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Addition of ‘Middle East and North Africa’ box on 2020 census spells dilemma for Arab-Americans

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Americans on the 2020 Census might have the option of filling out “Middle East and North Africa” (MENA) as their ethnicity, having lacked such a specific category on previous census forms.

“What it does is it helps these communities feel less invisible,” Helen Samhan of the Arab American Institute told USA Today. “It’s a good step, a positive step.”

The White House posted a notice Friday announcing a public comment period for the change. The document says the change will help enforce laws against discrimination in voting, housing and education.

In theory, Census data lets policymakers and officials get an idea of what their constituencies look like, and develop plans to serve their interests. But Americans of MENA origin have slipped through the cracks of American identity politics, even as they become more politically influential. Sometimes that has surprising results, like Arab American Michiganders handing an upset victory to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders during the Democratic primary. Beyond elections, delivering public services like education, health and welfare to MENA communities is difficult, advocates say, due to a lack of a designation for a constellation of geographic origins that appears in headlines and speeches but not on the country’s most basic, and oldest, bureaucratic survey.

While some MENA-American advocacy groups have been in support of the change for decades, the White House proposal comes as 2016 campaign rhetoric emboldens brazen verbal and physical attacks against Americans of middle eastern origin. GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump has rallied support by drumming up fear of Syrian refugees, proposing a “shutdown” of Muslims entering the United States.

Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton has come to the defense of Muslim Americans, but her policies toward MENA countries and Palestinians leave some Arab and Muslim Americans wary about a Clinton presidency too. Both candidates have vowed to beef up intelligence gathering, which sounds ominous to members of a community already subject to warrantless surveillance.

The dilemma is stark. Without announcing their presence on the census, MENA-Americans will have a harder time asserting their political rights, but the same system that catalogues their presence and location in the United States seems vulnerable to abuse by an authoritarian bent on expelling or harassing them.

“Trump prefers Islamophobic rhetoric, but both Clinton and Trump share surveillance policies that target Muslim communities,” said Azmi Haroun, 22, a Syrian-American humanitarian activist in San Diego.  

Haroun understands the fear, but still supports the move.

“Ideally these changes could be used to help legally codify and persecute hate crimes against Arabs and Muslims, which we have seen increase over the years without due justice in many cases,” Haroun said.

Although he also fears that there is potential for misuse of the data, Haroun, from Seattle, described feeling a longtime sense of disorientation over the lack of a box to check. The issue is particularly urgent as numbers of refugees from MENA countries grow.

“It’s always felt phony and deeply ironic because my people are vilified when they are far away and painted as the enemy but somehow considered white on a census,” he said. This doesn’t “help Arabs and Muslims integrate into their American identity, or their combined identity.”

But concern over abuse of the statistics is too much for other Arab-Americans, such as Rama Nakib, 21. She says that she won’t check the MENA box, and would rather put down white.

“While it’s romantic to stand up and be like ‘this is me,’  it’s stupid in the current climate,” Nakib told me. 

She said that more demographic data about MENA-Americans could become weapons in the wrong hands, rather than a force that helps the well meaning. The data could lead to discrimination in housing, employment and college admissions. Or it could be used to “paint a certain narrative of overall middle eastern status in the US that could inflame public sentiment,” Nakib continued. 

“While I am grateful that we are now being recognized as our own category, given the state of current affairs in the US, our invisibility was a form of protection.”

About Wilson Dizard

Wilson Dizard is a freelance reporter and photojournalist covering politics, civil rights, drug policy and everything else. He lives in Brooklyn with his bicycle, camera and drum set.

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