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US Census struggles with ‘white’ racial category

Some 3 million people of Southwest Asian, Middle Eastern or North African descent live in the United States, according to an analysis of US Census Bureau data. But are they "white"?

Published: April 7, 2019, 10:29 am

    In past US census surveys, more than 80 percent in these immigrants called themselves “white”, according to the analysis. Los Angeles is home to most of these immigrants where more than 350 000 of them live, the analysis by the Los Angeles Times showed.

    Arab and Iranian communities do not want to categorised as “white” however and they have lobbied the bureau for a separate racial category denoting people of Middle Eastern or North African descent.

    In 2018, the bureau stated that it would not be including the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) category for the census. Instead, the next survey will require that participants who previously checked “white” or “black”, to state their “origins” for the first time. On the new forms, Lebanese and Egyptian immigrants may be classified as “white”.

    But many complain that they identify as people of colour. “The bureau’s move was seen as a blow to a group already grappling with feelings of invisibility,” the LA Times reported. “We are our own community,” the executive director of the Arab American Civic Council in Anaheim, California complained. “It’s as if we don’t count.”

    Racial activists argue that the “white” label will damage claims of diversity. Maya Berry, executive director of the Arab American Institute, said being “white” has “deprived our community of access to basic services and rights,” such as funding and grants.

    Government research from 2015 showed that Middle Eastern and North African people would check the MENA box if given the option. The analysis found that more than 80 percent of individuals of Southwest Asian, Middle Eastern or North African descent, had called themselves “white” in past census surveys.

    Prior to the 2010 census, the Arab and Iranian communities in Southern California lobbied against whiteness however: “Check it right, you ain’t white!”

    But counting the MENA immigrants as whites has slowed down the rate at which the non-white percentage of the US is increasing, thus making immigration seem like less of a problem.

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