For years the federal government has classified Arab Americans and Middle Easterners as white. But confusion and disagreement have led some students to check “Asian” or “African,” depending on what part of the Middle East they came from. Some, like Salame, simply marked “Other.”
Now several UCLA student groups–including Arabs, Iranians, Afghanis and Armenians–have launched a campaign to add a Middle Eastern category, with various subgroups, to the University of California admissions application. They hope to emulate the Asian Pacific Coalition’s “Count Me In” campaign, which a few years ago successfully lobbied for the inclusion of 23 ethnic categories on the UC application, including Hmong, Pakistani, Native Hawaiian and Samoan.
The UCLA students said having their own ethnic designation goes beyond self-identity and has real implications for the larger Arab and Middle Eastern communities.
The “white” label can hurt them with universities and companies that use the information to promote diversity, they say, and can result in the gathering of little or no statistical data on important issues, such as health trends in the community. Voter-approved Proposition 209 bars California’s public colleges from considering race in admissions.
The Arab American Institute estimates that including Middle Easterners in the white category on the census has led to a population undercount of more than a million, said Helen Samhan, who works at the institute. There are more than 3 million Arabs in the United States, the institute says.
There is no count of Middle Easterners at UCLA. Student groups estimate that there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Persians and Arabs among the more than 40,000 students on campus.
Gualtieri is the author of a forthcoming book, “Between Arab and White: Race and Ethnicity in the Early Syrian American Diaspora,” that explores how Syrian immigrants, who were considered Asian, waged a legal battle in the early 1900s to be classified as white and thus eligible for citizenship. At the time some were barred by the courts under the Asian Exclusion Act.
That classification was cemented in the late 1970s when the Office of Management and Budget, a federal agency, listed all Middle Easterners as white.
But in the last few decades there has been a push to establish a separate category as the general population has grown more diverse and because of the possible benefits it could bring.
“Back then, to get rights you needed to be white,” said Yasi Chehroudi, president of the Iranian Student Group, which is helping spearhead the University of California campaign. “Now it helps to be yourself.”