Niraj Warikoo, Detroit Free Press, December 17, 2009
As a land of immigrants, the United States is home to people from all corners of the world.
And in the past, it has documented where its people hail from by using the U.S. census, conducted every 10 years as mandated in the Constitution.
But the 2010 census form–in a departure from 2000 and previous decades–will not contain a question asking people about their ancestry, prompting concern among metro Detroit’s diverse ethnic communities. Many in the sizable Arab-American population in metro Detroit–who have faced a host of challenges during the past 10 years–are particularly concerned.
Government officials say they eliminated the ancestry question along with several others because they wanted a shorter form that will make it easier for people to complete.
But ethnic groups are worried that they might lose their fair share of federal and private dollars since institutions often rely on census data to allocate funds.
Ethnic groups say ‘white’ isn’t enough on the 2010 census
With her light-brown skin and Islamic headscarf, Khadigah Alasry of Dearborn said she doesn’t see herself as white.
But the Arab American is officially classified as such by the U.S. government, which says that anyone with roots in the Middle East–including north Africa–is white.
“That’s just weird to me,” said Alasry, 23, born to immigrants from Yemen.
It’s also weird for thousands of other Americans who say they don’t fit into traditional categories of race in the United States. As the 2010 U.S. census prepares to tabulate millions of Americans, the issue of racial and ethnic identity is being debated as groups push to get their voices heard.
The census is conducted to get accurate population statistics that are used to determine the number of congressional seats and amount of government funding, and to ensure that minorities are not discriminated against.
“There is no such thing as white culture,” said Thaddeus Radzilowski, president of the Piast Institute, a Polish-American group in Hamtramck that is one of 56 census Information Centers in the United States and the only one in Michigan. Having the ancestry question “provides a better notion of our pluralistic society and who we are,” Radzilowski said.
Polish Americans and members of other European groups, such as German Americans–two of Michigan’s most common ethnicities on the 2000 census–are interested in keeping the ancestry question. But the issue has somewhat faded for them given that they, on average, are more culturally assimilated and not as visible in the post-Sept. 11 world as Arab Americans.
Discrimination and advantages
Since the 2000 census and 9/11, many Arab Americans say they have experienced bias. On the other hand, they also are being recruited for federal jobs and invited to participate in conversations with top U.S. leaders as the government finds itself involved in conflicts across the Middle East and the Muslim world.
“It’s unfair because we are not treated as white in society and by the government, but we also don’t qualify as minorities to get the benefits of some programs” such as minority contracts, said Imad Hamad, regional director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.
Still, Hamad and other Arab-American leaders are pushing Arab Americans to fill out the census forms because, in the end, they are part of wider communities, which would be adversely affected if there’s an undercount.
Whites and blacks are not given the choice to further specify what their backgrounds might be. In the past, one out of six households would receive a long form with 53 questions, one of them asking about ethnic origin.
Locke [Gary Locke, secretary of the Commerce Department] and census officials said the ancestry question will be retained under the American Community Survey, which is done every month. But that survey reaches a much smaller percentage of the population than the full census.
The imperfect racial label
Arab Americans and Chaldeans are 10 times more likely to identify their race as “other” as compared with the general population, according to the Detroit Arab American Study, a survey in 2003 of 1,000 Arabs and Chaldeans in metro Detroit.
“I’m often told by Arab Americans that they check ‘white’ on official forms but do not feel that they are ‘white white,’ ” Shryock said.
In 1997, Mostafa Hefny, an Egyptian-American Detroiter, filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Office of Management and Budget–which classified Arabs as white in 1977–in order to be classified as black. In the lawsuit, Hefny said, because of his dark skin and kinky hair, he was more African than blacks such as former Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer. The case was dismissed in 1998.