Photo illustration by John Lyman

U.S. News


How the U.S. Census Penalizes Arab Americans

The exact number of Middle Eastern residents in the United States is unclear, with estimates ranging from 1.8 to 3.7 million people. The uncertainty is not primarily due to undocumented immigration, poor data maintenance, or limited survey reach, but how the U.S. Census Bureau classifies individuals of Middle Eastern descent. While federal demographic databases typically include five categories (Hispanic, non-Hispanic White, African American/Black, Asian/Pacific Islander, and American Indian or Alaska Native), those of Middle Eastern ancestry do not fit neatly into any of these groups. The federal government and the U.S. Census Bureau address this concern by classifying white as “a person having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa.”

This categorization originated from the 19th-century wave of Arab immigration when being classified as white in the United States provided clear advantages such as access to citizenship, legislative programs, and governmental employment. Arab immigrants campaigned to avoid being categorized as Asian, and arguments were made based on Social Darwinism and Christian superiority, as the majority of the initial immigrants were Christian Arabs. They argued that if Jesus, who was from the same region, was the son of God and at the top of the social pyramid alongside Anglo-Saxons, then Lebanese and Syrian immigrants were also white.

This theory faced legal challenges in 1909 when George Shishim, a Lebanese American police officer in L.A. County, arrested the son of a prominent lawyer. The lawyer and his son argued that Shishim, due to his Asian race, was not a U.S. citizen and had no right to arrest U.S. citizens. At the time, Shishim argued, “If I am Mongolian, then so was Jesus, because we came from the same land.” Arab American community leaders rallied around Shishim and hired attorney Byron C. Hanna. In response to the argument, Judge Hutton of the Superior Court of Los Angeles ruled that Shishim was eligible for citizenship and that Lebanese and Syrians belonged to the “white race.” This classification gradually extended to all individuals of Middle Eastern and North African descent across the United States.

While this classification initially benefited Arab Americans, it presented challenges in policy formulation as the United States embraced multiculturalism. Arab individuals are not commonly viewed as white and often have different socio-cultural backgrounds. These differences have significant policy implications. For example, if policymakers or researchers wanted to study alcohol consumption prevalence among Arab residents in California, public health data would not provide specific categories for Arab and European respondents. This lack of differentiation makes crafting effective policy increasingly difficult. Sociology professor Kristine J. Ajrouch, who studies Alzheimer’s disease among Arab Americans, faces this difficulty in her research. “[The current classifications] make it very difficult to identify Middle Eastern and North African individuals or those of Arab ancestry.”

The current categorization prevents Arab Americans from accessing policy programs designed for minority groups. Minority-owned businesses often receive specific advantages in government contracts through local, state, and federal programs. Despite being a minority group, Arab-owned businesses do not benefit from these programs. Legislative actions, such as Executive Order 13769, labeled the “Muslim travel ban” by critics 0f the former Trump administration, which disproportionately impacted travel from many Arab countries, have targeted Arab communities, raising the question of whether Arab Americans are viewed and treated as white. Samer Khalaf, President of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, believes otherwise, arguing, “We’re counted as ‘white,’ but we’re not treated as ‘white.’ We have the ‘no-fly’ lists, and we’re subjected to heightened security wherever we go.”

However, there is a possibility of change in the 2030 Census, as it might include a “Middle Eastern or North African” option. During preparations for the 2020 Census, researchers concluded that a MENA category “helps respondents to more accurately report their MENA identities.” However, a lack of approval from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) during the Trump administration prevented the implementation of this plan. In 2021, the Biden administration confirmed that it had reviewed the proposal. If the OMB approves a MENA classification before the finalization of the 2030 Census, it could appear on the nationwide survey for the first time in U.S. history.

Racial categorization is an ever-evolving concept in the United States, and the classification of white has often been contentious. However, beyond symbolic portrayals of group identity, this categorization has significant legislative implications. Not tracking the unique cultural, linguistic, and social patterns found in Arab communities hinders the creation of effective policy. Cities and states across the United States must act and include a Middle Eastern and North African racial option on official surveys in order to pursue effective legislation.