Adding a single box to the census could go a long way toward improving the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of Middle Eastern Americans, according to a new report from the National Network for Arab American Communities.
Census officials are considering adding a box to the 2020 census for "Middle Eastern or North African," part of a larger effort to rethink the census' questions about race and ethnicity. In the current census setup, people of Middle Eastern origin have no option but to select "white" or "some other race" on the census.
That's a situation that undercounts the group's population and has severe political and economic consequences, the report argues. Middle Eastern Americans are white without many of the privileges of being white, says Khaled Beydoun, a law professor at Barry University in Miami, and the author of the report. They are more likely to face discrimination or profiling, including from government and law enforcement agencies.
For instance, “it’s been really difficult to track hate crimes against Arab Americans because they’re white by law,” Beydoun told me.
As its currently proposed, the new box on the census would let people say they are Middle Eastern or North African American, and also let them select other races as well. Then, they would write in a specific ethnicity: Lebanese, Egyptian, or Sudanese, for example.
The change in classification would better suit Middle Eastern Americans in racial non-discrimination laws, and could help them more easily take advantage of grants for minority-owned businesses or affirmative action programs for education or hiring. It could also have an impact on political redistricting, ensuring that Middle Eastern populations are taken into account when drawing districts.
There's also a more intangible benefit from adding a census box, Beydoun said: People who in the past put down their race as white because they didn't have other options will now have more freedom to define their own racial group.
The change has the potential to create more coordination between subsets of the broader Middle Eastern American grouping, such as in political organizing. In a way, this could be similar to the experience of Latino and Asian Americans, who are counted in broad groupings that can allow people of different national origins to work together for shared interests.
Beydoun did caution that adding the census box could theoretically make it easier for government officials to surveil or police Middle Eastern Americans. While household-level data from the census is supposed to be confidential, at least some census data was used in the interment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, for example.
But he said that overall, it made sense for the community. “It’s not only definitional—it’s formal and legal,” he said. “It would mean the government acknowledging this population as being its own distinct group.”
If other proposals are accepted, Middle Eastern or North African would be in a new section of the census that combines race and ethnicity questions into one. The final census questions won't be completed until 2018, once they are approved by the Office of Management and Budget, which ultimately decides racial definitions for the government.
A series of meetings between census officials and Middle Eastern community leaders have been encouraging, Beydoun said. “We’ve seen that there’s a real interest on the part of the Census Bureau to really make this new classification happen,” he said.
Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.