As census approaches, many Arab Americans feel left out — again
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 pushed for a separate Middle Eastern or North African category.
“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 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, 24, 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.”