Arab-American Activists Upset About Census Snub

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In March, the 2010 U.S. Census will attempt to gather a broad range of demographic data for all residents. The comprehensive mass survey, which is required by the constitution and happens every 10 years, will include questions that identity U.S. residents based on race and ethnicity. But Abed Ayoub, of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, says the U.S. Census Bureau has failed to include Arab-Americans in their official tallying. Ayoub explains why some believe such an oversight results in a lack of Arab-American representation in Congress, a lack of funding for their programs and inhibits federal agencies, such as the FBI, from tracking hate crimes perpetrated against the Arab-American community.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, 2009 is behind us but will it be known as the year of infidelity? We ask, is cheating on the increase or are we just talking more about it? Some surprising information about American's attitudes about infidelity in just a few minutes. But first, it's a new decade and that means it's time for a new census.

(Soundbite of advertisement)

Unidentified Woman: The 2010 Census is an exciting milestone for America. It promises to deliver accurate information about our diverse and growing population. And it's important for the future of every community.

MARTIN: As you hear from that public service announcement, government officials are pulling out all the stops to get Americans to participate. This March, the 2010 Census form will be delivered to every household in the U.S. It will contain only 10 questions. And one of those questions is geared to mapping the country's changing racial landscape. Now, if you're black, white or American-Indian, you have a box to check if you so choose, ditto if you are Vietnamese or native Hawaiian.

But if you are Arab-American you might be left scratching your head because there is no special category for individuals of Arab or Middle Eastern decent, you must check white. And some Arab-American representatives think that is a problem. Abed Ayoub, legal advisor for the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee is one of those who thinks that's a problem. He is here with us in our studio in Washington to talk more about it. Mr. Ayoub, welcome, thank you for joining us. Happy New Year to you.

Mr. ABED AYOUB (Legal Advisor, American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee): Good morning, thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So, the government's definition of white is, quote, �a person having origins in any of the original people's of Europe, the Middle East or North Africa.� So by that definition, people of the Middle East are white. Why is that a problem?

Mr. AYOUB: That's a problem because - well, we want to backtrack first to the prior census, had the long form. So, this census went to a short form, which eliminated the ancestry question. In previous census forms we had an opportunity to write down Lebanese-American, Syrian-American or from Lebanon, from Syria. This time around there is no opportunity for that. So, we are in essence taking away the opportunity for us to be counted.

MARTIN: Why is that, though? I mean, and can't you still write in your ancestry if you want, you can still write it in?

Mr. AYOUB: It will be counted towards white. So, it will not be counted - there will not be any tabulations.

MARTIN: And why is that a problem?

Mr. AYOUB: Well, this affects us in many ways, including opportunities for public funding, for government funding for minority programs, things such as ESL programs in highly concentrated areas will be affected. Private funding, you know, in different foundations and grant givers are looking towards giving for minority group. Well, if they don't see a highly concentrated Arab-American community, we could lose out on that as well.

And finally, another big reason we need this is, hate crimes against Arab-Americans post-9/11 has drastically increased. And the FBI is not keeping statistics on these hate crimes. And we're being told they don't keep statistics because of the fact census does not keep count of Arab-Americans. So, we got no way of telling how many hate crimes have been committed against Arab-Americans. I know at ADC, the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, we try to keep our own statistics. But we're, we have limited resources and this is a job that should be done by the federal government but the fact we're not on the census does not allow for it.

MARTIN: And for the record, we extended an invitation to the Census Bureau to participate in our conversation, to provide us with a representative. At the close of business last week they did not choose to do that. We don't know why. And if they do choose to address this question at some point, we'll be happy to have them.

I have to tell you that there are some Arab-Americans that don't want to be counted or they believe that the current situation is perfectly acceptable. For example, Arab-American demographer Samia El-Badry(ph) was quoted in a recent news article saying, given the uneducated fear of the Muslim religion this is not a time for us to have an Arab-American category on any government form. That in fact she believes that it might introduce unwanted scrutiny. What do you say about that?

Mr. AYOUB: There are some members in our community that are against being counted and we do recognize their concerns. However, at the end of the day, it's important we are counted, it's important statistics are kept for us. The time is now, we can't shy away from the fear of, well, they don't know enough about the Muslims. Not all Arabs are Muslims. So, there's a large - I mean, I think more Arab-Americans in this country are Christian than Muslim. So, we are very diverse group of individuals.

MARTIN: And, as to the sort of the funding question, I mean, doesn't that happen more on a state by state basis, and isn't that information available more on a state by state or more localized basis anyway?

Mr. AYOUB: It is available but not - it is not accurate.

MARTIN: It's not accurate?

Mr. AYOUB: It is not accurate. Metro Detroit we've heard statistics saying there's 100,000 Arab-Americans all the way up to 400,000 Arab-Americans. Well, there's a big difference in those numbers. So, we need some accurate statistics.

MARTIN: And you're saying that the federal government really is the only entity that has the capability of addressing the question globally.

Mr. AYOUB: Yes, the federal government is the only entity to do this.

MARTIN: And talk a little bit more if you would about the - so this isn't just a matter of pride, not that pride is not important. But you feel that this a matter of necessity in being able to track questions of whether people are being specifically singled out because of ancestry or perceived questions about their ancestry...

Mr. AYOUB: Yes.

MARTIN: ...it's also a question of serving the group?

Mr. AYOUB: It is a necessity and it is needed. Arab-Americans have been here for generations, since the 1800s. So, it's time that we are counted and have some statistics on how many of us are here, where we're located and to help us as well, to help the community.

MARTIN: And to that point your group is still working with the Census Bureau. As I understand it, you're translating documents into Arabic, you're doing your own sort of outreach encouraging people to participate. What are you telling people, even though there isn't a specific box to be checked? What are you encouraging people to do?

Mr. AYOUB: We - I really want to commend census on their outreach efforts over the past year. We have worked with census in the past but this year proved to be a challenge because of the ancestry question. But they did step up to the plate and they have worked with us.

We have talked with Secretary Waqt(ph) in October about the upcoming 2020 Census. So, we have started working on that, to get that a question included. We do have outreach events planned, we have a special initiative we signed with Census. We're a national advisory council member of Census. So, we do work with them to ensure everybody is counted.

MARTIN: Abed Ayoub, is a legal advisor for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and he was kind enough to join us in our studio in Washington. Mr. Ayoub, thank you so much again and happy New Year to you.

Mr. AYOUB: Thank you.

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