Posted on June 28, 1993 in Washington Watch

In testimony this week before a Congressional Committee, Arab Americans will take a dramatic step in the direction of achieving official recognition as a minority group in the United States.

Such recognition would be important for Arab Americans, because it may result in a more accurate (and higher) count of Arab Americans in the next census. An increased count would translate into greater recognition as a political force and an increase in funding for social agencies which serve Arab American needs. Most importantly, reclassification as a minority can help Arab Americans better secure their civil rights and protect themselves against discrimination and exclusion.

At present, Arab Americans are categorized in the census as a “white, non-European” ethnic community. Even the classification of Arab Americans as a ethnic community in the census is a recent event. The Institute that I head won that recognition from the Census Bureau in 1990. Before 1990, U.S. citizens and residents from Arabic-speaking countries were listed separately as “Lebanese,” “Syrian,” “Egyptian,” etc. As a result of the victory won in 1990, all such subgroups are now officially listed as Arab Americans.

Now, Arab Americans are seeking to expand our victory for the census in the year 2000. But, in order to understand the importance of this issue, some background on the U.S. census is necessary.

According to the U.S. Constitution, the Federal government must conduct a full count of all U.S. citizens and residents every ten years. This complete count provides the basis for drawing the boundaries of congressional districts, and allotting the appropriate number of districts to each state. Since there are only 435 seats in Congress (the number does not expand), and since by law the districts which elect congressmen must be roughly equal in population, each new count tells the government where population shifts have occurred and where boundaries ought to be drawn to even out the population among the 435 districts.

Over the years, the information sought in the census has grown from a simple population count to include such things as economic data, educational background, social characteristics and, since 1960, race and ethnicity.

Following the passage of U.S. civil rights laws, which give legal protection and special opportunities to minority groups which had historically been victims of disadvantages rooted in racism, each person counted in the census is asked a question about their racial and ethnicity status. The government then uses this information to determine the size of various federal programs that are designed to serve these minority groups. However, since the ethnic group count is only designed to give general information, the question on ethnicity is asked on only one in six of the census questionnaires. The final number for each ethnicity is then simply determined by multiplying the total responses by six.

Arab Americans have long argued that the census figure derived from such an appeal is grossly inaccurate. The 1980 census, for example, showed on 690,000 persons claiming Arab American ethnicity, while all other available information indicated that the figure was actually much larger.

Then in 1986, AAI was asked by Congressman Mervyn Dymally, who then chaired the Congressional subcommittee on the Census, to join a special Congressional Task Force on the Census. Our work for the Task Force consisted of three parts:

First, we presented a detailed critique of the current process used by the Census Bureau. In our analysis, we noted that the severe undercount of Arab Americans was due to four factors:
· the sample was inaccurate and inadequate;
· immigrants from the Middle East tend to distrust government intrusion;
· the census only utilized national identification, and therefore does not count immigrants who list their religious affiliation (e.g., Coptic, Shi’ite, Druze, Assyrian, Maronite), which is a primary identification used by many immigrants from the Arab world;
· and the language barrier of many recent immigrants may prevent them from understanding or completing the census questionnaire.

Second, we produced our own detailed study of the Arab American community, its numbers and characteristics. Our study, Arab America Today, has become the definitive study of the Arab community in the U.S. With information derived from several official government sources (immigration files, educational statistics, local government archives as well as the census) we concluded that the number 2 million was a more accurate count for Arab Americans in 1980.

We further concluded that Arab Americans had the highest per capita income, the highest percentage of college-level education, the highest per capita level of business ownership and the highest percentage of doctors and professionals of any other ethnic group in the U.S. We also discovered that among recent Arab American immigrants, the level of poverty was disturbingly higher than the national average.

Third, we embarked on a national program, called “We Count,” to improve the Arab American census count in 1990. Using bi-lingual radio and television advertising and printed literature, we encouraged Arab Americans to fill out the census form.

For these efforts, in 1990 we were received an award from the Bureau of the Census “for outstanding leadership in advancing public support for the 1990 Decennial Census.” And this time, though still hampered by the inadequacy of the sampling process used by the Bureau of the Census, the number of Arab Americans in the 1990 count approached one million.

But because Arab Americans remain disturbed the consistent undercount and are troubled by the problem of discrimination and civil rights violations (especially against the most recent immigrants), AAI has resolved to press for further changes in Arab American status within the Department of Commerce, of which the Bureau of the Census is part.

Our efforts have led us to the point of calling for official minority status. We believe that such a change would lead to a more accurate counting of Arab Americans, and enhance their political role and material position in U.S. society. The first call for this change will be made this week in testimony by AAI’s Deputy Director, Mrs. Helen Hatab Samhan before the Congressional committee that oversees the census. And it is significant to note that Arab Americans were the only non-racial and non-minority group asked to testify.

In her testimony, Mrs. Samhan argues that the current status of Arab Americans, which the Bureau of the Census defines as “white, non-European,” is both “inadequate…and harmful to Arab Americans.” She notes that while the first wave of Middle Eastern immigrants were mainly Christians from Syria and Lebanon (about 90% of the entire group), even they were discriminated against by the immigration and judicial systems in the U.S.
The most recent wave of immigrants, on the other hand, have experienced greater difficulties. Mrs. Samhan notes,

While many [of this second wave] are more urban, educated and skilled upon their arrival than those who came at the turn of the century, sizable numbers are Muslim and are culturally more protective of their socio-religious customs, national identity, and have frequently experienced difficulty in being accepted and included in their American host culture.

She points out the irony of the Bureau of the Census classifying Arab Americans as “racial sisters” of Europeans, while U.S. immigration policy does not even recognize the Middle East and Europe to be cousins. Immigration preference is still extended to Europeans, a treatment not given to any Middle Eastern group!

In fact, Mrs. Samhan concludes, recent Arab immigrants experience the same difficulties as Asians, Africans and Central Americans; yet these latter groups all benefit from preferential treatment because of their classification as racial or ethnic minority groups—as “Blacks, Asians and Hispanics.”

She observes that “there appears to be a double standard that negatively affects this class”, i.e., Arab Americans, because “we do know from experience that civil rights abuses do occur against persons based on national origin or religion, regardless of racial classification.” And yet, Arab Americans receive no protection as a class because they are not counted as a minority group.

It is particularly important to note that in seeking the status as a minority group, Mrs. Samhan is not asking for a racial category. Rather, she argues for a new classification, “Middle Eastern”, which she compares to the Hispanic or Asian classification—which are based partly on language and partly on geography.

In the case of Asians and Hispanics,

Though members of these communities come from various countries, are not all of one race and, in the case of Asians, speak different languages, they are nevertheless lumped together as Asians or Hispanics for the purposes of categorization in the census.

Thus, she concludes,

When you consider that Arab Americans and other Middle Easterners (Iranians, Turks, and Afghanis, for example) have common roots geographically, share for the most part a common language or script and common religious heritages, and often times face similar discrimination and exclusion, there is no discernable reason why a new category of “Middle Eastern” could not be added to the census in order to ensure that Arab Americans and other Americans of Middle Eastern origin are adequately accounted for in the census.

This testimony, of course, will only be the beginning of this debate. It will most certainly not be resolved in one Congressional hearing. In taking this dramatic step of seeking a new classification, Arab Americans have begun a debate and a political process that may take a decade to win. But, if it is won, the benefits—in increased political power (resulting from a vastly improved census count), in protecting civil rights, in improving immigration procedures—can produce a positive revolution in the lives of Arab Americans.

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