Up to this point, the United States Census has asked respondents to fill in their racial/ethnic identity every 10 years. The categories used for 2010 include White, Black, Asia, Pacific Islander, American Indian, “Other Race” and several national identities grouped under the Hispanic/Latino ethnicity. White includes people with origins from the Middle East and from North Africa.
For the past several years,Arab-American activists have been advocating for a separate category for Arabs. The argument for such an expansion is relatively straightforward - substantial numbers of Arab-Americans do not identify as white and are not treated as white in American society, and including this category will allow for more accurate statistics to help deliver services to this group.
However, trouble has come up in defining this category. Arab-American activists wanted to use the most expansive version of Arab used by the Arab League and to allow for indigenous groups that might not want to identify as Arabs, such as Amazigh (also known as Berbers), Kurds, Chaldean Christians, etc. to be listed as “sub-national groups”. American representatives of these groups protested and what is currently being proposed by the census is now is a “Middle East or North Africa” classification.
Even so, there is still opposition, with Amazigh-American activists in particular resisting being grouped with the “Middle East”. Among other things, they claim that this is a politicized definition that is part of the historical oppression of Amazigh identity by Arabs. In this video of a May 2015 Census Forum on the issue, (full forum is here), Amazigh-American activists raise several objections, including that the definition groups North Africans with Middle Eastern groups that do not share similar experiences, that it cuts off Americans descended from indigenous Amazigh/Berber/Touareg groups from Mid-Central Africa who share more with North African than North Africans do with Middle Eastern groups, and that it won’t be accurate in counting the community since many Amazigh-Americans would reject the Middle East label. They argue instead for entirely separate categories for Middle East and North Africa.
I happen to know Amazigh-American activists very well and personally agree with them that grouping North Africa and the Middle East in the Census is not helpful. In such a grouping, Arab-Americans would be the dominant force, and one of the characteristics of the Amazigh community in America is in fact a re-awakened sense of cultural identity that actively rejects being called Arab and having North African countries be called “Arab” countries. Grouping them with Arab-Americans to ultimately increase the clout of Arab-American groups doesn’t seem much more fair than grouping Arab-Americans under whites, and separate categories does seem like the simplest solution if we are to change the status quo.
On the other hand, the status quo isn’t so great either and more separate categories may cause problems for people of North African origins who do consider themselves Arab and/or Middle Eastern. Furthermore, there is the question of how granular the national Census should be. While inaccurate groupings should be rejected for statistical purposes if nothing else, will this lead to, for example, Mayan groups in the US demanding a category separate from Hispanic or Latino?
So the preliminary question I’d put up for debate is: Is there a better compromise category for measuring these groups that are, more and more, not identifying as white and not being treated as white?
Any errors in my description of the issue above are my own and I welcome correction.