Ahead Of Census, Arab-American Group Tells Community 'You Ain't White'

Census forms go out next week and that means millions of Americans will be asked to share the basics of their lives: age, income and race. But what about those who's race or ethnicity is not listed as an option? A group of Arab-American leaders in Orange County, Calif. say because their ethnicity is not listed many Arab-Americans default to checking the box for white, which, they say, has produced an inaccurate count of their population. The group has launched a campaign to get Arab-Americans to use the 'other' category — they have dubbed it "Check it right, you ain't white." Host Michel Martin talks to Omar Masry, co-chair of the Arab-American Complete Count Committee.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

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

It's almost that time again, census time. Every 10 years, the Constitution requires the U.S. government to count its citizens and others living within its borders. And next week, most Americans will get that form in the mail. Now we've been talking a lot on this program about why the census matters and to whom, how the census is carried out, and what experts believe the new census may show.

In a few minutes, we'll talk about the fact that this may be the year that the number of babies born to so-called minorities outnumbers the number of babies born to whites. That's a little later.

But first, we're going to talk more about how race is described in the census. Previously, we've talked about how some Arab-Americans are disturbed that there is no specific box for them to check. They are expected to check "white" along with others of European, Middle Eastern or North African descent.

But a group of Arab-American leaders in Orange County, California, says that means the actual number of Arab-Americans is likely to be misrepresented, particularly underrepresented. So, they launched a campaign with the Census Bureau's support to encourage Arab-Americans to check the box "other." And their campaign is called, "check it right, you ain't white."

I'm joined now by the co-chair of the Arab Complete Count Committee in Orange County, Omar Masry, and he's also a city planner for the city of Irvine, California. And he's with us now from member station KUCI. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. OMAR MASRY (Co-Chair, Arab Complete Count Committee): Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So, Omar, how did you figure out that this was something important to work on, that this is something you wanted to focus on?

Mr. MASRY: Well, it was important to me way before this all started. I remember when I was 17 and filling up forms to join the military or to apply for colleges, and I would see no box for my group. I'd see for all kinds of other groups. And I felt it was an opportunity missed, to express or to identify myself.

MARTIN: Why do you think it's important, though, specifically to be counted as a person of a Middle Eastern descent or Arab-American? Some people feel that, you know, white is perfectly fine. In fact, there are some people who feel, let's just be honest, that being white convey certain advantages in this society.

Mr. MASRY: That's true. And having grown up in the suburbs between L.A. and Santa Barbara, I basically felt like - more like a white kid because I grew up in an all-white community. And as Arab-Americans, we kind of see ourselves as trying to go on that trajectory for the American dream and kind of matching the white group, if you will, in many respects. But at the same time, we do feel like we're this anonymous minority. When something bad happens, we seemed to get magnified. But when there is an opportunity, it seems like we're marginalized. So, we look at this census as an opportunity to say, hey, we're here. We should be counted.

MARTIN: So, what is this - how is this campaign working, the check it right, you ain't white? Now it's attention getting I have to say. It got our attention.

Mr. MASRY: It's very tongue-in-cheek. We're really just trying to get people to pay attention and perk up and say, hey, maybe it's an opportunity for me to express myself. And we're trying to approach people on different levels. Obviously, the big elephant in the room is concerns over profiling, especially after 9/11.

And one of the things we like to do is use humor to kind of disarm people, oftentimes tell Arab-American parents and older generation, the first generation that came here that, hey, there's probably more information in your kid's Facebook page than there is information you're willing to give out. And plus, you know, the census form is not the end-all, be-all if the government, if you will, wants to get information on you.

We also try to reach out and convey that there's advantages for your community. The kind of parks you get, the kind of amenities you get, the CDBG funds given out by Congress in order to distribute federal funds for Community Development Block Grants, are all based on census numbers. So, it matters -whatever you fill it out as, but it does matter that you fill it out.

MARTIN: But the government doesn't give out parks based on being, you know, an Arab-American. Do you see what I'm saying? So, what is the hook to tell people why they need - they need specifically to describe their racial or ethnic identity in this way?

Mr. MASRY: Well, two-fold approach. Obviously, the parks aren't given out based on different groups. But CDBG funds and other funds for communities might be dispersed differently if it's found that there's different groups. Arab-Americans, we like to see ourselves being an entrepreneurial class. So, maybe if there's more Arab-Americans in a community, it might mean there is more opportunities for a small business loans and small business start-up grants.

In addition, we think it's important to know where we stand. One of the questions that often posed to me by Arab-Americans is does this mean we're going to preferences for minority hiring and things like that. And the question I have or the answer I have is we don't know, because we don't know where we stand socioeconomically, if you will. Are we are more like, quote-unquote, white people or are we...

MARTIN: Sure.

Mr. MASRY: ...more disadvantaged than we assume.

MARTIN: Okay, I get that. And final question, very briefly, if you will. What reaction are you getting so far to this campaign?

Mr. MASRY: Most people are amused, taken aback by it for a second and then realize where we're going with it. And it's a positive campaign trying to reach out to our community and get them involved.

MARTIN: All right. Omar Masry is the co-chair of the Arab Complete Count Committee in Orange County, California. He's also a city planner for the city of Irvine. And he joined us from member station KUCI in Irvine. Thank you so much.

Mr. MASRY: Thank you for having me.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.