Every decade when the United States counts its population, residents with roots in the Middle East and North Africa check boxes they may feel do not apply: “white,” “black” or “other race.”
But for the first time in more than 45 years, US authorities are considering adding a new racial category to census forms for people of Middle Eastern or North African descent, joining such categories as “African-American” or “Asian Indian.”
“This research aims to improve data on race and ethnicity so that we can provide our country with important information that reflects our growing racial and ethnic diversity,” Rachel Marks, a Census Bureau analyst, told AFP.
A review process is almost complete for the new category: “Middle East-North African”. But opinion among community members — most of whom are Muslim — is divided, with some welcoming the prospect of being counted in order to gain a greater political voice and others uneasy about standing out in a time of rising anti-Muslim rhetoric.
“In the Donald Trump era, we fear that this designation could be hurtful. Do we really want to give such a tool to someone who wants to ban Muslims from entering the US or to put them under surveillance?” asked Oussama Jammal, secretary-general of the US Council of Muslim Organizations.
The organization has yet to adopt a formal position on the matter.
Everyone agrees on one point, however: people of Iranian, Lebanese, Saudi and other origins are today facing a moment of decision, whether or not to choose their official racial category.
“Are we white? We’re certainly not black even if some of us come from Northern Africa. Is it a question of skin color? Of geographical origins? The dilemma faces everyone,” Jammal said.
In some countries, recording ethnic data is taboo. But in the United States, official statistics often include information on geographic origins or skin color. This allows local authorities to know, for example, that unemployment among blacks is twice that of whites. The census also determines how many seats each state has in the House of Representatives.
US census forms ask the question forthrightly — “What is this person’s race?” — and allow respondents to check one or more among 15 boxes. Toward the end of the 1990s, activist organizations began to call for people of Middle Eastern descent to be officially included.
But the attacks of September 11, 2001 and the fear that such information could be used against Muslims called the move into doubt. Controversy broke out in 2004 when the Census Bureau produced information on the locations of Americans who had declared their Middle-Eastern heritage during the 2000 census. (AFP) APK 11010136