Tag Archives: Dr. Hamoud Salhi

Invisible, Undercounted & Disenfranchised

For generations, millions of Americans whose roots lie in the Middle East and North Africa — MENA — have essentially become invisible people because the Census Bureau has denied requests for their own racial category.

“Legally, in America, I’m classified as white,” says Dr. Hamoud Salhi, associate dean of the College of Natural and Behavioral Sciences, CSU-Dominguez Hills. “I was born in Algeria, which is part of Africa, so technically I could declare myself as African American, but I can’t.”

Palestinian-American Loubna Qutami, a President’s postdoctoral fellow at U.C. Berkeley specializing in ethnic studies, says that since MENA doesn’t have a classification of its own, it legally falls under the white category.

MENA populations have their own specific needs for health care, education, language assistance and civil rights protection, but they have no way to advocate for themselves because numerically they are folded into the category of white Americans.

To change this, Dr. Salhi, Dr. Qutami and other MENA leaders have been mobilizing their communities to participate in the 2020 census, encouraging people to write in their ethnicity. They spoke 10 other experts and activists on a May 13 two-hour video conference organized by Ethnic Media Services on the historical, linguistic and political challenges  that make the MENA population among the hardest to count in California.

Geographically, MENA populations live on three continents — from the border of Afghanistan south to the tip of Africa — and in 22 nations in the Middle East alone, with numerous subgroups such as Kurds, Chaldeans, Assyrians, Armenians.

“North Africa is actually a concept that the French gave to Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria, which they colonized,” says Dr. Salhi. The neighboring countries of Egypt and Libya were added later.

Because of their shared Arabic language and Islamic religion, people in the United States from North Africa were lumped together with people of the Middle East to form the MENA acronym.

For decades, the Census Bureau has turned down requests to add MENA to the official category of races, currently white, black or African American, American Indian, Alaska Native, Asian American and Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander.

The result, says Dr. Qutami, artificially props up the white population count, which has been in decline, while suppressing the count of MENA residents who don’t identify themselves as white. According to the 2015 Census Bureau’s “National Content Test – Race and Ethnicity Report, “As expected, the percent reporting as White is significantly lower with the inclusion of a distinct MENA category when compared to treatments with no MENA category.”

California mirrors the challenge to the MENA population of geographic size and diversity, says Emilio Vaca, deputy director of the state’s Complete Count Committee, which directs census outreach. The Census Bureau’s 2017 American Community Survey reported that  11 million of California’s 40 million residents, about 27%, are immigrants.

“That’s equivalent to the entire state of Georgia,” Vaca emphasized. At home, most of those immigrants speak one or more of 200 languages other than English.

Homarya Yusufi, from the Partnership for the Advancement of New Americans, broke down the face of diversity in just one San Diego neighborhood that her organization serves: “We have 45 different national origins — from MENA, Asia and Latin America — who speak more than 100 languages in the 6.5-mile City Heights district, a distinct community of refugees and immigrants.” Educating and motivating these groups to participate in the census is a way to engage them in the civic life of the wider city.

Historical necessity — what specific immigrant groups have done to survive — also plays a role in the MENA undercount. Up until the mid-20th century, only whites could own property, and only “free white immigrants” could become American citizens.

To survive and advance, Middle Eastern immigrants successfully petitioned the federal courts to be allowed to identify themselves as white in 1920. North African immigrants, as members of the MENA population, got pulled along and found themselves legally classified as white as well.

The discriminatory policy for citizenship and property ownership favoring whites only ended with passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952.  But even then, MENA communities found it difficult to raise funds and mobilize calls for action to address their needs. They didn’t know where their fellow compatriots were located and couldn’t raise official numbers to request funds and resources.

“We were helpless. In many instances, we had to generate our own data,” says Dr. Qutami.

Over the years, the Census Bureau has never clearly answered why they’ve refused to include the MENA classification, despite concluding, in a 2017 report, that “the inclusion of a MENA category helps MENA Respondents to more accurately report their MENA identities.”

The bureau again turned down the 2018 request for the 2020 census. Karen Battle, chief of the bureau’s population division, announced in a public meeting on census preparations that “We do feel that more research and testing is needed.”

MENA advocates believe filling out the 2020 census is the only way to avoid another undercount. Without doing this, Yusufi says, “our communities will continue to be invisible and left in the margins because data really matters.”

Gaining services customized to MENA’s needs is only part of what’s at stake. So, too, argues Yusufi, is building power. MENA populations then can elect individuals “who reflect the needs of our communities and hold lawmakers accountable” when they stigmatize MENA communities.

Kathay Feng of the nonpartisan watchdog Common Cause emphasized that participation in the census is the first step to representation. In America, resources and rights are accorded by representation based on the number of residents at all levels, from the state down to the municipality, in proportion to the total population.

“Everyone is counted, regardless of immigration status or whether they are registered voters or not,” Feng said, “because all residents pay taxes in one way or another, and most immigrants would eventually become citizens in the long run.”

Every 10 years, immediately after the decennial census submits population data, electoral districts are redrawn. In California, which has been at the forefront of redistricting reforms, the old practice of allowing legislators to draw district lines based on which populations are sure to vote them back into office — known as gerrymandering — was replaced in 2009 by independently selected commissioners. Nine other states have followed California’s lead.

But, Feng emphasized, to be effective and to ensure their voices are heard, residents have to be  engaged at the local level.  And this year, there is a danger that anti-immigrant forces will restrict the residents who count in redistricting to voters only.

“In the city of El Cajon, San Diego, we faced a lot of discrimination, especially when the Syrian refugees arrived. Our children got bullied in school but the schools didn’t want to adopt any bullying policy because we don’t have representation,” said Dilkhwaz Ahmed, executive director of License to Freedom. “Representation is very important to us as a Kurdish community, as refugees, and as immigrants.”

Emilio Vaca is optimistic that California can meet the undercount challenge: “As of May 11, California has a self-response rate of 59.6%, which is above the national average of 58%.” This is all the more impressive, Vaca noted, given how the pandemic has affected outreach.

Many of the speakers on the call testified to the ongoing efforts to shift to virtual outreach and “drive by” caravans and taking the census to where the people are.

“We had a food bank event for the Middle Eastern and Muslim community in south Sacramento that attracted more than 2,000 families who came by cars, and we actually engaged with them about the census in every single car,” said Basim Elkarra, executive director of CAIR in Sacramento. “Many were recent refugees.”

The 2020 census form doesn’t include the MENA racial category, but Question 9 allows respondents to write in “MENA” and their specific ethnicities such as Lebanese, Palestinian, Algerian or Kurd.

Being visible in the 2020 census, the speakers agreed, will lay the foundation for the next few MENA generations to build on what this generation has started.


Image: Siti Aisyah, Pixabay

Where Do I Fit In?

Dr. Hamoud Salhi  was excited about completing his very first US census form. As a professor of political science, he understood why the decennial mattered. He had studied census processes in Algeria, his country of origin, and currently teaches ‘cultural pluralism’ to American students at California State University, where he is an Associate Dean.

Dr.Hamoud Salhi

And yet, when Dr. Salhi began filling out his 2020 Census form, he grew puzzled.

As a person of MENA origin, “I was ready to “express my identity and see where I fit.” said Dr. Salhi.

But the census form fell short of his expectations.

Its list of ‘self-identification’ options did not offer criteria that Dr. Salhi felt matched his own racial and ethnic credentials. In some ways it seemed like a lost opportunity to express his identity.

“Am I white, Arab or African American?” he questioned. “Where do I fit in?”

Dr. Salhi voiced his concerns at a telebriefing hosted by Ethnic Media Services and supported by the California Complete Count on May 13, to understand why people from the MENA region (with roots in Middle East & North Africa), are not separately classified in the enumeration.

The discussion examined why individuals like Dr. Salhi, with MENA origins, struggle to assert their identity in the census.

“The concept of MENA is very complex,” said Dr. Salhi, adding that census language and terms have not kept up with the diversity of the MENA community which represents more than 11 racial and ethnic groups .

In 2015, when the AAI appealed to the census to include MENA as a category in 2020Census, it included all 22 member states of the Arab League and various transnational groups in its definition of MENA. But the Census Bureau rejected that classification in 2018, citing the need for more research.

Without a MENA category, Dr. Salhi was perplexed.

Should he check “white’, the classification historically afforded to people of Arab descent?

Or ‘Northern African’ – a French construct for colonized  Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, that excludes Egypt and Libya from that geography.

Should he opt for ‘African American’ because he straddles both continents as an American with Algerian roots, even though the term with its controversial racial origins does not truly represent him?

Though the Census Bureau asserts that its questions on race and ethnicity are based on how people ‘self-identify,’ and, that its race categories “generally reflect social definitions in the U.S,” it uses language and definitions that confuse the distinction between race, ethnicity, and geographic origin.

These blurred distinctions make it challenging for some respondents, including those of MENA origin, to ‘self-identify’ and provide an accurate demographic representation of themselves.

“There is no sense in how the census defines race and ethnicity that is acceptable academically,” says Dr. Salhi.

Race is not about self-identification as “it is usually associated  with biological and physical differences,” he explained, and ethnicity is more about self-identification.

“You self-identify who you are by your culture and how you relate to that culture.”

In another twist, by associating ethnicity to Hispanic origin, the census further complicates the concept of ethnicity, says Dr. Salhi. “Is my ethnicity is defined by whether I’m Hispanic or not?”

“The options do not describe accurately where I fit in,”  he says. Instead, Dr. Salhi offers a simple solution to resolve the issue.

“What about a straight-forward question – ‘What is your ethnicity?’ and “simply list the categories.”

Dr. Loubna Qutami

Dr. Salhi’s question represents “a struggle that’s a 100 years old” said Dr. Loubna Qutami, a post-doctoral fellow at UC Berkeley’s Ethnic Studies Department, who shared a historical overview of the MENA story in America.

Arab immigrants began petitioning the US courts to be legally classified as white in the US census in the 1920s, she explained, not because they saw themselves as white, but because they realized that being white was rooted in power distribution and privilege.

“Whiteness was tied to eligibility for citizenship, eligibility for property ownership, and for having certain political and human rights.”

However, the census evolved after the social upheavals of the 1960s and 70s to serve a different purpose. No longer was it used to differentiate between the rights of people based on their race; instead, the census became a tool to achieve social justice.

“By closing gaps in equality between communities,”  said Dr. Qutami, census data began to inform how public monies were allocated to neighborhoods, schools, and community-based organizations to create a more equal society.

Unfortunately, being classified as white meant that MENA communities were losing out on funding that was being given to other minority communities.

So Arab advocacy groups  (The Arab American Institute, American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, ACCESS, and other grassroots organizations) began advocating for census reclassification to help MENA communities prove their demographic count and become eligible for funding.

But reclassification has proved elusive.

The MENA designation did not appear on the 2010 census, and, though the Obama administration in 2015 considered including the MENA category in the 2020 Census, it was denied by Karen Battle  from the Census Bureau in a public announcement.

This setback compounded other problems that Arab Americans have had to contend with said Dr. Qutami. Anti-Arab sentiment which was sparked by the events of September 11, began to increase  after the Trump administration’s xenophobic immigration policies and travel ban. As a result, MENA communities feel dis-invested in participating in something like the census.

“There’s no trust in the state” says Dr. Qutami. Instead, there exists a legitimate fear that census data will be weaponized against Muslim communities for surveillance.

However, Arab American advocacy groups  are continuing to pressure the  Census Board for greater visibility and self-identification on the census, while grassroots organizations are investing in outreach efforts to mobilize MENA constituencies and encourage their participation in the enumeration.

Participating in the decennial will help determine who comes from a MENA background, what the neighborhoods are, who‘s living below the poverty line, who’s eligible for food stamps, and who’s struggling with access to benefits, says Dr. Qutami, who has relied on the America Community Survey and her own research to collect this data.  A key outcome of a more accurate count is that it could enable MENA communities achieve the political representation necessary to contest longstanding discriminatory policies, and access the public resources and benefits they need.

“Participating in census will help us on a collective level,” said Dr. Qutami, as including a MENA classification in the census will better reflect the cultural pluralism of our increasingly diverse society.

It’s a two pronged approach that the MENA community hopes will pay off in the next census.

For Dr. Salhi, it may mean another ten years before he can self-identify on the census by simply checking off a single option.

Meera Kymal is a contributing editor at India Currents.

Coverage for Census 2020 has been facilitated through a grant from the United Way Bay Area.


Photo by M.T ElGassier on Unsplash