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For Some Americans Of MENA Descent, Checking A Census Box Is Complicated

For years, advocates have pushed the Census Bureau for a box for people of Middle Eastern or North African descent. Now, the bureau recommends one. Some worry the data may be misused in surveillance.
Chelsea Beck
For years, advocates have pushed the Census Bureau for a box for people of Middle Eastern or North African descent. Now, the bureau recommends one. Some worry the data may be misused in surveillance.

When Atoosa Moinzadeh filled out past census forms, she found herself in a racial identification conundrum. Moinzadeh identifies as Iranian American. But the census forms don't have a box for Iranian American. The closest she could come to identifying herself the way she wanted was to choose the box for "white," which had "Middle East" listed as an example.

That wasn't quite right for her.

"I've always identified as not white, and so the expectation to check off 'white' on forms has never felt accurate to me," Moinzadeh said. She has brown skin and grew up in a white neighborhood in a Seattle suburb. Like many other people of Middle Eastern or North African descent, the world did not treat Moinzadeh as white. And so, on past census forms, Moinzadeh would select the box for "other" and write in "Iranian American."

For Alex Shams, an anthropology grad student in Chicago, whose mother is a white Christian and whose father is a Muslim immigrant from Iran, the question of which identification to choose was always puzzling — especially since he could pass as white. Sometimes he chose to identify as "other" on official forms, including the census, and if there was no option for that, he'd select "white" or "Asian." But the bullying and discrimination he faced growing up in Los Angeles made him aware he was not white. After the 9/11 attacks, he recalled, kids at his evangelical Christian school would whisper "Saddam Hussein" in his face.

"I think I've really come to realize that in the wake of the war in Iraq ... I began to see myself as Middle Eastern, and I began to identify with that because that's how I was being seen and perceived by people around me," said Shams, who has penned a piece investigating the complicated question of whether or not Iranians are people of color.

Now, after years of advocacy groups pressuring the U.S. Census Bureau to create a separate geographic category for people of Middle Eastern or North African (MENA) descent, the bureau is recommending that MENA be added to the 2020 census. That could mean that the approximately 3.7 million Arab-Americans in the U.S. might have their own box to check off.

Collecting accurate demographic information is crucial, especially for ethnic minority communities, since data gleaned from census forms affects funding for services such as voter protections or English as a second language programs in schools, and also is included in research on topics like housing discrimination. And in 2015, when the bureau tested potential new categories, including MENA, it found that people of Middle Eastern or North African descent would check off the MENA box when it was available; when it wasn't, they'd select white.

But with policies and political rhetoric that are anti-immigrant, anti-refugee and anti-Muslim, some worry the MENA census category might be used against the very people it's supposed to include. "The downside is concerns about misuse of this data and how it could be used by the government in a time of national crisis," said Ibrahim Hooper, the communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Concerns like these have been around for almost as long as the census itself, which was started in 1790 to keep record of Americans.

Between 1880 and 1930, Congress and statisticians tried to create standards to mandate that census information couldn't be used for "taxation, regulation or investigation" or to "harm" a people or organizations, as explained by Margo Anderson, a history professor at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, in a related paper.

Circumventing those standards, the U.S. government used census data to locate and deliver more than 100,000 Japanese Americans to incarceration camps. This happened, Anderson pointed out, before the United States was an "equal opportunity, affirmative action, civil rights society" and when Japanese immigrants were considered "aliens ineligible for citizenship." She pointed out in a conversation with NPR that at the time, "nobody disputed the legal foundation for incarcerating" the so-called aliens.

In the case of Japanese Americans, the question was not "who was Japanese, but where did Japanese mainly live," said Kenneth Prewitt, a former director of the U.S. Census Bureau who is now a professor at Columbia University. "Yes, census data can be inappropriately used to target for attention particular neighborhoods where persons of MENA ancestry are concentrated," Prewitt said. But, he said, doing so would not be any more illegal than targeting "places where elderly people live, to know where to send rescue vehicles in case of flooding or power outings or where veterans live in order to place VA hospitals nearby. So the issue is not who clusters where but for what purposes is that information used."

Looking back, the incarceration of Japanese Americans and wartime relocation was really "the result of ... prejudice, wartime hysteria and a failure of political leadership," Anderson told NPR. "Because the political has shifted so radically [today], we're going to have a really complicated debate about this."

A key player in the MENA category debate is Maya Berry, executive director of the Arab American Institute, one of a handful of advocacy groups pushing for its inclusion in the next census. "The whole point of all of this is that it is about arriving at better data," Berry told NPR in the fall. "There are many in our community who do identify as white, who do identify as black and brown and everything in between. And I think that's the point... It allows us to identify the way we want to identify."

Berry acknowledged that census data has been used before to monitor Americans, and said that concerns the data might be misappropriated are fair. She pointed to the New York Police Department's so-called demographics unit, which the NYPD hoped would be an "early warning system for terrorism" but never yielded any leads. Following outcry, it was disbanded in 2014.

"The elements of our government that have wanted to do heightened surveillance in our community, they've done so without requiring this category," Berry said. She concludes that if the government wants to monitor Muslims, or Americans of Middle Eastern or North African descent, which it has done in the past, it will find a way. The MENA category, Berry said, would be an opportunity for the community to get of policy makers to show more of their needs in areas including education, voter protections, language resources.

And that's the complicated part, according to Jamal Abdi, the policy director of the National Iranian American Council, one of the nonpartisan groups that previously pushed for the MENA category. "This census issue is sort of the frontline of it," he said. "Just identifying as Iranian-American is something that's viewed as dangerous." The whole point of NIAC, he said, is to help Iranian-Americans build political power by identifying themselves. He thinks it would be difficult for the government to misuse the data, but acknowledges that this sentiment would be hard to convey to NIAC's constituents, who've long been wary of the government. "I just don't think there's going to be much reception to self-identifying as Iranian-American right now," Abdi said, because some fear the "protection of your rights is under assault by the administration."

"The difficult thing about this issue is that it comes and goes with intensity. And when it hits, it hits like a firestorm."

Prewitt, the former director of the U.S. Census Bureau, underscored in an email that the various census protections are not easily set aside. "The census has strong procedures to protect the confidentiality of individuals," Prewitt said, "and efforts to circumvent those procedures, I am confident, would be successfully resisted by the Bureau." He said that to round up residents based on nationality would, "of course, be a 'misuse' of census data, and [he] suspect[s] would be so ruled by courts."

"The difficult thing about this issue is that it comes and goes with intensity," Anderson, the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee professor, said. "And when it hits, it hits like a firestorm."

If the Census Bureau's recommendation for the new MENA category moves forward through Congress, people like Moinzadeh and Shams could see part of their identity better reflected on the 2020 census. And in their eyes, at least, that acknowledgment is good.

Wassim Hassan, a Dartmouth student, identifies as an African Muslim American. On official forms, including the census, he selects "African American" or "black." And even if the census adds a new MENA category, which in theory could work for him, he said he would prefer not to use that box. As a Muslim and as an Egyptian-American with darker skin, Hassan said "black" aligns better with his identity, more so than "white" or "MENA."

"We need to show people that we're here and that we've always been here, and that Islam isn't a new religion in the country, and that Muslims and Middle Easterners have been a part of this fabric."

"The growing fear is that actually signing up [in the census] and becoming visible is a double-edged sword, that one, you could assert your rights, and two, you could be targeted," Shams said. "One thing I've come to understand and become very passionate about in the wake of the ban on the Muslim countries ... is we need to show people that we're here and that we've always been here, and that Islam isn't a new religion in the country, and that Muslims and Middle Easterners have been a part of this fabric."

Moinzadeh said that racism is so much more than what one can check off on the census. "I get why some MENA folks may choose white because it feels safer, but to me, it won't save them. .... If there was a MENA box, I would do it," she said.

However, she was quick to point out that even a MENA box on the census isn't a perfect solution. It lumps together a non-monolithic group of people of varying skin tones, from different geographic places who speak various languages.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: March 10, 2017 at 11:00 PM CST
A previous version of this story incorrectly utilized "Arab American" to refer to people of Middle Eastern or North African descent.
Kat Chow is a reporter with NPR and a founding member of the Code Switch team. She is currently on sabbatical, working on her first book (forthcoming from Grand Central Publishing/Hachette). It's a memoir that digs into the questions about grief, race and identity that her mother's sudden death triggered when Kat was young.
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