2020 Census: A New Campaign To Get Arab Americans To Check 'Other'

Raad Ghantous (Courtesy of Frank Salas Photography)

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For the first time this year, the 2020 Census asks people who identify as "white" to expand on their ethnic origins. The form offers some examples: German, Irish, English, Italian, Lebanese, Egyptian.

Raad Ghantous, chair of the Arab American Civic Council, is part Lebanese, but he didn't check "white," like the form suggested. Instead, he selected "other" and wrote in his own answer.

"In my case, I almost ran out of space. I put Lebanese, Palestinian, Iraqi — because my mom is half Iraqi — so write small if you have to," he said.

Ghantous wants other Arab Americans to check "other" and fill in their own specific ethnicities on the Census, because despite years of advocacy work, the form doesn't include a Middle Eastern or North African (MENA) option.

"It's like a wave. If you get to the point where there are many people filling out 'other,' the data collection will not be able to ignore it," he said. "You have a position of power, as a community, as a person filling out the Census form."

In 2017, the Census Bureau tested a MENA category, and found that Arab Americans were more likely to choose it rather than to identify as "white." Then a year later, the Census said it needed to do more research, and nixed the possibility of the option on the 2020 Census.

But the Arab American Civic Council is used to working around these setbacks, Ghantous said. A decade ago, the council started its first Census write-in campaign called "Check It Right, You Ain't White," to encourage visibility and representation of Arab Americans.

A decade later, the write-in campaign is underway again for the 2020 Census, but it's been rebranded. Now the slogan is, "I am Arab, I am American, I Matter."

The change took into account the current political climate, Ghantous said.

"We went through a real adverse situation when the current administration went into power. That, in a very interesting way, caused more unity," he said. "Out of that came a sense of civic engagement, and that civic engagement is a positive energy."

The Council tried to match that energy with a more celebratory slogan, Ghantous said.

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