Our Census Needs a MENA Category



Workers at the Phoenix Data Capture Center use computers to input census data. The computers read handwritten forms correctly more than 99.4 percent of the time. Technology has improved the accuracy and speed of tabulating the population of the country. (PHOTO BY U.S. CENSUS BUREAU VIA PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER VIA TNS)


In the years from 1880 to 1920, Arab and Middle Eastern immigration to the United States drastically increased, when laws before and during World War I limited opportunities for anyone coming into the country trying to achieve the American Dream. Arabs, when they did immigrate, came to America for the American Dream: the higher education and the better paying jobs. Some did manage to create successful paths; others were shunned from achieving their goals due to discrimination. Arabs, since the first wave of immigrants in 1880, have never been accounted for on the U.S. Census. Therefore, ignoring the discrimination and the obvious disbelonging within the white population, Arabs have no other option than to fill out the white category on the U.S. Census.

Every 10 years, as required or mandated by the U.S. Constitution, the U.S. Census is to count every resident in the United States. The results of the U.S. Census affect the amount of representation in the House of Representatives, federal funding on specific programs, location of facilities, and also monitor employment, housing, lending and education anti-discrimination laws.

For years, Arab Americans have been able to fill out the census, but with a sense of disbelonging as they feel that “white” doesn’t describe their culture. Without the Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) category on the census, Arabs feel forced to categorize themselves with a completely different culture. This upcoming census in 2020 is favoring the demands of the Arab activists who fought to be represented on the U.S. Census. The main goal of the Arab activists regarding the census was to prevent any unintentional assimilation; in other words, to preserve Arab culture by rightfully distinguishing between white and Arab culture through the additional category on the census. The U.S. Census Bureau needs to allow those who fall under the MENA category to rightfully identify themselves as MENA on the census.

This change in the census has the potential to go in one of three directions; the first possibility is the fear that those who fill out the MENA category will attract more wrongful accusations that tie in with terrorism and violence, or in general attract more government focus on their lives. However, I feel that implementing the MENA category will give others the opportunity to see that Arab-Americans hold a very prevalent presence within the U.S. population–enough to account for their culture on the U.S. Census.

The second potential direction this change in the census could take is that there could be increased federal funding in the Arab community in America. Arab individuals could get specific help with increased health and economic benefits. Currently, there are funded mosques and schools that are very short on financial support and require more representation to continue serving their Arab communities. Specifically regarding employment, the government will have a more prominent role in addressing anti-Arab discrimination in the work field. There are tons of cases among public schools and companies that are regarding extreme mistreatment towards those who are of Middle Eastern identity. With more government representation, those victims could have more support against the discriminator.

The third potential direction is that this will lend aid to the argument that Arab-Americans are indeed Americans, and as such deserve the appropriate respect. There have been plenty of hate crimes against Arabs in America in the past through today, and many Arab-American’s feel as though their identity has been personally attacked. Only a select few have been able to assert and strengthen their identity, and some have felt vulnerable and attacked enough to abandon their identity and confide in another identity: white. By giving Arabs the option to select the MENA category on the U.S. Census, some will feel a sense of pride due to the equal representation on the U.S. Census, and the idea that Arabs are prevalent enough to become accounted for within the American population.

The proposal of the MENA category addition to the U.S. Census will be beneficial in creating a new identity for Arab Americans in 2020, especially with a newfound assertion towards that identity. With the potential directions this implementation could take, I believe the one that is most likely to happen immediately is the third potential of increasing assertion within the Arab community. Contrary to what many think, the Arab community in America is currently hiding behind shadows due to the new Arab image people have painted after media reports with ISIS and other common Arab misrepresentation. With this newfound representation on the U.S. Census and within the U.S. government, Arabs will tend to feel more support and reliance on the government alongside those who fall under the white category. With this new branch of support, Arabs will have more power to not only educate others on the societal misconceptions of today, but to also be proud of their culture and feel safe.