'Are We White?': SoCal's Arab-Americans Debate Which Box To Check On The Census

Businesses along Brookhurst Street in the heart of Anaheim's Little Arabia. (Leslie Berestein Rojas/LAist)

Until about a year ago, plans were moving forward to include a category in the 2020 census referred to as MENA, for "Middle Eastern or North African."

It would have allowed a more accurate count of Americans of Arabic, Persian and other Middle Eastern or North African descent. In previous censuses, many identified as "white."

But last year the Trump administration nixed that idea, announcing that the MENA category will not be included.

Now, with a year to go before the decennial count, community advocates are gearing up to do outreach in the hope that people self-identify as Middle Eastern and North African on census forms so there's a more accurate count of a population that, in terms of data at least, is pretty much invisible.

But not everyone agrees on which box they should check.

Community activist Rashad Al-Dabbagh in Anaheim's Little Arabia.(Leslie Berestein Rojas/LAist)

Among those seeking a better count are activists like Rashad Al-Dabbagh in Anaheim's Little Arabia neighborhood. One recent afternoon, he pointed out immigrant-owned businesses along Brookhurst Street: restaurants, mom and pop shops and clothing stores, some with Arabic signage.

"This is where the highest concentration of Arab-Americans are in California," he said.

This area has seen an influx in the last decade of immigrants from countries like Syria and Iraq, he said, most of them refugees. Their kids attend local schools. They pay taxes. But just how many are living here is anyone's guess.

Al-Dabbagh says when local or federal officials ask him how many Arab-Americans live in Anaheim or Orange County, "there's no accurate answer that I have, because we don't know."

Census data determines everything from political representation in Congress to translators at polling stations. It's used to determine federal dollars for public schools, housing and health care. It guides health research and business investment decisions, among other things.

"When it comes to specific communities, like Arab-Americans, it is vital that we understand where our community are, and what our numbers are, too, to safely secure the resources the community needs," said Maya Berry, executive director of the Arab American Institute in Washington, D.C. and a longtime MENA advocate.

A REVEALING TEST

Plans to add a Middle Eastern-North African census category have been in the works for years. Berry's organization was among those that lobbied for it starting in the 1980s, and it worked with the Census Bureau over the years to develop the concept.

During the Obama administration, the bureau agreed to float the MENA question in a sample test. In a Feb. 2017 report, Census Bureau researchers concluded that "the results of this research indicate that it is optimal to use a dedicated 'Middle Eastern or North African response category.'"

According to the report, when no MENA category was available, people of Middle Eastern and North African descent predominantly identified themselves as white. But when given the choice, they identified as MENA. And this "significantly decreased the overall percentage of respondents reporting as White," according to the report.

But when the bureau announced in a January 2018 memo that the MENA category would not be used, it did not give a reason. In a meeting that day, census officials said more research was needed, and there was a lack of consensus about the question in the community.

Berry said her organization has been pressing the Census Bureau for a more detailed response - and for a change of heart.

"It's hard for us to take no for an answer in this case, because the system itself tested it," she said. But she added that she's not optimistic.

She said the push for a MENA category is less about changing racial identity than it is about a need for Middle Eastern Americans to be counted accurately. But in recent years, the racial identity of younger generations has been changing - especially compared with that of their elders.

The Sbaita family in their Lake Forest kitchen: Aurora, left; Rania, center; Marwan, right. (Leslie Berestein Rojas/LAist)

"I'VE NEVER FELT WHITE"

About 20 miles southeast of Little Arabia in the Orange County suburb of Lake Forest lives the Sbaita family: Immigrant parents Marwan and Aurora, respectively Palestinian and Lebanese, and their U.S.-born college student daughter, Rania.

On a recent weekday evening, they gathered in their kitchen after arriving home from work and school. Rania and Aurora rummaged in the fridge for leftovers as Marwan brewed tea. Afterward, they flipped on an Arabic-language TV channel to watch their favorite Lebanese soap opera.

The Sbaitas identify as Americans of Palestinian and Lebanese descent. That's one thing they agree on. But how they identify racially is a different story.

In the 2010 census, Marwan, who is in his early 50s, said he checked the "white" box. He said it's what he's always been advised to do, for school and work, since he arrived in the U.S. more than 30 years ago. Besides, he said, he kind of likes it.

"It gave me some sense of pride to belong and be part of mainstream America," Marwan said. "It catered to my desire to blend in, to fit into this society, to be the law abiding citizen, the taxpayer, the patriotic American."

Aurora generally agreed with this perspective. But not Rania. At 19, she considers herself a "post-9/11 baby."

"I've never felt white ... My name is in a different language. I speak a different language. The food I eat is different," Rania said.

Rania said she can't identify with a group from which she feels alienated.

"I can't make myself blend in to something that has never really welcomed me, that has never made me feel like I'm a part of it," she said.

Unlike her immigrant parents, Rania, who also speaks Spanish, sees herself distinctly as a person of color.

"I call myself brown," she said, then added with a giggle, "sometimes I call myself "café con leche."

"WHITENESS ... ALLOWED ACCESS TO ALL SORTS OF PRIVILEGES"

It wasn't always this way. In the early 1900s, Arab immigrants from the region that now encompasses modern-day Syria and Lebanon struggled for inclusion into the white mainstream, said Sarah Gualtieri, a USC historian who has written about Arab-American identity.

"Whiteness in particular was a category that allowed access to all sorts of privileges," she said. Arab-Americans "wanted to travel more easily. They wanted to buy land. They wanted to vote."

Some Arab-Americans were denied U.S. citizenship after immigration officials classified them as Asian. At the time, Asian immigrants were not allowed to naturalize as citizens. These cases made it to the courts, Gualtieri said, and eventually officialdom stopped questioning Arab-Americans' "whiteness."

The shift in racial identity started in the late 1960s, Gualtieri said. But it's become more pronounced among the younger generation in the last 20 years - in the era of no-fly lists, travel bans and other strict policies aimed at Middle Eastern immigrants.

"I find this tension [within families] really fascinating," Gualtieri said, "where you have older members of the family saying, 'I'm fine being white ... And you have younger members of the family saying, 'This doesn't make sense to me at all ... I don't feel like I'm treated as white when the FBI starts gathering information on our communities."

"MAYBE I'D DO IT FOR UNSELFISH REASONS"

As the 2020 census nears, activists like Rashad Al-Dabbagh say that without a MENA category, they'll engage in outreach similar to what they did around the 2010 census, when he and others participated in a campaign called "Check it Right, You Ain't White."

"We have the option of marking the "other" box and self-identifying [as] Arab or any nationality that we belong to," Al-Dabbagh said.

But he said that in the current climate — with the court battle over the Trump administration's proposal to add a question about U.S. citizenship to the census and with Middle Eastern immigrants already wary over immigration policies - it could be challenging just getting people to participate.

Back in Lake Forest, that wariness also plays into how the elder Sbaitas regard the census.

Aurora Sbaita said decades ago, the worst she might hear from people who encountered her was that she had "a cute accent." Now, things are different. And that makes her perfectly happy just to check the "white" box and move on.

"It's better to be blending in with the rest of the population rather than being cornered, if you want, or subjected to specific climates that [are] going on," she said.

But what if she and her husband did have their own MENA box to check one day? Both pondered the question as Rania egged them on.

Marwan said he understood there could be benefits to being counted as a minority, including for his daughter. He turned to Rania.

"I don't know," he said. "Maybe I'll do it for unselfish reasons, for the rest of the community to benefit, for your generation to gain the benefit. It could be."