by Caroline Love
In a society with racial divisions, it is better to be counted than to be ignored. The U.S Census provides no way of knowing how many people who trace their ancestry to the countries of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) live in the United States. That’s because the Census categorizes MENA Americans as “white.” From write-in information collected in the American Community Survey, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated the population of Arab Americans was 1.5 million in the early 2010s. Concurrently, an Arab American Institute (AAI) study found the number to be between 3 and 4 million (Wang, 2013). To the AAI, that twofold (or more) difference in the population estimates is evidence of an undercount. That study did not include people who identify as Middle Eastern or North African but not as Arab, including Israelis, Turks and Iranians. The Israeli American and Iranian American populations are estimated to add at least 1 million people to the MENA population, but this number could be closer to 3 million (Sales, 2017; Virtual Embassy Tehran, 2018).
Why does this matter? An undercount in the U.S. Census diminishes school funding, social services, access to health care, and political representation for MENA Americans (Wang, 2013). The MENA American community, particularly those who are also Muslim Americans, is growing steadily—as is discrimination against the group post-9/11 (Tehranian, 2009; Mohamed, 2018). Without data on the size and distribution of this community, there’s no way to measure community needs or the prevalence of discrimination.
Due to these gaps, members of the MENA community have lobbied for years to see themselves as a category in the Census. In 2018, the Census Bureau turned down a proposal to add a box distinct from white or other that MENA Americans could check, at least for the 2020 Census (Parvini & Simani, 2019). But continuing to categorizing MENA Americans as “white” ignores the diverse histories of MENA descendants as distinct from European. Recognizing MENA Americans among people of color would open the way to allieviating discrimination and internalized oppression. The United States Census Bureau must align itself with its own principles of racial self-identification and allow for MENA Americans to be classified as their own ethnicity.
Race and citizenship in America
The concept of “race” in American history dates back to the earliest colonial settlements when Northwestern Europeans captured Africans and enslaved them in Jamestown in 1619 (Haney López, 1996). Northwestern European settlers defined people of African descent and Indigenous Peoples as “colored” to justify colonization and slavery, asserting their own superiority. Once the idea of race was codified into the American legal system, anyone could be deemed as inferior to Northwestern Europeans and thus be excluded from society (Gualtieri, 2009). Race as a social construct was exemplified by the Naturalization Act of 1790. This document restricted naturalization to “free white persons” only (Tehranian, 2009, p. 39). While rights of citizenship expanded after the Civil War, the binary “white or black” definition of race continued in the U.S. Census for decades: it did not include a category for Indigenous Peoples, Asians, or Pacific Islanders to identify themselves until midway through the 19th Century (Parker, Horowitz, Morin & Lopez, 2015). Americans who were not “white,” especially if foreign-born, essentially were invisible in census data and government policy. Further, unless Americans at the time fit neatly into the exclusively defined “white” race, those Americans would be lumped into the category of “other” (Haney López, 1996).
Until the Immigration and Nationality Acts of 1952 and 1965 removed the racial requirements for becoming a citizen, anyone who was not white and wanted to become a U.S. citizen via naturalization had to argue for their whiteness in court (Haney López, 1996). Between the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, the racial qualifications of naturalization were not hugely important; state citizenship overshadowed national citizenship and most immigrants coming to the United States were from Europe. Federal courts began hearing cases on the Racial Prerequisite in the late 19th Century—a time in which people from the East to the West of Asia began immigrating to the United States in significant numbers.
The verdicts of over two dozen Racial Prerequisite Cases regarding the racial identities of Syrians, Armenians, Arabs, mixed-race folks, and migrants from other countries in the Muslim world such as Afghanistan constantly flipped between white and non-white assignments (Haney López, 1996). Decisions in favor of applicants’ whiteness were upheld for a variety of rationales from “scientific” to “common knowledge” (Gualtieri, 2009, p. 2). Some justifications included “passing” as European based on perceived phenotype and physical characteristics (e.g., light eye-color and skin complexion); treating “Caucasians”—by definition, people that hail from the Caucasus Mountain Region in Central Asia—as white; and categorizing Christian immigrants or any people from the Levant (such as Syrians) as white because that was the birthplace of Jesus Christ (Haney López, 1996). In total, about half of Middle Eastern racial prerequisite cases concluded that the plaintiff was of the white race. In cases of denial, the court was also ruling that the person was ineligible for citizenship and other rights only for white people.
MENA Americans in the Census
The U.S. Census has long considered “race” separately from ethnicity, on the theory that race is based in biological phenotypes, while ethnicity is a reflection of culture, religion, and tradition. European Americans considered white by today’s standards were not allowed to be white in the past: immigrants from Italy, Ireland, and the Jewish Diaspora were often assigned to “the [wrong] side of the white/black divide”; the Irish, for example, were commonly labeled as the “blacks of Europe” and were sometimes barred from applying to jobs (Tehranian, 2009). The 1940 Census marked a notable expansion of whiteness, because it no longer differentiated between foreign-born and U.S.-born whites. That was also the first year that Mexicans were represented as separate category in the Census, beginning a process that in 2000 led to the separate categorization of Hispanic/Latino ethnicity (Parker et al., 2015).
Like the immigrant Italians or Irish of a century ago, MENA Americans have faced racialized discrimination even as the U.S. Census considered them “white.” MENA Americans today have primarily come to the United States in one of three waves of migration (Marvasti & McKinney, 2004). This history is important, as it has come to define the social, economic and political integration of MENA Americans. The first period of migration from the Middle East began in the 1880s. Unlike the groups to come, these MENA Americans primarily consisted of Arabic-speaking Christians fleeing religious persecution under the Ottoman Empire (Marvasti & McKinney, 2004). Their Christianity made it easier for these Arabs to attain privileges through naturalization because Christianity was linked to whiteness. Many Arab Americans during this period were shopkeepers and found reasonable financial security. As is still the case today, the economic mobilities of MENA Americans generally projected more upwards than other immigrant groups (Marvasti & McKinney, 2004). However, Arab Americans still faced racism during this time; Irish Americans were known to call MENA Americans racist slurs like “Mohammedans” or “Turks,” despite the fact that the vast majority were from Syria and were not Muslim (Marvasti & McKinney, 2004, p. 6). In response to growing levels of xenophobia in the early 20th century, these Arab Americans felt a strong pressure to assimilate.
The 1924 Immigration Act restricted the number of people allowed to come to the United States significantly by implementing per-country quotas (Cumoletti & Batalova, 2018). This slowed immigration from the Middle East and North Africa. The 1948 Arab-Israeli War sparked a second wave of immigration. Given the restrictive immigration laws at the time, almost all of these second-wave immigrants were highly educated and high-paying workers. Many second-wave MENA American immigrants were Muslim. (Religion is often more defining than income or ethnicity in American society, as the United States was founded on the principle of “freedom of religion.”) Unlike the first wave of MENA immigrants, those in the second wave had more difficulty passing as “white.”
When the Immigration Act of 1924 was repealed in 1965, a third wave of MENA American immigrants began migrating to the United States (Cumoletti & Batalova, 2018). Many third-wave MENA American immigrants are Muslim (Cumoletti & Batalova, 2018), some fleeing instability from the Palestinian-Israeli conflict or the Islamic Revolution in Iran, others seeking to escape poverty in Yemen and Iraq (Tehranian, 2009). Today, foreign-born and U.S.-born MENA Americans come from a variety of countries but are often represented narrowly in the media, disenfranchised by a “model minority” myth, or discriminated against, all while the U.S. Census expects them to identify as “white.”
Given the institutional advantages of being white in the United States and the complexity of self-identification, many Middle Eastern and North Africans consider themselves to be white in some way. According to a report by the Los Angeles Times, over 80% of MENA Americans have reported their race as white at least once (Parvini & Simani, 2019). Historically, racism and xenophobia have served as great incentives for MENA Americans to distance themselves from being othered. While California is home to 20% of MENA Americans today, when the first wave of Arabs came to the United States over 100 years ago, only white immigrants were allowed to own property in the state (Tehranian, 2009). In addition, the Alien Land Law act prevented nonwhites from owning property, becoming certified lawyers, or obtaining a fishing license. Thus, MENA American immigrants were forced to decide: should I hold onto my culture and struggle or try to pass for white in order to make a living? Other benefits of claiming whiteness to become a citizen included the freedom to travel back to one’s homeland to visit and support family (whether that be Saudi Arabia or Canada) and even the ability to vote (Gualtieri, 2009). Today, MENA Americans still struggle to identify within a racist binary system.
The persistence of discrimination and the possibility of “white-washing” poses both advantages and dangers if a MENA American category were added to the U.S. Census. Writer Gelareh Asayesh reflects that her olive-toned skin passed as Caucasian in Iran, but that she is rarely considered to be white in the United States; “I didn’t like being demoted,” she writes about her reluctance to identify her race as a person of color (2006, p. 14). Asayesh describes that living as an Iranian American and Muslim still leaves one vulnerable to racial slurs akin to ones used over a century ago. Asayesh even recounts a recent time that a friend was horrifyingly called a “sand n——” (2006, p.15). On a larger scale, ramifications of post 9/11 racism are just as concerning: hate crimes committed against Middle Eastern Americans were four times greater in 2003 than they were throughout the 20th Century (Tehranian, 2009).
Unfortunately, affirmative action policies do not increase the opportunities for success and representation of MENA Americans because they are not included as people of color. One example is in Hollywood. An initiative called Diversity-in-Casting offered financial incentives for filmmakers to hire stars of underrepresented background (Tehranian, 2009). This is great theoretically. The media has an poor history of diversity and inclusion, often featuring vicious stereotypes of MENA Americans as terrorists and sexists. But the result for MENA roles is that non-MENA minorities are more desirable actors to cast as characters from the Middle East than actual MENA American actors. When MENA Americans are forced to take on the label of white, the discrimination that many face as being non-Europeans and religious minorities is minimized—and unfortunately there is no perfect solution to alleviate this.
There are other potential pitfalls in the proposal of adding a MENA category. With languages ranging from Arabic to Hebrew to Farsi—and religions, ethnicities, and geographic origins equally as distinct—the diversity of the MENA region could certainly be overlooked if a single MENA category were established by the federal government. This is a problem that Asian and Pacific Islander Americans faced when they were grouped together under the “API” label, obscuring their diverse origins from East Asia to the Indian subcontinent to Polynesia. (Haney López, 1996). The University of California system added an ethnicity for Middle Eastern and North African applicants to check a decade ago, but the category—called “SWNA” for Southwest Asia/North Africa—covers an even larger region while avoiding the colonial roots of the term “Middle East” (Parvini & Simani, 2019).
MENA immigrants as a whole have achieved economic success as immigrants and some benefit from white privilege (PEW Research Center, 2017). This does not disprove the model minority myth. Rather, the great challenges MENA Americans still face show that we have more room to grow in how we determine the demographics of the American melting pot.
Ethnicity, not race
Why are MENA Americans like Gelareh Asayesh forced to choose among the Census’s racial categories when there is another option that relates more to her experience? Ethnicity, rather than race, better describes how most Americans treat identities based on shared ancestry, cultures, and geographical origins (Haney López, 1996). In 1970, the first ethnic category (the umbrella term “Hispanic”) was permanently added to the U.S. Census. In 2000, Americans finally were allowed to identity as multiple races and ethnicities. The next step would be to add a MENA option to the Census’s ethnicity question.
Racialized disenfranchisement of MENA Americans has been pervasive. Unlike the (white) privileges afforded to immigrants from the previously “dark” regions of Europe, MENA Americans still face prejudice in nearly every aspect of social society. Combatting prejudice and overcoming histories of privilege and oppression starts with allowing a community to be counted. Rather than continuing to whitewash minorities from the MENA region, the federal government must finally add MENA as an ethnicity to the U.S. Census 2030.
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