In less than a year, the nation will conduct its once-a-decade census of the U.S. population. The 2010 Census will ask just ten basic questions about each household — like the name, age, gender, and race of each person living there. Arab Americans, who are not a legally recognized racial or ethnic minority, have no "box" to check and some have suggested we should boycott the Census for that reason. This begs the questions: Where do we fit and why should we care?
For other Arab Americans, racial classifications in the U.S. are confusing, counter-intuitive, or irrelevant. Those who have recently immigrated or who have come of age in the distinctly diversity-conscious America of the past several decades, often relate more with American minorities and people of color. The sting of racial profiling, discrimination, and cultural intolerance some have felt, especially since 9/11, has only added to the feeling of being distinct from the white majority.
So how should Arab Americans who cannot relate to the race options offered respond to the next census?
One option is to choose the "Some Other Race" category and write in your ethnic identity or national origin. This gives voice to our concern about the limits of current racial categories, but allows us to be counted for the primary reasons the census is collected: congressional apportionment, and distribution of federal funds to states and localities. Imagine the impact on the cities of Dearborn, Michigan, or Paterson, New Jersey if their sizable Arab American populations sat out the 2010 Census? Funds available for schools, roads, hospitals and other assets serving the entire community would come up short.
This option is not a perfect solution. The Census Bureau does not routinely publish the detailed data collected from the "Some Other Race" write-in box. Until the decennial "short form" is changed (hopefully by 2020) stakeholders like the Arab American Institute and others who study ethnic demographics will still rely on the data we get from the "Ancestry" question which is collected not on the decennial census (which goes to every household) but on the American Community Survey (ACS). The ACS samples the population every month of every year to measure important socio-economic trends beyond the basics: employment status, occupation, language proficiency and education level, among other indicators. While the data from Ancestry responses still under represent the Arab American population, which we believe has grown close to 4 million, it is still an important tool for community empowerment.
It is for this goal — empowerment — that Arab Americans should participate in the 2010 Census. It is more than just a civic responsibility or an exercise in demographic analysis. It is a tool to help the governed make informed choices, to benefit all our communities, and to reflect the rapidly changing diversity of our nation. And the Census Bureau takes seriously its mandate to ensure that the data collected is kept confidential and protected. By law, Census responses cannot be shared with anyone — not other federal agencies, not with law enforcement, not with local authorities. No one.
So my message to Arab Americans is this: When you get the Census form next spring in the mail — regardless of what race you choose to indicate — consider it one easy, safe and important step you can take to empower your family, your neighborhood, your community, and future generations of Arab Americans. It's in our hands. Be counted!
Helen Hatab Samhan is executive director of the Arab American Institute Foundation and its Census Information Center, and serves as Arab American representative to the Decennial Census Advisory Committee of the U.S. Census Bureau.