes rep­re­sen­ta­tion in Congress and how tax­payer money is doled out — for ed­u­ca­tion, pub­lic health, trans­porta­tion and more.

The Cen­sus Bu­reau on Feb. 28 for the first time rec­om­mended in­clud­ing the new cat­e­gory, which would mostly af­fect Mus­lims. The Of­fice of Man­age­ment and Bud­get is ex­pected to make the de­ci­sion later this year. The move is the prod­uct of years of re­search and decades of ad­vo­cacy for Arab and other groups from the re­gion that pre­date Pres­i­dent Trump’s cam­paign.

The Cen­sus Bu­reau said that when it tested a new MENA cat­e­gory in 2015, peo­ple of Mid­dle Eastern or North African de­scent tended to check off that box. When it wasn’t there, they’d se­lect “white” or, in­creas­ingly, “some other race.” In­clud­ing the sep­a­rate cat­e­gory, the agency said, is “op­ti­mal” to get a more ac­cu­rate count of Amer­i­cans.

“There’s noth­ing for me to hide,” said Hus­sein Daba­jeh, 30, a life­long Dear­born res­i­dent who said his an­ces­tors ar­rived from what’s now Le­banon in 1911. Mr. Daba­jeh says he’d check the MENA box. “I can be Amer­i­can of Arab de­scent with­out be­ing un-Amer­i­can.”

The dis­par­ity can be seen in a ba­sic statis­tic. The Arab Amer­i­can In­sti­tute es­ti­mates as many as 3.7 mil­lion peo­ple in the United States have Arab roots. The Cen­sus Bu­reau es­ti­mates there are 1.8 mil­lion Arab Amer­i­cans in the U.S, ac­cord­ing to data it has col­lected. Among other things, that means there are no ac­cu­rate na­tional num­bers to pro­vide clues to whether cer­tain med­i­cal ail­ments are — as sus­pected — un­usu­ally com­mon in peo­ple of that back­ground, ex­perts say.

Both tal­lies show ex­plo­sive growth in that pop­u­la­tion since 2000. And both sup­port the new box on the 2020 cen­sus that would rep­re­sent peo­ple with back­grounds from 19 coun­tries in the re­gion.

But sin­gling one­self out in that way has be­come sen­si­tive at a time when Mr. Trump has linked a crack­down on Mus­lims with bet­ter na­tional se­cu­rity. As a can­di­date, he called for a “to­tal and com­plete shut­down of Mus­lims en­ter­ing the United States.” As pres­i­dent Mr. Trump has twice or­dered travel bans on peo­ple from cer­tain ma­jor­ity-Mus­lim na­tions. Fed­eral courts have blocked those or­ders.


Hus­sein Daba­jeh usu­ally looks for the “other” box on of­fi­cial forms, but fully sup­ports a new cat­e­gory for those who trace their roots to the Mid­dle East.

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