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Arab Americans say the census and other forms don't consider their roots

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Some 3.7 million Americans trace their roots back to an Arab country. That's according to the nonprofit Arab American Institute. Still, when it comes to being properly reflected on government forms like the U.S. Census, many say their roots may as well be invisible. And some want change. From member station GBH in Boston, Saraya Wintersmith reports.

SARAYA WINTERSMITH, BYLINE: When 38-year-old Mohammed Missouri (ph) filled out his most recent census, he felt conflicted about what to mark for race.

MOHAMMED MISSOURI: Like, I was staring at the form, contemplating putting in other. But then, it's a government form. It clearly specifies what falls within Caucasian. And so eventually, I had to do it.

WINTERSMITH: Missouri is originally from Iraq. And when he's not filling out documents, he identifies as Arab American. He acknowledges people can't readily gauge his ethnicity just by looking at him. Still, Missouri says, the census categorizes him and people with similar backgrounds incorrectly by forcing them to be counted as white.

MISSOURI: It's false for me. I'm not white. Period.

WINTERSMITH: Missouri is not alone in his belief. A new study from a trio of researchers supports adding a new category to the U.S. Census for those who identify as Middle Eastern or North African - or MENA. Back when the Trump administration revealed it was rejecting researchers' recommendation to add that MENA category to the census, Michigan Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib grilled the bureau director, Steven Dillingham, over the decision.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RASHIDA TLAIB: So Director, are you aware that people like me who are Arab, Middle Eastern, North African have to indicate that they are white on the U.S. Census?

WINTERSMITH: Tlaib's district includes the Dearborn Heights area. It falls within Wayne County, which, the LA Times reports, has the third-largest MENA population in the U.S. behind LA County and the New York City area. Tlaib argued, adding the MENA category would help to more accurately reflect people's lived experience in data.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TLAIB: Because the MENA community, like others, relies on accurate census representation for health research, Director...

STEVEN DILLINGHAM: Certainly.

TLAIB: ...Language assistance, civil rights laws and reporting educational outcomes, and drawing congressional and state legislative boundaries.

WINTERSMITH: Since then, the Biden administration has indicated it's reviewing the previously rejected MENA category.

EMILY SHAMIEH: Hi, Saraya.

WINTERSMITH: Hi, Emily.

SHAMIEH: Come on in.

WINTERSMITH: It's good to meet you in person.

For Emily Shamieh (ph), it's less urgent. Her family has roots in Lebanon and Syria. She says, she looks white and gets the benefits of being white. So checking that box isn't the worst thing.

SHAMIEH: Race is something that was created so that white people who slaughtered Indians, who enslaved African Americans - Africans, could justify their slaughter and their enslavement. And I haven't been the victim of any of that. So if you're going to have what was called protected classes when I was much younger, then I don't need that.

WINTERSMITH: The difference of opinion between Shamieh and Rep Tlaib in Missouri likely springs from a generational divide experts say exists among the MENA community.

NADINE NABER: You know, I'm 52. And the people in my parents' generation, a lot of them have a different racial identification than people in my generation and those who are younger.

WINTERSMITH: That's Professor Nadine Naber. She teaches at the University of Illinois Chicago in Cook County, another place with one of the nation's largest MENA communities. She says, if you're an Arab person who came of age around the time of 9/11, you likely experienced anti-Arab racism.

NABER: Everywhere you look, you know, society is saying, Arabs are bad. Muslims are bad. So it's almost impossible, you know, to have formed a consciousness of Arabs as white for the younger folks.

WINTERSMITH: Naber wants to see the Biden administration add the MENA category to the census and other documents. Attorney Michael Van Cleve (ph) isn't waiting. He's suing the Biden administration, saying the census data is degraded without the new category.

MICHAEL VAN CLEVE: That is kind of the core of this case is whether or not the race data and the race categories are accurate for today's America.

WINTERSMITH: Recent NPR reporting shows the Trump administration tried to tamper with the census count on the back end. That's in addition to the widely reported issues with an accelerated timeline and citizenship data. Van Cleve's case, which is about data integrity, is now on appeal in the 11th Circuit.

VAN CLEVE: Would it probably be in the best interest of America for this issue to be resolved without litigation? Yes, I think so.

WINTERSMITH: The Federal Office of Management and Budget, which sets the categories for race and ethnicity data, declined to comment for this story. If Van Cleve prevails, his case will move forward with a three-judge panel. Mohammed Missouri is eager to see the designation, whether it comes through the courts or through executive action.

MISSOURI: When the president talks about being inclusive and saying nice things about the Arab American community or something, that doesn't mean anything to me if the policies remain the same.

WINTERSMITH: The next U.S. Census that might count North African and Middle Eastern people differently is eight years away.

For NPR News, I'm Saraya Wintersmith.

[POST-BROADCAST CLARIFICATION: In this story, we stated that the Trump administration "rejected" a recommendation to add a category for MENA on the 2020 Census. In fact, the Trump administration failed to take action on the proposal via the Office of Budget Management, forcing the Census Bureau to proceed without the new category.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Saraya Wintersmith