Call For Inclusion: Middle Easterners demand racial category in U.S. 2020 Census

Graphic by Callie Wohlgemuth ’21

Graphic by Callie Wohlgemuth ’21


As the decennial census date approaches in 2020, Middle Easterners and North Africans in America are urging the U.S. government to widen ethnic categories. The census currently lists “White, Black or AfricanAmerican, American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian and Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander” as official races in the United States, but does not classify people from the Middle East or North Africa (MENA) region as a separate race.

Instead, the U.S. census classifies people from the MENA region as “White,” which has prompted U.S. citizens and residents from the region to demand the creation of their own category. In a statement to the news outlet Middle East Eye, the U.S. Census Bureau said that the inclusion of a “Middle East and North Africa” box in the next census would “give a clearer picture of American society.” Samer Khalaf, the president of the AmericanArab Anti-Discrimination Committee, agrees with the Bureau. He argues the lack of a MENA category in the census goes beyond inclusion — the current exclusion leads to the marginalization of his community. Khalaf uses the city of Dearborn, Michigan as an example.

“Dearborn, Michigan — considered the highest concentration of Arab Americans in the United States — is classified as a majority white city. Why? Because all the Arabs are considered white,” Khalaf told the Middle East Eye. He asserted that because Arab Americans do not have their own ethnic category in the U.S. census, they cannot prove they exist in heavy concentration within a district. The census maps out the U.S. population and its demographic features (such as location, ethnicity, income, household size, age and gender), and only small amounts of information can be gathered from Middle Easterners and North Africans in the U.S. because they do not have their own ethnic category.

Because Middle Easterners and North Africans are being excluded from official recognition, some feel isolated, ignored and unincluded in American society. For Léa Sleiman ’22, a Lebanese student from Beirut, moving to the U.S. for college sparked an internal struggle. Sleiman has always embraced her Lebanese heritage; her love for Arab culture and language shaped her identity over the years, and she always felt a sense of belonging in Beirut. However, when Sleiman arrived in the U.S., she began to experience an identity crisis. “Because my ethnicity and culture were not recognized in America, I was stripped [of] my identity,” she said. “If I’m not Middle Eastern, who am I? If I’m not Arab, who am I?”

While many people from the MENA region advocate for a MENA category in the U.S. census, some advocates fear census information might be misused and exploited by President Trump’s government. Yemeni student Nada Al-Thawr ’19 shares this belief. While Al-Thawr believes the category would bring some sort of representation to her people, she fears that the creation of a separate category for people from the MENA region will make it easier for the U.S. government to surveil — and possibly exploit — the group.

Similarly, Maya Berry, the director of the Arab American Institute, lists the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II and the surveillance of Arab and Muslim communities by the New York Police Department after 9/11 as examples of the U.S. government using the census to surveil religious and cultural communities.

For Berry, urging the U.S. government to widen ethnic categories to include people from the MENA region is a task that must be dealt with vigilance. Like Al-Thawr, Berry believes that the category will bring needed representation to Middle Easterners and North Africans living in the U.S., but might also cause ill-treatment of the group through government surveillance.

In early January 2018 the Census Bureau reported that they would not be including a MENA category on the 2020 census despite decades of advocacy, according to NPR. Karen Battle, the bureau’s chief of the population division, said researchers found a large population of the Middle Eastern Community felt MENA “should be treated as a category not for race, but ethnicity.” So, as it stands, the federal standards for “White” will continue to be described as people with heritage from Europe, the Middle East or North Africa.