Suzanne Manneh

Posted by Suzanne Manneh on March 25, 2010 in News Clips

The Census Bureau says it doesn’t matter if Arab Americans write their race in on their Census questionnaire.

Even if they check the “other” box and write in “Arab,” as many community groups advocate, the Census will still count them as racially white.

“Anyone from Europe, North Africa or the Middle East [will be classified] as white,” said Roberto Ramirez, chief of the ethnicity and ancestry branch at the Census Bureau.

Ramirez said that will be the case no matter how many people write in “Arab,” because the Census Bureau is required by law to use racial categories determined by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), and those categories do not include Arab.

Advocates for including Arab as a race say they will press on with their write-in campaign however. Census regulations provide that any organization can request its own special tabulation providing a formal count of write-ins.

“As with any write-in option, it is not comprehensive enough to be published as a ‘count,’ but it will provide us with important trends and estimates of the proportion of people of Arab ancestry who do not identify with the white race classification,” said Helen Samhan, the executive director of the Arab American Institute, which plans to order a special count.

“That is a start for working with the Census Bureau to research necessary changes in the way race and ethnicity are measured,” she added.

A spokesperson for the Office of Management and Budget told New America Media that current racial standards for the census will be reevaluated after the 2010 census, in time for the next one in 2020.

How Arabs Became White

Ironically, it was Arab Americans themselves who originally petitioned the government to be categorized as white. When the first wave of Arab immigrants arrived in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they struggled to be recognized as white so that they could gain citizenship and other rights, such as voting and owning land.

These immigrants, primarily Syrian and Lebanese Christians, “were facing exclusionary policy,” Samhan said. “It was basically a survival issue.”

The government has treated Arabs as white since 1915, when George S. Dow, a Syrian immigrant living in Jim Crow South Carolina, went to court after being deemed racially ineligable for citizenship based on a 1790 law limiting citizenship to "free white persons."

In his decision granting Dow citizenship, U.S. Circuit Court Judge Chas A. Woods ruled that the 1790 law was meant to "deny naturalization to negroes" and not peoples from the "western Asiatic side of the Caspian Sea and the Ganges."

"It seems reasonable to think that Congress must have believed there were white persons natives of countries outside of Europe," he wrote. "As the consensus of opinion at the time of the enactment of the statute now in force was that they were so closely related to their neighbors on the European side of the Mediterranean that they should be classed as white, they must be held to fall within the term white persons."

Times Have Changed

Yet nearly 100 years later, most Arab American advocates believe their community loses more than it gains by being classified as white.

"Times have changed," said Ray Hanania, a syndicated columnist and Chicago area radio show host.

Advocates say the Census Bureau undercounts the number of Arab Americans in part because the group has no racial box. The 2000 Census counted 1.24 million Arabs in the United States, while the Arab American Institute estimates the total Arab population is closer to 4 million.

This undercount not only costs the Arab American community needed services, they say; it also makes it harder to respond to discrimination and hate violence, which erupted after Sept. 11, 2001.

“White people look at us as black people and black people look at us as white people,” Hanania said. "Most Arab grocers open stores in black neighborhoods because they’re treated better, it’s easier for Arabs to assimilate in African-American communities … the black community is more sympathetic to the discrimination Arabs face."

Dina Omar of the San Farncisco-based Arab Resource and Organizing Committee echoed Hanania’s concerns.

Being recognized as white, she said, “ignores the Arab narrative in the United States having to live in a place where anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiments are commonplace even patriotic.”

“Arabs have everything to lose and nothing to gain from being categorized as white,” she said.

“When a police officer stops a car in Orland Park, for example, he has to mark whether that person is black, white, Hispanic or Asian," Hanania added. "If Arabs are continually getting stopped and getting discriminated against, which happens, we can’t access that data, because they’ll be marked as white … we’re not counted when we’re victimized. It’s the Achilles' heel: How can we be discriminated against when we’re white?" he asked.

No Tipping Point

The Census Bureau says that there is no “tipping point” for how many write-ins it would take in order to establish another box for Arabs on the next census form, a determination that they said would only be made based on a collaboration between Congress, the Census Bureau, and advisory or focus groups on redetermining the categories.

Census senior media specialist Sonny Le explained that write-in campaigns, while possibly perceived as a small step, are examples of community organizing that have ultimately led to greater recognition for other minority communities.

For example, he said, it took 20 years for the census questionnaire to be available in Vietnamese and have a Vietnamese box. That those features were ever added to the Census, he said, was the result of strong efforts from the community through lobbying and organizing.

“There is a big importance for advocacy in a community," he said. "It’s strength in numbers, and it begins at the local level."

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