The U.S. government may make an important change in the upcoming census, adding a new category for those who identify as Middle Eastern or North African. The United States Census Bureau has been exploring this new ethnic category for a few years, but it is still under review and will require approval by the Office of Management and Budget.

Many argue that this would be a triumph for many groups, notably Arab Americans, for whom this would ostensibly represent enhanced opportunities for political mobilization. Still others argue that Arab Americans are invisible without official minority status, inhabiting a strange place where they are “white without the privilege.”

However, racial identification, whether through self-identification or top-down efforts like a national census, is an incredibly complex process. The categories accepted as self-evident have been constructed through very specific historical processes, most often in the interest of hegemonic powers, such as the United States government. As such, the addition of a new category for people of Middle Eastern and North African descent is unlikely to be truly liberatory; it is far more likely to serve as an instrument of organizing and disciplining these populations in the interests of the U.S. government.

History of the United States Census

In 1787, Article 1, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution was passed to formally institute a census, making the United States the first nation to call for a mandatory census. Three years later, in 1790, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson presided over the first census. In its early years, the census was intended to count residents for the purpose of determining political representation and taxation. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, however, the census would grow to encompass many more expansive objectives.

In 1850, the U.S. census began to gather information about ethnicity and national origin. A few decades later, in 1890, it began collecting data about language spoken at home, and nearly a century after that, in 1980, about ancestry. Aside from simply determining taxation and representation, the census had acquired a new goal, namely creating “categories and taxonomies.”

Despite extensive social research that has disrupted the idea of “real” biological races, the Census Bureau continues to operate under the false assumption that discrete racial groups exist, precisely because this assumption is at the core of much of American law and policy.

In 1977, the Office of Management and Budget outlined Statistical Policy Directive 15, which introduced a finite set of racial classifications: American Indian or Alaskan Native, Asian or Pacific Islander, Black, Hispanic, and White. Where do people of Middle Eastern and North African descent fit into this? Since 1944, they have been officially classified as white for all legal purposes.

Middle Eastern and North African populations, particularly Arab Americans, have accepted and rejected this designation to varying degrees, partly depending on religion, socioeconomic status, and national origin.

A Push for Recognition

Arabs were not always considered white. Until 1899, the earliest Arab immigrants, mostly Arabic-speaking immigrants originating from the Syrian region of the Ottoman Empire, were considered “Asiatic.” This designation would be revisited in the next few decades leading up to the second World War, when Arabs came to largely be considered white in the “white-ethnics” sense. Many of these immigrants embraced their so-called white identity, partly because only white immigrants were eligible for American citizenship until 1952.

With the rise of liberal multiculturalism and a new wave of immigration from the Middle East and North Africa in the late twentieth century, a discussion about whether Arabs should be classified as white emerged. While some identified as white, some felt more at home with people of color. Since the 1980s, the notion of Arab identity has been fervently contested and reconfigured in various ways.

At the same time, concerns with how the “invisibility” of Arabs has made the group politically inert has prompted many Arab American groups to push for federal minority status. Without this official status, benefits other minorities enjoy, such as consideration for Affirmative Action and some federal programs, are not available to Arab Americans. As such, various Arab groups, including the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS) and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) have sought to formalize a new category for several decades.

The ADC expressed its official criticism of the existing census categories in a 1994 letter stating:

The Arab-American community is distinct from other minorities and from White America. The existing OMB categories screen out Arab-Americans and make them invisible. Agencies which use the OMB classification system often do not even perceive the existence of an Arab-American population […]. They are unable to recognize the needs that exist or respond to them. Therefore Arab-Americans are deprived of the benefits and social services, which are accorded to other minorities.

This was part of a nationwide letter-writing campaign seeking to create a new separate category for Arabs and other minorities originating from the Middle East. In response to this campaign, the U.S. government held four Congressional hearings with the intent of assessing the census’s nomenclature policy. These special sessions considered many testimonials, letters, and statements from individuals and groups, in addition to conducting broad surveys. In the end, no recommendation was made to change the census categories.

While calls for new categories persisted, the Census Bureau remained cautious. One reason is the stringent requirements for qualifying as a recognized group, which include high recognizability, low referential ambiguity, minimal overlap with existing categories, social and political relevance to the current U.S. population, and acceptability both inside and outside the proposed group.

A Renewed Movement

Though the Census Bureau did not officially acknowledge a new category, many groups continued to reject their classifications. In 2010, Arab-American activist and director of the Arab American Association of New York (AANY) Linda Sarsour helped coordinate the campaign “Check It Right, You Ain’t White,” which encouraged Arab Americans to write in another identity instead of identifying as white. Since the 2010 census, there has been much talk of a new Middle East and North Africa box. The discussions have featured debates about what identity means, legal arguments about minority status, and broader social justice discussions.

One notable effort at changing the census categories has been organized by the Take on Hate campaign, which has partnered with both ACCESS and the National Network for Arab American Communities (NNAAC). This campaign seeks to challenge discrimination against Arab and Muslim Americans. One of the ways it does this is by advocating for supplementing existing categories with one that acknowledges Arab and Muslim communities.

In addition to ACCESS, ADC, AANY, and NNAAC, the Network of Arab American Professionals (NAAP) has pushed for this new census category. The cause has also received the support of some lawmakers and academics.

In an interview with the NNAAC, lawyer and activist Khaled Beydoun talked about his work with the Take on Hate campaign. In the interview, Beydoun pointed to a disconnect between the formal recognition of North African and Middle Eastern groups, and the way members of these groups are perceived by the media and government. He argued that by pushing for a new category on the 2020 census, “we’re really doing nothing new,” since the goal is to gain the same recognition that other minorities already have—recognition, he argues, is integral to political power.

Beydoun also expressed some apprehension about how this formal recognition could be deployed by the government in potentially problematic ways. “There’s real government interest I think in having more precise and comprehensive data about Middle Eastern North African Americans, linked to surveillance and profiling,” he commented, “Not all of it is good. It makes it easier to track these communities.”

A Call for Wariness

On its face, adding a new category for Arab Americans and Middle Easterners seems like a good idea. But, there are important reasons to be critical of the move.

For one, these identities are complex and fraught with internal contradiction and numerous contestations, which have not been sufficiently interrogated. It is not clear they are “racial” identities in any real sense. Moreover, people of Middle Eastern descent navigate American racial structures in varying ways, including assimilating to whiteness, identifying as people of color, and remaining loyal to their original national or religious group, making it far from straightforward that an Arab or even a Middle Eastern-North African category would be meaningful or useful.

But, if these identities are simplistic and reductive, why do they persist? Partly, they endure because they are, as anthropologist Andrew Shryock describes, “managerial constructs that help ‘incorporate’ marked communities into the American mainstream, facilitating access to its institutions and resource flows.” To be successful managerial constructs, these identities and categories have to be efficient, which means they must collapse complex realities.

As Shryock argues, it is important to be wary of how these identities can be used to police and discipline populations. In the case of Arab Americans, official recognition as a minority group may involve some costly trade-offs. While on some level Arab Americans may be inaugurated as “official” members of American society, this acceptance may, in fact, depoliticize Arab political culture. In order to perform the role of the “model” minority, one must set aside any real criticism of American foreign and economic policy. In this sense, while the food and music of Arab culture may be accepted, its political commitments may not be, and what emerges is a very circumscribed kind of citizenship. Against the backdrop of a protracted “War on Terror,” Arab Americans should be cautious of willingly adopting an instrument which would allow for greater control and discipline of their communities.

In a broader sense, a new category is unlikely to challenge the racism and bigotry facing people of Middle Eastern and North African descent. Instead, it will reproduce racial hierarchies, albeit in the name of multiculturalism and diversity.  In looking to transform this “race thinking” in radical ways that create meaningful change, we must look beyond the binaries of either assimilating into existing groups or creating new ones. A better place to start would be to challenge the formal institutions, like the U.S. censuses, which sustain racial hierarchies—and the broader hegemonic systems at their core.

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