DETROIT — The federal government is considering allowing those of Middle Eastern and North African descent to identify as such on the next 10-year Census, which could give Arab-Americans and other affected groups greater political clout and access to public funding, among other things.
The U.S. Census Bureau will test the new Middle East-North Africa (MENA) classification for possible inclusion on the 2020 Census if it gets enough positive feedback about the proposed change by Sunday, when the public comment period ends.
Arab-Americans, who make up the majority of those who would be covered by the MENA classification, have previously been classified by default as white on the Census, which helps determine congressional district boundaries and how billions of dollars in federal funding are allocated, among other things.
Those pushing for the MENA classification say it would more fully and accurately count them, thus increasing their visibility and influence among policymakers.
The Census Bureau plans to test it later this year by holding focus group discussions with people who would be affected by the proposed change. Congress would still have to sign off on the proposal before the change could be added to the 2020 Census.
"We know the challenges," says Hassan Jaber, who runs a Detroit-area social services group and serves on a census advisory board formed to evaluate Americans' changing racial and ethnic identities. "It really does take rethinking ... who we are as a population and what our needs are, (but) there are specific needs for Arab Americans that are not being recognized and not being met."
Jaber's group, ACCESS, and others that serve U.S. Middle Eastern communities have been pushing for the new Census classification, which could also allow people to identify under sub-categories such as Assyrian or Kurdish.
"Frankly, being under MENA will also give us a chance for the first time for minorities within the Arab communities, such as Chaldeans, Berbers and Kurds, to self-identify," said Jaber, a Lebanese-American who serves on the U.S. Census' National Advisory Committee on Racial, Ethnic and Other Populations.
Arabs have been coming to America in large numbers since the late 19th century and their ranks have grown in recent decades due to wars and political instability in the Middle East, with many settling in and around Detroit, New York and Los Angeles. The Census' 2013 American Community Survey, which had a sample size of about 3 million addresses, estimated that 1.5 million people were of Arab ancestry in 2006-10.
Although Jaber thinks the public comment and testing periods should go well, he said it could be difficult getting congressional approval. Some Republican lawmakers are generally critical of the expense and intrusion of the Census and have sought to eliminate the community surveys, which, unlike the main decennial count, aren't constitutionally mandated.
There also isn't universal support for the proposed Census change among those who could identify as Middle Eastern or North African.
Some have expressed concern about sharing such information with the government in a post-9/11 world. And some have said that keeping the status quo would let them feel more American.
"I'm not for it. ... I feel I'm a Mayflower American," said Eide Alawan, a 74-year-old son of a Syrian immigrant whose roots are mostly Arab.
Alawan, a diversity liaison at a Detroit hospital and interfaith outreach coordinator at the area's largest mosque, said he knows there are benefits to having the category, but that he thinks the change would be divisive.
"We're broken down into villages and countries (where we come from)" — I don't like that."
Some older Middle Eastern immigrants or their descendants live with the legacy of U.S. laws in the early 20th century that excluded Asians from entry and at one point included Syrians and others from the eastern Mediterranean. Groups were formed to fight those decisions and eventually the Middle Eastern immigrants were deemed white and were allowed to become citizens.
Sally Howell, an associate professor at University of Michigan-Dearborn and author of several books on Arabs and Muslims in Detroit, said that argument is common among "people that were raised in an America that was more polarized along black and white lines." But she added younger people generally are "less eager to see the world in those binary terms," and the Census should reflect that.
No matter what happens, identity would remain a choice, but she said an evolving population requires asking new questions.
"We need to kind of rethink who Arab-Americans are, really. The community has changed radically over the last 25-30 years," she said. "The only way we're going to have a good sense of the changes is if we have good data to work with."
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