Posted on April 5, 2019

Are Arabs and Iranians White? Census Says Yes, But Many Disagree

Sarah Parvini and Ellis Simani, Los Angeles Times, March 28, 2019


Roughly 3 million people of Southwest Asian, Middle Eastern or North African descent live in the United States, according to a Los Angeles Times analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data. No county is home to more of these communities than Los Angeles, where more than 350,000 people can trace their roots to a region that stretches from Mauritania to the mountains of Afghanistan.

In past census surveys, more than 80% in this group have called themselves white, The Times analysis found.


Arab and Iranian communities for years have lobbied the bureau to create a separate category for people of Middle Eastern or North African descent.

Over the last decade, it seemed the tide would turn — the Obama administration was considering proposals to ask questions about race and ethnicity in a different way, shifting not only how the government would count the Middle Eastern community, but the Latino population as well.

In 2018, however, the bureau announced that it would not include a “MENA” category. Instead, the next survey will ask participants who check “white” or “black” to write in their “origins” for the first time. Lebanese and Egyptian are among the suggestions under white.

For many, a write-in doesn’t go far enough because they identify as people of color. The bureau’s move was seen as a blow to a group already grappling with feelings of invisibility. {snip}

“We are our own community,” said Rashad Al-Dabbagh, executive director of the Arab American Civic Council in Anaheim. “It’s as if we don’t count.”


In addition to those resources, advocates argue, the “white” label could hurt universities and companies that use the information to promote diversity and could result in the gathering of little or no statistical data on important issues, such as health trends in the community.

Maya Berry, executive director of the Arab American Institute, said this lack of proper representation has “deprived our community of access to basic services and rights,” such as language assistance at polling places and educational grants.


In 2015, the census bureau tested creating new categories — including MENA. Government research showed that Middle Eastern and North African people would check the MENA box if given the option. Without it, they would opt for white or “some other race.”

“The results of this research indicate that it is optimal to use a dedicated ‘Middle Eastern or North African’ response category,” a 2017 census report said.


A Times analysis found that more than 80% of individuals of Southwest Asian, Middle Eastern or North African descent called themselves white in past census surveys.

Experts say that generational divide is a common split within the Middle Eastern and North African community. For some, it stems from the notion of being from the Caucasus region — and therefore, literally Caucasian — and for others, identifying as white became a means of survival in a new country.


Prior to the 2010 census, the Arab and Iranian communities in Southern California teamed up to spread a message: “Check it right, you ain’t white!”


Some feel the census should follow the UC system’s example.

Nearly a decade ago, students successfully pushed for UC to add a Middle Eastern category on undergraduate admissions applications. In 2013, the University of California became one of the first in the country to track data from students in a new category — “Southwest Asian/North African,” or SWANA — that included people of both Middle Eastern and North African descent. More than 10,000 freshmen applicants checked the box last year, nearly 5% of the total.

The University of California’s Southwestern Asian and North African group includes more countries than the census bureau’s Middle Eastern and North African category.

Students said they lobbied for the change on UC admissions applications because they felt “the Middle Eastern community has formed into an ‘invisible’ minority.” They settled on the term SWANA because they believed the term Middle Eastern was “problematic” due to its “colonial and Orientalist origins,” according to the resolution.

The category also expands on the census’ 2015 definition of who would be considered Middle Eastern by including Armenians and Afghans, among others.