The Census Bureau would no longer classify Arab Americans as “white” under a new proposal from the Obama administration.
The White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is floating a new racial category that would include not only Arab Americans, but also anyone whose heritage can be traced to the Middle East or North Africa.
Civil rights advocates hailed the proposal as a victory for Arab Americans, which the government considers white, rather than black, Asian, or Hispanic, for the purpose of counting the population.
Expanding the census to include Arab Americans would help the government enforce voter rights and prevent discrimination, advocates say. The data could also help medical professionals identify health issues that are particularly problematic for Arab Americans.
“We want to be counted in the census as Arab Americans,” said Samer Khalaf, president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.
“Right now, Arab Americans are defined as white,” he added. "It doesn’t matter what country we come from or what we look like, we’re white."
The White House is seeking public comment before it moves forward with the plan to update the rules ahead of the 2020 census. In a Federal Register noticed issued last week, the government said it is considering how to characterize Middle Eastern people in the population survey.
The proposal would give Arab Americans the opportunity to self-identify as someone of “Middle Eastern or North African” descent for the population study, but it would not be mandatory.
"The language used to describe race and ethnicity changes over time, and while some terminology continues to resonate with group members, other expressions may fall out of favor,” the White House wrote in the proposal.
Civil rights advocates downplayed any "post-9/11” privacy concerns that Arab Americans may have about government surveillance.
The Census Bureau is prohibited under federal law from sharing information, even with other federal agencies, according to Terry Ao Minnis, director of census and voting programs at Asian Americans Advancing Justice.
“Our community is always fearful about something like this,” Khalaf said. “That’s something that may affect the quality of the count, because people may not fill it out because they are afraid.
“But at the end of the day, there are so many other things we’re losing because we’re not being counted,” he added.