The U.S. Census Bureau is weighing a new category to more accurately count Arab Americans. The proposed classification is referred to as “MENA,” for Middle Eastern-North African.
Arab American advocates say the idea is a long time coming.
“We’re an ethnic constituency, and the challenge is that sometimes the U.S. doesn’t do ethnicity very well because they’re fixated on race," said Maya Berry, executive director of the Arab American Institute in Washington, D.C.
Census bureau officials have been gathering input, public comments and opinions from experts and Arab American groups. They say they plan to test the category this fall as part of a national content test, in which they'll evaluate what goes into the next census
Berry says not having an accurate count of Arab Americans leaves this population at a disadvantage, in terms of everything from public services to political influence.
Efforts to add a category for Arab Americans date back decades. But in recent years, young activists have led their own charge.
There's a reason for this, said Rashad Al-Dabbagh, a 33-year-old community activist in Anaheim’s Little Arabia.
“In a post-9/11 world, a lot of people felt they’re not treated as white," Al-Dabbagh said. "Arabs and Middle Easterners are not treated as white at the airport, they are not treated as white at the workplace, they are not treated as white at the house of worship. So to pretend that we are white is not going to cut it anymore.”
It didn't go over well with everyone, he said, particularly older, assimilated Arab Americans.
"It took us a lot of effort to convince older generations to check the "other" box,' Al-Dabbagh said, "because many of them felt like they should check 'white."
Berry, who arrived in the U.S. as a child from Lebanon, said she personally identifies as a person of color. But she adds that with Arab Americans, it's difficult to put everyone into a neat box.
"Some of us are white, some of us are not," she said. "Some of us are black and identify that way. Some of identify as people of color - brown. We just don't fit in very nicely for some in terms of that category."
But she and Al-Dabbagh agree that in the post-9/11 era, the feeling of otherness has been heightened - and that this has informed the identity discussion.
Berry says she's hoping not for a racial category on census forms, but for an ethnic one, similar to the "Hispanic/Latino" category.
That's still to be decided, she said. Her group and other stakeholders plan to meet with census officials in the spring.
In the meantime, census officials are analyzing public input from a recently-closed comment period and reaching out to experts for suggestions. A bureau spokesman said the test results from later this year will be taken into account, and that officials plan to make a recommendation by summer of 2016.