Data Segregation: The Problem with the Census

By Yousef Nagib

April 20, 2020

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Racism against Americans of Middle Eastern/North African descent is embedded into the US Census. Every 10 years, the United States Census Bureau conducts a survey meant to properly account for the population of the United States of America. Its function is to accumulate data regarding the racial, ethnic, gender, and economic background of all Americans, as well as an understanding of the population density of the country. Using this data, the US government distributes resources, as well as updates the number of representatives each US state is to have in the US House of Representatives. This data is also used by many corporations and private research institutes. This year, with the census coming around, I remember these words:

“… it seems to be true beyond question that the generally received opinion was that the inhabitants of a portion of Asia, including Syria, were to be classed as white persons…”

This is some of the language from the 1915 U.S. Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit decision in Dow V. United States. The decision in this case set a standard which still holds today. That those people from the region comprising the Middle East and North Africa, today defined by the acronym MENA, are legally white in the United States. As a result of this, people of MENA descent in the United States are required to classify themselves as “white” in any official documents which request the race of the person filling it out. While being legally white may sound like a privilege, for MENA Americans, it’s much more of a burden.

The status of being legally white, in practice, is rooted in the concept of white privilege. If you are white, the logic goes that you have white privilege, (that is, your life experience is not made more difficult on the basis of your race) and therefore minority-targeting programs, aid, and assistance need not be directed your way. Instead, these things are directed towards legal racial minorities who need them, such as Americans of Black African, Native American, Latin American, and Asian descent. However, Americans of MENA descent do not have the white privilege enjoyed by Americans of European descent. MENA Americans have names, appearances, cultural heritages, and practices noticeably distinct from those of European Americans. Even socially, it’s no secret that they aren’t seen as white. Americans of MENA descent frequently face public discrimination like comments or stares, just like every other racial minority in the United States. But racial discrimination against MENA Americans isn’t limited only to social factors. It affects the community on a tangible, socioeconomic level too. According to a study published in Sociological Forum by sociologists Daniel Widner and Stephen Chicoine, employment discrimination against Arab Americans skyrocketed following the 9/11 attacks. Widner and Chicoine sent two similar fake resumes, one with a typical white-sounding name and one with a typical Arab-sounding name, to 265 jobs over a 15 month period. Their study showed that “an Arab male applicant needed to send two resumes to every one resume sent by a white male applicant to receive a callback for an interview by the hiring personnel.” From this, the researchers drew the conclusion that the difference in callbacks had a basis in racially discriminatory hiring practices towards applicants of Arab descent. Arab, of course, is often used (inaccurately) as a catch-all term for all people of MENA descent. This study is ample evidence of the racial discrimination that MENA Americans have faced in this country in the years following the 9/11 attacks. A racial group that had previously been effectively invisible has been subjected to far more noticeable and common xenophobia and racism in the aftermath of the attacks.

Legally identifying MENA Americans as white is an inaccurate accounting of population data commonly known as data segregation. An improperly designed census leads to an improper representation of people, leaving any erased groups with effective second-class status. It’s a subtle, sneaky type of systemic racism which leaves Americans of MENA descent without the assistance that many of us desperately need, with the social and cultural hurdles we face in a post 9/11 America.

I spoke with an anonymous Classical student of MENA descent about how this issue affects the lives of people of MENA background in the US. They told me that “the terminology of the census needs to change and that there needs to be more options for people to truly identify themselves.” We discussed the humiliation of feeling erased when bubbling in “white” on official forms, as well as direct and noticeable ways in which this affects the lives of MENA Americans. When I asked if they could speak to a particular way this affects their life, they told me “the main thing I can think of is college and scholarships. Many scholarships and grants are there to help minorities, yet because of having to identify as white, I’m not considered a minority, so I’m not able to get that aid.” Institutions which were created for the purpose of serving minority populations are denied to MENA Americans, because we are erased by the system. On a personal note, my own brother and I were denied admission to a charter school at a very young age. The basis for this denied admission was that the school had filled its quota for white students, and since we were legally defined as white, they couldn’t admit us. While this didn’t necessarily affect my day to day life, it changed my upbringing and my educational experience. This has undoubtedly been the experience of other young MENA Americans and will continue to be if something is not changed. The conclusion that can be drawn from that is that MENA Americans are disproportionately underrepresented in charter schools all over the country, or any schools with race-based admissions quotas. See now why this is called data segregation?

The purpose of the US Census is to properly account for everybody in the country. However, MENA Americans are currently not properly accounted for. Instead, they are swept under the blanket category of white— a term which does not accurately reflect their experience in this country. The solution to this problem is really quite simple: The US Census Bureau must add a Middle Eastern/North African racial category, in order to accurately reflect the racial makeup of the country and ensure equal rights and assistance for as many Americans as possible.

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