As cen­sus ap­proaches, many Arab Amer­i­cans feel left out

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - News - BY JOSEPH GEDEON As­so­ci­ated Press

Yousuf Ab­delfa­tah al­ready knows the an­swer he’ll give about his race on the 2020 cen­sus ques­tion­naire will be wrong.

He’s an Arab Amer­i­can, but the only race op­tions on the cen­sus are white, black, Asian and cat­e­gories for Amer­i­can In­dian, Alaska Na­tive, Na­tive Hawai­ian Pa­cific Is­lan­der. Re­luc­tantly, Ab­delfa­tah will mark white.

“If you look at me, my skin is darker, I’m vis­i­bly not white,” said the 22year-old re­search as­sis­tant. “I’ve lived my life as a per­son of color, but I’m cat­e­go­rized as white.”

With the cen­sus go­ing to print­ing presses later this year, Arab Amer­i­cans are again feel­ing left out of a process that helps draw the na­tion’s po­lit­i­cal map and pro­vide an ac­cu­rate pop­u­la­tion count, which in turn can de­ter­mine how much fed­eral fund­ing mi­nor­ity groups get for govern­ment pro­grams and med­i­cal re­search.

Or­ga­ni­za­tions have long been pushing for a separate Mid­dle East­ern or North African cat­e­gory but re­al­ize it’s prob­a­bly too late for 2020 with ques­tion­naires ready to be printed.

“The cen­sus is in our Con­sti­tu­tion and it’s meant to count every­one,” said Maya Berry, the ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the Arab Amer­i­can In­sti­tu­tion.

Ac­cord­ing to cen­sus es­ti­mates, the Arab Amer­i­can pop­u­la­tion is mea­sured at just over 2 mil­lion peo­ple. The Arab Amer­i­can In­sti­tute, how­ever, says that num­ber is closer to 3.6 mil­lion.

Un­der­re­port­ing from the cen­sus has come amid a rapid growth of the com­mu­nity, which ad­vo­cates say has in­creased by more than 72% be­tween 2000 and 2010.

Pop­u­la­tion data is a key fac­tor in po­lit­i­cal re­dis­trict­ing, re­search­ing hu­man rights, mon­i­tor­ing govern­ment pro­grams and an­tidis­crim­i­na­tion laws, meaning Arab Amer­i­cans are sub­ject to a lack of rep­re­sen­ta­tion and health and so­cial ser­vices.

“Right now we have that ‘white' des­ig­na­tion on pa­per but we don’t ben­e­fit from it,” said 24-year-old ac­tivist and or­ga­nizer Naia Al-An­bar. “The truth is we aren’t ever go­ing to be white in their eyes and we will still be dis­crim­i­nated against.”

Al-An­bar, who gen­er­ally sup­ports the idea of a new cat­e­gory, has a Saudi Ara­bian fa­ther and would mark “other” on the cen­sus if a more pre­cise cat­e­gory isn’t of­fered.

The Arab Amer­i­can In­sti­tute con­sid­ers 22 coun­tries to con­sist of Arabs, span­ning Africa and Asia, meaning Arab Amer­i­cans can fall into sev­eral cat­e­gories pro­vided in the sur­vey.

This cre­ates an odd de­ci­sion dur­ing the cen­sus for Arab Amer­i­cans. Does some­one from Egypt, for ex­am­ple, check the African Amer­i­can box be­cause their home coun­try is in Africa? Would some­one from Iraq be ex­pected to mark that they are Asian?

“As an Egyp­tian, I con­sid­ered mark­ing ‘African Amer­i­can' but I’m not black,” 24-year-old Nashville res­i­dent Dina El-Ri­fai said. “How­ever, mark­ing ‘white' doesn’t re­flect who I am or the di­ver­sity I bring.”

In an­other com­pli­cat­ing fac­tor, the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion wants to ask peo­ple whether they are Amer­i­can cit­i­zens on the cen­sus – an is­sue that is sup­posed to be re­solved by the U.S. Supreme Court this sum­mer be­fore the forms are printed. Some fear that will sti­fle par­tic­i­pa­tion among var­i­ous immigrant groups, es­pe­cially in the af­ter­math of the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s travel ban from Mus­lim coun­tries that spread fear among Arab Amer­i­cans.

This ques­tion would dis­cour­age 30% of Arab Amer­i­cans from tak­ing the sur­vey, a study by the Amer­i­can-Arab Anti-Defama­tion Com­mit­tee found.

The Arab Amer­i­can In­sti­tute and other groups have worked on get­ting an Arab cat­e­gory in­tro­duced in the cen­sus for decades but have al­ways been met with op­po­si­tion. That was un­til 2009, when the Cen­sus Bureau con­cluded that it would in­tro­duce a Mid­dle East­ern and North African cat­e­gory for the next cy­cle after years of tri­als and tests. Test re­sults found that the vast ma­jor­ity of Arab Amer­i­cans sup­ported the is­sue and would mark the new op­tion on the cen­sus.

But the mo­men­tum came to a halt when a new ex­ec­u­tive govern­ment was voted in to power.

“After all that work, and all the mil­lions spent, the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion came in for what we be­lieve are po­lit­i­cal rea­sons to put an end to it,” said Samer Kha­laf, pres­i­dent of the Amer­i­can-Arab An­tiDefama­tion Com­mit­tee. “Their rea­son­ing was that ad­di­tional test­ing would be re­quired.”

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