In the U.S., Middle Eastern and North African communities wish there were more options for specific ethnic categories on the census, a once-a-decade nationwide population count. (U.S. Census Bureau)
Arcadia High School

The decades-long fight for a Middle Eastern and North African census category

The United States Middle Eastern and North African population has fought for recognition and lobbied for their own racial category on the census for more than 30 years.

The decennial census count decides how nearly $2 billion in annual federal funding will be distributed in communities across the nation, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

However, certain U.S. racial groups have historically been considered “hard to count.” This HTC label comprises populations that are difficult to locate, interview, persuade, and/or contact, according to a 2018 report by the U.S. Census Bureau.

The U.S. MENA population is a hard to count population, according to youth-oriented nonprofit Count the Nation’s website.

Authorized by Article I of the U.S. Constitution, the American population is enumerated and recorded every 10 years — called a decennial count. The census shapes the way political power and federal tax dollars are distributed every decade, according to NPR.

The Obama administration introduced a proposal to mandate federal agencies to categorize MENA as a distinct ethnic and racial category in 2015. However, these efforts fell through under the Trump administration, and the 2020 census will not include a MENA category.

MENA advocate Rashad Al-Dabbagh has fought for the census category issue for years, and told LAist he was disappointed to see the issue dismissed by the Trump administration.

He told LAist that he lives among the highest concentration of Arab Americans in California — the Little Arabia neighborhood of Anaheim — but there’s no accurate data of exactly how many MENA immigrants live there.

This lack of information has affected the number and type of translators at nearby polling stations, along with the accessibility of a multitude of other vital community resources, Al-Dabbagh said to LAist.

The census is a keystone in maintaining a democratic country that can account for everyone, including people of all races, genders, locations and income levels. Census data dictates the number of congressional seats and Electoral College votes that each U.S. state receives and is drawn on by U.S. businesses and emergency responders alike.

According to a survey conducted by Census Bureau researcher, Maryann Chapin, hard to count populations face challenges like language barriers, low literacy rates, lack of internet access and homelessness.

In these circumstances, census organizers face issues like trying to track individuals who aim to remain hidden and very mobile populations like refugees and displaced populations. Individuals who live beyond physical barriers like gated communities are also considered challenging to count.

Hard to count populations may also be skeptical of the government and thus, have low levels of civic engagement. This can deter the inclination to take part in filling out the census.

Count the Nation’s website references the 2018 American Community Survey one-year estimates with Arab Americans as “a rough proxy for the MENA community.”

According to Count the Nation, over one in five Arab Americans speak English less than “very well,” and 23% of Arab Americans face poverty, which surpasses the national poverty rate of about 13%.

Half of Arab Americans rent their residences, and renters are challenging to count for a multitude of reasons including the temporary status of their residences and the types of housing in which they live, according to the Census Bureau website.

However, whether or not these statistics are even close to accurate for all MENA people is unclear, making it difficult to draw definite conclusions. The uncertainty that meets this question is viewed by MENA advocates as a reason why the category should be added to the census.

“When it comes to specific communities … we [must] understand where our community [is] and what our numbers are to safely secure the resources the community needs,” Maya Berry, executive director of the Arab American Institute, told LAist. “It’s hard for [the MENA community] to take no for an answer, because the system itself tested it.”

Age also plays a factor in making populations hard to count. According to Count the Nation’s website, young people of color can be particularly difficult to count.

Men of color have higher undercount rates than women. As it turns out, 54% of the Arab American population is male, which is higher than the national average by about 5%, all of which count toward establishing the MENA community as a chronically undercounted group, according to the ACS-1 estimates.

In a sample test under the Obama administration two years ago, Census Bureau researchers deduced that the results of the research prove that it is “optimal” to use a dedicated MENA response category” since the presence of the category significantly decreased the percentage of respondents identifying as white.

Arcadia High School French teacher Madame Christina Vaughan, who is known by her students for her political passion and strong opinions, shared her thoughts on the addition of a MENA census category.

Vaughan said it would make sense to have a MENA category, since there is a significant population, but there’s also the issue of having other options for everyone.

“There will always be those who want yet another category to be added … and that gets very cumbersome,” Vaughan said.

Arcadia High School AP Comparative Government and Politics teacher Mike Pasqua mentioned that the specific subgroup options exist for races such as Asians or Latino, but these specifications do not exist for other races. He said he saw the lack of a MENA category as an accuracy issue.

The MENA community continues to fight for visibility in hopes of gaining a specially designated category on a future census.