Defining "White" - The US Census, The Amazigh, The Arabs

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.

For much of American history, the government had to have rules defining who was a member of a particular race in order that Blacks, Native Americans and other race could be treated as inferiors. Obviously if you’re going to deport all the Cherokee Indians to Oklahoma, you have to know who is a Cherokee and who isn’t. If you’re going to segregate public buildings by race, you have to know who’s White and who’s Black. Hence the “one-drop rule” and other things like it.

Today government discrimination is a much more minor problem, but such as it is, it still requires the government to decide who’s what race. Affirmative action, for instance, benefits mainly Blacks and Hispanics, hurts White, and hurts Asian Americans most of all. In order to have affirmative action, you have to have a fixed definition of who’s this race and who’s that race. There have been cases of white people claiming to be minorities: Elizabeth Warren, Ward Churchill, Rachel Dolezal. I don’t know if there’s ever been a study asking how common this is, but the benefits that could accrue from doing so are obvious.

So that raises the question: should it be a crime to lie about one’s race?

Well, on the one hand, the USA is a free country, and it’s hard to see any justification for saying the words “I am white” or “I am black”, even if they’re not true. On the other hand, if the government decides to treat people differently based on race, then it needs to define the races and enforce that definition or else the whole thing becomes meaningless.

One obvious solution to this problem and the question posed in the OP would be for the government to treat people of all races the same. This would have many advantages. (It would be fair, it would be right, and it would agree with the Constitution, just to name three.) On top of those, it would eliminate any need for the government to define race.

It is silly and the activists are silly. the idea of a solidarity (or even that the numbers are worth thinking of) between Chleuh, Amazight, Rffit, Kabyle and the Touareg populations of the Sahara is only activist fantasy. Why the americans would base their categories on activists fantasies…

the north africans, meaning the Maghrebis, yes have very different experiences from the Middle East (in which the egyptians fit best), but those are small things compared to the discrimination against us as muslims (even weakly practising and believing ones).

the numb

These activists are romantic fools and impractically annoying - it is people like them that saw the adoption not of Chilha written in Arabic letters as a form, but the Tifinagh alphabet… a stupid and idiotic move

i would rather in america see my family under a MENA grouping than some silly microcosm by itself.

in any case, the French experience already shows that no matter what we say, the wider population will name everyone “arabe” and that is that.

This obvious solution of the Blind Monkey is what the French do and what we see in the Real World is it is an excuse for the majority to pretend there is no discrimination - and then discriminate heavily - and for the government to do nothing… but this is perhaps the actual desired result…

I don’t know if “shared experiences” matters all that much to racial classification. For the purpose of the census, black Americans are grouped with black Africans, who are grouped with black Caribbeans. These groups have shared experiences with racial discrimination, but they are still quite distinctive culturally.

“Asian” is another amorphous group.

So “Middle Eastern” is no less of an overgeneralization than all the other groups we speak about in the context of discrimination and race.

At this point, for purposes of the Census, “race” is largely a matter of self-definition. Gender is next. Get used to it.

I would imagine that lying about one’s race to gain material benefits would be treated similarly to other kinds of fraud and, if it were required, judged by similar standards draft boards used to judge if people were really conscientious objectors, for example. However, in regards to the Census, which asks people to respond to this question based on self-identification, this doesn’t seem like a problem. The Census gives this as its reasons for collecting information based on race:

Based on my own experience, I have personally gained no material benefit from identifying as Hispanic of Mexican descent in the Census.

It also seems that the next Census may not even use the word race, partly in response to the issues of individuals defining race differently.

I’m given to understand that in the American context - which is, after all, what the US Census is specifically measuring - that kind of solidarity is more common and explicit than it is elsewhere. Finding hard data on this is difficult, though. At the Census Forum one of the questions they asked was if people would identify with this label and choose it, and while activists from different groups said no, I don’t know how true that is. I’ll say though, that unusual solidarity links and breaks arising within the US wouldn’t really be unusual on its face. Asian American, Muslim, Latino, and other categories in the US have different dynamics than they do outside.

While there seems to be a heavy overlap between Arabs and Muslims who are actively pushing for the MENA category, at least as recently as a few years ago most Arab-Americans were descended from traditionally Christian groups. The MENA category was chosen in part to separate itself from religious identity. After all, if it is intended to group people together who are at risk for anti-Muslim bigotry, why not include Pakistanis or Bangladeshis, or even Sikhs? However, if it is meant to distinguish a regional group that has shared interests, risks and experiences, then it matters if significant chunks of that group rejects membership.

I think it’s another question of debatable relevance to ask whether the MENA category is coherent; it does occur often in academic literature but it isn’t solidly defined.

Would you care particularly how MENA is defined? Is there another grouping you think would be preferable, such as African?

I know what you mean. A Peruvian friend of my mother’s the other day told her she didn’t really mind what Donald Trump said about Mexicans because she’s not Mexican. My mom kind of rolled her eyes at her, saying “Here, as far as they’re concerned, you’re Mexican.”

My limited impression of North Africans and Middle Easterners in the US is that it is as a “community” more fractious than the divisions between Latinos. There’s also the not insubstantial number of potential MENA people who are fine with the current system.

Which groups get their own “box” on the US census and which don’t is a political decision that is based on what (arguably) arbitrary groups the government wants to help at the time they write the census. Since helping Hispanic people is apparently considered a good thing, there is a box for it. On the other hand, since very few politicians consider allocating special benefits to Irish people to be worthwhile (cough, worthwhile in terms of funding or votes, cough), there is no Irish box on the US census. Apparently the UK census does have an Irish box, because their politicians care about taking good care of their Irish minority.

In other words, the racial and ethnic categories that exist are a form of Welfare for whoever the government thinks is particularly downtrodden today and worthy of their support.

What services need to be provided to Arab Americans that are not needed by other Americans?

Protection from racial profiling perhaps (cf. “Flying while Arab”)? If we started collecting “Arab, yes or no?” data from everyone passing through airport security, we could then get a number that reasonably represents how well we are doing at not racially profiling people for extra scrutiny. In addition, if someone were to later claim that Scottish-Americans are being disproportionately targeted by anti-moonshining police raids, we could add a “Scottish, yes or no?” question to the form that gets filled out when someone is booked into jail, which would hopefully get us closer to determining whether police really pigeonhole Scots as incorrigible moonshiners.

How about

‘Near East’
‘Far East’

If the 53 flavors of Chinese, the Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Thai, Indian, Pakistani, etc. can all fit into ‘Asian’, I think the various tribal groups of the Mideast can all fit into ‘Near East’.

    • yes, I realize the terms are Euro/American-centric. That IS deliberate.

I can’t tell if you’re serious, but that has nothing to do with the census.

Actually, it does, because the census “categories” are typically used all over the place. For example, people in the USA are typically asked to respond to the standard census race questions every time they apply for a job, apply for government benefits, apply to college, register at a doctor’s office, check in to a hospital, get arrested, or do a myriad of other things. The reason for this is twofold. One is that by using the same categories as the census, one can easily compare the data one has gathered with official census data in order to do analysis. If your store has its customers fill out a form that has boxes for “Caribbean islander”, “Hillbilly”, “West Asian”, “Berliner”, “Indo-European language speaker” and “Brony” as the options, how could you ever determine whether your customer base is similar to the racial makeup of your area according to the census? Two is that the government actually requires that certain non-census entities actually collect census-compatible racial data, for instance employers. By adding categories to the census options, those additional options would likely “trickle down” into daily life.

"Tribal groups has nothing to do with this.

However, since the proposal is about the North Africa and the Middle east, you completely miss the point.

What “significant” groups “reject” the idea of “shared membership”?

the idea that the berberist activists represent anything more than some tiny minority talking to themselves is ridiculous. They exist in their fantasy castles, promoting tifinagh and engaging in the romantic fantasies.

in the real world I have never heard someone (besides of the actual Tamazight dialect speakers) say “I am Amazight” - one says I am Tarifi, Chleuh or Chilh, etc. - in the real world even berberophone in the europe (of which I speak of my own family and habits observed) will sometimes flip back and forth between saying to europeans they are “arab” or “berber” or even “maghrebi” as the ethnicity.

I am by no way a pan-arabist supporter but the activist position is a silly typically academicien flight of fancy of no practical or pragmatic value.

the region has a certain historical coherence and in any case americans will lump all the people together. If it is not breaking to the national or similar group level, it makes practical sense.

not really.
if the americans went with their silly “greater mena” definition I might roll my eyes, but not care very much

not at all, while we might say there is something in common with the Saharans there is not much in common with most of the others - except in generic terms that have not much to do with the continent itself.

I would guess that outside of activists of an academic background - which will be less than 1% of the people concerned - no one will care very much.

Each of these are from a nation whose borders arte entirely within the Continent of Asia or on groups of Islands off the coast.

How about instead of a classification system you just let people write in their self-identification? A little more work for the bureaucrats but it’s only once every ten years anyway.

You likely get no coherence.

Except for the domestic politic games there is not much rational reason to oppose some organised statistical insight into the population.

by the way

I do have a problem with the Arab League type approach and I can see how Berbers in the USA would react to this very typical demarche by the Pan-Arab types.

the regional demarche is much better and more neutral. the middle east north africa is a historical region, even to roman times, so it does not need to be interpreted religiously either.

I suppose if they wanted the south asians could militate for their own category… in a way it makes sense.