Al-Dabbagh: Despite Trump’s decision, Arab Americans want their own Census box

Photo courtesy Rashad al-Dabbagh

The previous Census was held in 2010.

As an Anaheim resident and advocate for Arab Americans, I am often asked how many Arabs live in Anaheim, and more specifically in the city’s Little Arabia district. One can provide estimates based on Census surveys, but the truth is there are no reliable and accurate data available on our community. According to the federal government, Arabs are White and the Trump Administration announced that it intends to keep it this way.

Last week the Census Bureau announced that the 2020 Census would not include a new “Middle Eastern or North African” category, rescinding its previous commitment to add it in its race and ethnicity data collection for the 2020 Census. The Bureau had previously included the MENA category in its 2015 form as a “test run” leading up to the decennial Census.

For decades, Arab American organizations nationally and locally have lobbied for Arab Americans to be counted in a broader MENA category in order to accurately represent the millions of Americans of Middle Eastern and North African heritage. In 2010, an Orange County-based ad hoc committee launched an awareness campaign targeting Arab Americans using the slogan, “check it right you ain’t White” to encourage them to self-identify on the Census form.

Accurate Census information ensures equal opportunity access to public resources, particularly for historically marginalized groups. Data from each decennial census affects how the government spends over $400 billion in federal and state funding. Since Arabs aren’t identified, they lose out.

The form currently includes as many as 29 racial and ethnic groups, such as White, Black, Hispanic, Latino, Spanish Origin, American Indian, Alaska Native, Asian, Native Hawaiian, Other Pacific islander, German, African American, Mexican, Navajo, Asian Indian, Samoan, and Tongan.

A decade ago, I was a staff member of the Census Bureau’s partnership program reaching out to Arab, Middle Eastern, and Muslim communities in the Southern California region. My job was to ensure that we reach out to these “hard-to-count” communities and inform them why the Census is important, simple, and safe. During my time with the Census Bureau, I went to community centers, events, festivals, markets, Middle Eastern churches, mosques, private schools, and elsewhere to speak to the targeted communities.

On a Sunday afternoon, I spoke from a Coptic Church pulpit about the importance of filling out the Census form to a hall full of worshipers. During the Q&A session after, a healthcare advocate in the audience mentioned how having accurate data about the MENA communities is critical to address diseases that are ethnic-specific, such as the prevalence of diabetes among Arab Americans or hepatitis C among Egyptian immigrants.

During an outreach event at a mosque, there were a lot of questions on civic empowerment. One example I provided is Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act, which protects minority language populations, determined by the Census, by ensuring the availability of foreign language ballots and translation services at polling places. Arabic is excluded.

The creation of the MENA category is critical to improving the data collected of our communities in order to monitor discrimination and civil right violations more effectively, help Arab-American owned businesses get federal grants and loans, and address health issues specific to the community.

March 31st is the final deadline for the Census Bureau to submit the final question content to Congress for approval. Despite the Trump Administration’s decision to reject the MENA category,  we will continue to fight for the needs of our community and demand that congress takes action to ensure a full and accurate count of our community.

Rashad Al-Dabbagh lives in Anaheim and is the founder/director of the Arab American Civic Council

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