A new study on Arab Americans in the Chicago area recommends that the U.S. Census Bureau stop categorizing the group as “white or Caucasian” so better data can be gathered and racial injustice be addressed.
“Beyond Erasure and Profiling,” by scholars at the University of Illinois Chicago (UIC,) recommends government agencies use Middle Eastern/North African to identify one of the fastest-growing demographic groups in the region.
Lead author Nadine Naber, a professor of gender and women’s studies and global Asian studies at UIC, said the classification of Arab Americans as “white or Caucasian” in the census results in a lack of data.
“As a result, our communities and the specific socioeconomic and racial experiences we have are erased and overlooked across society,” Naber said.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, about 108,000 Arab Americans live in the Chicago area. But researchers say that number is an undercount due to the small sample sizes.
The yearslong study provides quantitative and qualitative information about the inequities Arab Americans face in the Chicago area. For example, according to the study, while they may be classified as “white,” fewer Arab Americans own their residences and more of them are “housing cost burdened”—meaning that a household spends 50% or more of its income on housing costs—than white residents. The study also shows Arab Americans have lower median household incomes and higher unemployment and uninsured rates than white residents.
Naber said the UIC study draws upon decades of work by other researchers and activists who have long advocated for the addition of the Middle Eastern/North African (MENA) category to classify their communities.
Last month, an advisory panel made up of staff from more than 20 federal agencies recommended the addition of the MENA category to the 2030 Census. The White House’s Office of Management and Budget announced it will solicit public feedback on the proposal until April 12 before making final recommendations for the next decennial headcount.
Classifying Arab Americans as white “leads to lack of attention, lack of resources, lack of possibilities for advocacy, for policies that can actually address the needs of the Arab American communities in Chicago,” Naber said.
She added that along with the invisibility issue, there is also a “problem of hyper visibility because the U.S. government and media sensationalize Arabs and Muslims as potential terrorist enemies.” Arab Americans become “visible targets of racial profiling and discrimination in every area of life—grocery stores, classrooms, workplaces.”
Naber added that anti-Arab sentiment increased after the 9/11 attacks, but was pervasive long before 2001.
Muhammad Sankari, lead organizer for the Arab American Action Network, said there are new examples of racial profiling and discrimination on a daily basis. He recalled a time when he was riding the bus and talking to his family on the phone in Arabic when “an older white man [started] screaming obscenities at me.”
But Sankari said there are more grave examples, particularly related to the government’s use of surveillance of everyday Arab Americans.
“People are getting these police reports written about them that are forwarded and filed with the [Federal Bureau of Investigations] and kept in the FBI database for at least 35 years,” Sankari said. “It’s for things as simple as [Arab Americans] going into McCormick Place and asking the hours of when a conference is starting.”
Sankari also gave an example of a boy at a suburban high school who spoke to his counselor about feeling distraught about not being able to see his Syrian grandparents, and mentioning that they live in a place with ISIS presence.
“The guidance counselor then goes and reports it to the [law enforcement] officer in the school breaching the trust of this young man,” Sankari said. “And then it goes a level further where the Illinois State Police are informed and they actually follow up with the family, call the family and say, ‘What’s your family’s connection to ISIS?’ and this report now exists in an FBI database.”
The COVID-19 pandemic was another example where inequities against the Arab community were exacerbated by their demographic erasure, according to Itedal Shalabi, co-founder and executive director of the social service agency Arab American Family Services.
“Our community was one of the last ones to get resources, to have those vaccinations” during government efforts to target racial inequities, Shalabi said.
Funding for organizations like hers also became an issue. “Communities of color were getting dollars and funders, but [government officials] said to us, ‘Well, you’re white,’” Shalabi recalled. “The money came to us in the later stages of COVID.”
She said when Arab Americans were contracting or dying of COVID, they were counted as white, making it difficult to track accurate numbers. Shalabi said Arab American groups pushed for the Illinois Department of Public Health to add a MENA category, and she hopes other government agencies will follow suit soon.
“Data tells stories, and stories make an impact,” Shalabi said. “This kind of data collection that we are demanding is to really ensure that our communities are serviced in the best possible way.”
Esther Yoon-Ji Kang is a reporter on WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her on Twitter @estheryjkang.