Ajnabieh - The Foreigner (ajnabieh) wrote,
Ajnabieh - The Foreigner

The 2010 Census and Arab-Americans

The 2010 Census is a major topic among Arab-Americans; they're one of the one of the historically undercounted ethnic groups that the Census Bureau has reached out to, and Arab-American institutions are being heavily recruited to help ensure Arabs get counted. (Of course, I'm also interested in the Census personally, since I don't get counted so well either.) I've seen three interesting things in this regard lately.

1. Ray Hanania is Mr. Centrist in Arab American politics. The Chicago journalist's blog is called Defining the Moderate Arab Voice, when many Arab Americans would argue that the constant requirement that Arabs call themselves moderate only reinforced the notion that all other Arabs are dangerous radicals. He also writes a regular column for the Jerusalem Post, a center-right Israeli paper; for a Palestinian to do that says quite a lot. He's a strong voice for Arab communities, particularly his own, but he's not a guy with radical politics.

So I was flabbergasted by his column on the Census, in which he openly lobbies for Arabs not to participate, and for Arab institutions not to assist the Census. He argues that, Census after Census, Arabs have been encouraged to participate and put lots of community resources into it, but they haven't gotten anything out of it--particularly, no specific government benefits or jobs. So why do it? Don't bother.

Given the amount of work that the Arab American Institute and others in the community have put into Census issues (Helen Samhan testified in Congress the week Hanania wrote this post), this is a shot across the bow. I wonder what response it got? None that I've seen, but that's not definitive.

2. Among the great ironies of Arab life in the US is that Arabs and other Middle Easterners are legally white in the eyes of government categorization. The reasons for this are complicated; basically, first wave Syrian/Lebanese Christian immigrants who arrived as part of the great wave of Southern and Eastern European immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th century successfully lobbied to be considered white under naturalization law, which only allowed for free white persons to become US citizens. (This was during the period of the Asian Exclusion Act; not a good time to be ambivalently white.) Because the folks in question were Christian, phenotypically no darker than other European immigrants of the time, and generally working their way into the middle class, their petition to become white folks was accepted. Fast forward seventy years to the 1990s. Arabs and Muslims are highly stigmatized in pop culture and politics: they're the terrorist bad guys in every movie, their campaign contributions get returned, their political opinions go unheard. Classifying Arab Americans as white, and leaving them ineligible for protection and benefits under federal guidelines, seems vaguely insulting in this context. Worse, for scholars of the community, this means that information on Arab ancestry was only collected on the long form, which structurally undercounts small groups like Arab Americans. (This year, in fact, the long form has been eliminated entirely.) This is when the campaign to add an 'Arab' or 'Middle Eastern' origin question, parallel to the Hispanic origin question, began.

Skip forward to an email I just received from NAAP-NY.

Subject: CENSUS 2010! Check it right, YOU ain’t white!

Hello NAAP-NY members and friends!

We are partnering with dozens of Arab-American organizations to ensure that our community is counted for the 2010 Census! The collective awareness campaign aims to show the government that our community is growing and help Arab-Americans compete for some $400 billion in government funds for community programs, schools, parks and roads.

The Census Questionnaire is being mailed out to every household as we speak – you may have already received it. In past Census counts, we have been lumped into the 'White' category which as you know doesn't reflect our background and diversity as a community. To ensure continuity across our community responses please do the following:

1. Check "Other" instead of "White" on the race portion.
2. In the box next to other, note "Arab" or "Arab-American" or even your country of origin.
3. Mail back the form!

It is THAT easy! All information submitted on the Census form remains CONFIDENTIAL.

Of course, the great irony of this is that, if Arab-Americans write "Arab" or "Arab-American" in, they will be recoded as white by the Census coders. As the AAI 2010 Census Arab-American Toolkit says:

According to the Office of Management and Budget’s federal guidelines on race and ethnic measurement, persons from the Middle East and North Africa are considered White/Caucasian by race. When filling out the Census, some Arab Americans choose to select “Some Other Race” and write in their ethnicity or countries of origin. Although these responses are tabulated by the Census Bureau, by law they must be reassigned to an existing race category for purposes of published reports, redistricting, etc. AAI is working with the Census Bureau to get access to these Arab responses to “Some Other Race” for research purposes.

I have no idea where NAAP-NY's statement came from, or what they think they're doing in advocating for this. I do think this is fascinating--that it's right to code oneself as non-white, as if it might make a difference.

3. I've spoken before about my love of the Brooklyn Public Library, in particular my neighborhood branch, Windsor Terrace. I was there with my son the other day, because it was a convenient place to let him run around in the middle of a 4 day rainstorm with no open gym days at the Y. (Besides--irony!--my wife was taking the Census test.) As we ran around, I noticed the large posters advertising the Census, both as employer and as something you should fill out. As is usual in New York, there were posters in several languages: English, Spanish, and...Arabic?

(download the poster here to see it larger)

Windsor Terrace and Kensington, the neighborhoods I live it (the accepted transition between them is a block from my house; I live in WT, but my grocery store, post office, and drug store are all in Kensington) is not a neighborhood with a sizable Arab population, as far as I can tell. Personally, I know that Mo, the owner of the bodega on my block, is Yemeni (and likes to have someone to greet in Arabic in the neighborhood), and the permit on the door of the bodega on the way to the playground lists Arab names. At the library that day, there was one mother with her kids who might have been Arab, by accent and hijab style, and one kid checking his Facebook who had friends' status messages about Palestine. But that's in a library with nearly a hundred people in it, where Spanish was being spoken by maybe a third of the families there, with five shelves of books in Russian and two in Bengali to half a shelf in Arabic. That is to say, while there are some Arabs in my neighborhood that I see, there isn't a huge population.

And the 2007 ACS (American Community Survey, which annually collects detailed demographic data from a statistical sample of the US population) data agrees with me. The numbers I crunched for my dissertation suggest that only a very small percentage of the Arab-Americans in New York live in my neighborhood. The three Public Use Microdata Areas that collectively contain the neighborhood that might go to my library branch (as well as a bunch of other folks, probably) contain collectively 3.3% of the Arabs in New York City; considering that each PUMA should contain about 2% of the city's population, that means there are fewer than the mean. By comparison, the PUMA containing Bay Ridge, 4013, contains 13.1% of the Arabs in New York; the one containing Astoria has 6.8%, and the one containing Bensonhurst and Coney Island has 8.3%. And those are any one with either a first or second ancestry in the Arab world; in my whole-city sample, about half of people with Arab ancestry were US-born (so probably speak English, either has a first language or from childhood), and over 65% speak only English or speak English well. My copy of SPSS has expired (hey! I'm an ethnographer, how often do I need to run correlations?), and I'm on vacation so not able to go run numbers at my university, but I'd wager that, if I did a language breakdown of residents in the three relevant PUMAs, I'd find that fewer than 1% of the people in it speak Arabic at home. Of course, the ACS data could be a serious undercount. But combined with my perception as someone who's lived in the hood nearly five years, and who is fairly sensitive to finding Arabs, I'd need a lot of evidence to say I'm wrong.

What worries me here is that Arab is serving as a proxy for Muslim. Kensington leading into Coney Island Avenue has a reasonably large South Asian population, and a heavily Muslim one; there are two masajid walking distance from my house (and on a clear, quiet day I could probably hear the adhan from the nearer), in addition to many Bengali bakeries and restaurants; there are many women who wear hijab and nikab as a part if their daily dress, and on Fridays, many men wear jellabiyyas and kufis to go to jumaa. And I'm guessing if I ran that language breakdown, the five most spoken languages in the neighborhood would be English, Spanish, Bengali, Russian, and then either Yiddish, Hebrew, or maybe Urdu. (Actually, Hebrew or Yiddish might be higher up that list, given that the PUMAs in question stretch into the heavily Orthodox areas of Borough Park.) Is it possible that folks in the neighborhood, who aren't sensitive to the nuances of Muslim identity, see women with covered faces and think, oh, we need Arabic? Probably not out of any malicious intent, but I could absolutely see it happening.

There was another multilingual display in the library lobby: for ESL and citizenship classes at the local school. It was printed in English, Spanish, Bengali...and Arabic.

I guess you take what you can get.

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Tags: brooklyn, census, race

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