Lobbying for a ‘MENA’ category on U.S. Census

Lobbying for a ‘MENA’ category on U.S. Census

USA Today

Teresa Wiltz, Pew/Stateline Staff Writer

For many Americans, checking the right box on the U.S. Census form is a reflexive gesture, whether it’s marking “black,” “white,” “Hispanic,” “Asian,” “American Indian” — or all of the above.

But for Americans of Middle Eastern and North African descent, or “MENA,” it’s a real head-scratcher. They come in a variety of phenotypes and shades—ranging from pale to deepest ebony, and hail from 22 different countries, from Iran to Egypt to Sudan. And yet, for the census, since the beginning of the last century, the MENA community has been lumped into the “white” category.

Back in 1909, such a designation made a lot of sense, but today, members of the MENA community are lobbying the U.S. Census to create a separate “MENA” category for the 2020 decennial count. “White,” they argue, renders them invisible in official population counts. Without correct data, advocates say, cities and states lack adequate resources to effectively handle everything from funding educational programs to battling infant mortality to tracking employment discrimination to staffing hospitals with enough Farsi translators. Census data directly impacts how more than $400 billion in federal funding is allocated across the country.

Census data also has political effects. For example, after the 2010 count, the census released a list of 248 jurisdictions across the country that now are required to provide language assistance to voters, as mandated by the Voting Rights Act. (The vast majority of those districts are for Spanish-speaking citizens.)

“This is a bread and butter issue,” said Sarab Al-Jijakli, a Brooklyn-based community organizer and the president of the Network of Arab-American Professionals (NAAP). “Education is obviously a key point; 25 percent of public school kids in Bay Ridge [Brooklyn] may be of Arab descent. Are the services being given in that school really serving the local community? These are the questions we ask.”…

…The History of ‘White’

Race is an ever shifting, ever evolving concept in America. From the 1890s through the 1930s, an African-American family with a mixed-race heritage, for example, could be classified as everything from “quadroon” to “mulatto” to “black” to “Negro,” depending on the year and who was doing the classifying. Meanwhile, the “East Asian” category morphed into separate categories for Koreans, Filipinos, Japanese and “Hindus,” or South Asians. The stakes were high: With the exception of freed slaves who were granted citizenship in 1864, for a long time, non-whites were not eligible for citizenship…

…’Check It Right, You Ain’t White’

MENA identity has evolved over the years. People descended from the earlier wave of immigrants who came to the U.S. between 1880 and 1920, and are fourth-, fifth- and sixth- generation Americans are more likely to identify as white, according to Akram Khater, director of the Khayrallah Program for Lebanese-American Studies at North Carolina State University. The waves of Middle Easterners who have migrated since the 1960s tend to see things differently…

Read the entire article here.

Tags: , , , ,