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

Meera Kymal is the Managing Editor at India Currents and Founder/Producer at desicollective.media. She produces multi-platform content on the South Asian diaspora through the lens of social justice,...