For Some Americans Of MENA Descent, Checking A Census Box Is Complicated : Code Switch For years, advocates have pushed the Census Bureau for a box for people of Middle Eastern or North African descent. Now, the bureau recommends one. Some worry the data may be misused in surveillance.

For Some Americans Of MENA Descent, Checking A Census Box Is Complicated

For years, advocates have pushed the Census Bureau for a box for people of Middle Eastern or North African descent. Now, the bureau recommends one. Some worry the data may be misused in surveillance. Chelsea Beck/NPR hide caption

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Chelsea Beck/NPR

For years, advocates have pushed the Census Bureau for a box for people of Middle Eastern or North African descent. Now, the bureau recommends one. Some worry the data may be misused in surveillance.

Chelsea Beck/NPR

When Atoosa Moinzadeh filled out past census forms, she found herself in a racial identification conundrum. Moinzadeh identifies as Iranian American. But the census forms don't have a box for Iranian American. The closest she could come to identifying herself the way she wanted was to choose the box for "white," which had "Middle East" listed as an example.

When Atoosa Moinzadeh filled out past census forms, she found herself in a racial identification conundrum. Moinzadeh identifies as Iranian American. But the census forms don't have a box for Iranian American. The closest she could come to identifying herself the way she wanted was to choose the box for "white," which had "Middle East" listed as an example.

That wasn't quite right for her.

That wasn't quite right for her.

"I've always identified as not white, and so the expectation to check off 'white' on forms has never felt accurate to me," Moinzadeh said. She has brown skin and grew up in a white neighborhood in a Seattle suburb. Like many other Arab-Americans, the world did not treat Moinzadeh as white. And so, on past census forms, Moinzadeh would select the box for "other" and write in "Iranian American."

"I've always identified as not white, and so the expectation to check off 'white' on forms has never felt accurate to me," Moinzadeh said. She has brown skin and grew up in a white neighborhood in a Seattle suburb. Like many other people of Middle Eastern or North African descent, the world did not treat Moinzadeh as white. And so, on past census forms, Moinzadeh would select the box for "other" and write in "Iranian American."

For Alex Shams, an anthropology grad student in Chicago, whose mother is a white Christian and whose father is a Muslim immigrant from Iran, the question of which identification to choose was always puzzling — especially since he could pass as white. Sometimes he chose to identify as "other" on official forms, including the census, and if there was no option for that, he'd select "white" or "Asian." But the bullying and discrimination he faced growing up in Los Angeles made him aware he was not white. After the 9/11 attacks, he recalled, kids at his evangelical Christian school would whisper "Saddam Hussein" in his face.

For Alex Shams, an anthropology grad student in Chicago, whose mother is a white Christian and whose father is a Muslim immigrant from Iran, the question of which identification to choose was always puzzling — especially since he could pass as white. Sometimes he chose to identify as "other" on official forms, including the census, and if there was no option for that, he'd select "white" or "Asian." But the bullying and discrimination he faced growing up in Los Angeles made him aware he was not white. After the 9/11 attacks, he recalled, kids at his evangelical Christian school would whisper "Saddam Hussein" in his face.

"I think I've really come to realize that in the wake of the war in Iraq ... I began to see myself as Middle Eastern, and I began to identify with that because that's how I was being seen and perceived by people around me," said Shams, who has penned a piece investigating the complicated question of whether or not Iranians are people of color.

"I think I've really come to realize that in the wake of the war in Iraq ... I began to see myself as Middle Eastern, and I began to identify with that because that's how I was being seen and perceived by people around me," said Shams, who has penned a piece investigating the complicated question of whether or not Iranians are people of color.

Now, after years of Arab American advocacy groups pressuring the U.S. Census Bureau to create a separate geographic category for people of Middle Eastern or North African (MENA) descent, the bureau is recommending that MENA be added to the 2020 census. That could mean that the approximately 3.7 million Arab-Americans in the U.S. might have their own box to check off.

Now, after years of advocacy groups pressuring the U.S. Census Bureau to create a separate geographic category for people of Middle Eastern or North African (MENA) descent, the bureau is recommending that MENA be added to the 2020 census. That could mean that the approximately 3.7 million Arab-Americans in the U.S. might have their own box to check off.

Collecting accurate demographic information is crucial, especially for ethnic minority communities, since data gleaned from census forms affects funding for services such as voter protections or English as a second language programs in schools, and also is included in research on topics like housing discrimination. And in 2015, when the bureau tested potential new categories, including MENA, it found that people of Middle Eastern or North African descent would check off the MENA box when it was available; when it wasn't, they'd select white.

Collecting accurate demographic information is crucial, especially for ethnic minority communities, since data gleaned from census forms affects funding for services such as voter protections or English as a second language programs in schools, and also is included in research on topics like housing discrimination. And in 2015, when the bureau tested potential new categories, including MENA, it found that people of Middle Eastern or North African descent would check off the MENA box when it was available; when it wasn't, they'd select white.

But with policies and political rhetoric that are anti-immigrant, anti-refugee and anti-Muslim, some worry the MENA census category might be used against the very people it's supposed to include. "The downside is concerns about misuse of this data and how it could be used by the government in a time of national crisis," said Ibrahim Hooper, the communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Concerns like these have been around for almost as long as the census itself, which was started in 1790 to keep record of Americans.

But with policies and political rhetoric that are anti-immigrant, anti-refugee and anti-Muslim, some worry the MENA census category might be used against the very people it's supposed to include. "The downside is concerns about misuse of this data and how it could be used by the government in a time of national crisis," said Ibrahim Hooper, the communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Concerns like these have been around for almost as long as the census itself, which was started in 1790 to keep record of Americans.

Between 1880 and 1930, Congress and statisticians tried to create standards to mandate that census information couldn't be used for "taxation, regulation or investigation" or to "harm" a people or organizations, as explained by Margo Anderson, a history professor at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, in a related paper.

Between 1880 and 1930, Congress and statisticians tried to create standards to mandate that census information couldn't be used for "taxation, regulation or investigation" or to "harm" a people or organizations, as explained by Margo Anderson, a history professor at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, in a related paper.

Circumventing those standards, the U.S. government used census data to locate and deliver more than 100,000 Japanese Americans to incarceration camps. This happened, Anderson pointed out, before the United States was an "equal opportunity, affirmative action, civil rights society" and when Japanese immigrants were considered "aliens ineligible for citizenship." She pointed out in a conversation with NPR that at the time, "nobody disputed the legal foundation for incarcerating" the so-called aliens.

Circumventing those standards, the U.S. government used census data to locate and deliver more than 100,000 Japanese Americans to incarceration camps. This happened, Anderson pointed out, before the United States was an "equal opportunity, affirmative action, civil rights society" and when Japanese immigrants were considered "aliens ineligible for citizenship." She pointed out in a conversation with NPR that at the time, "nobody disputed the legal foundation for incarcerating" the so-called aliens.

In the case of Japanese Americans, the question was not "who was Japanese, but where did Japanese mainly live," said Kenneth Prewitt, a former director of the U.S. Census Bureau who is now a professor at Columbia University. "Yes, census data can be inappropriately used to target for attention particular neighborhoods where persons of MENA ancestry are concentrated," Prewitt said. But, he said, doing so would not be any more illegal than targeting "places where elderly people live, to know where to send rescue vehicles in case of flooding or power outings or where veterans live in order to place VA hospitals nearby. So the issue is not who clusters where but for what purposes is that information used."

In the case of Japanese Americans, the question was not "who was Japanese, but where did Japanese mainly live," said Kenneth Prewitt, a former director of the U.S. Census Bureau who is now a professor at Columbia University. "Yes, census data can be inappropriately used to target for attention particular neighborhoods where persons of MENA ancestry are concentrated," Prewitt said. Doing so would not be any more illegal than targeting "places where elderly people live, to know where to send rescue vehicles in case of flooding or power outings or where veterans live in order to place VA hospitals nearby. So the issue is not who clusters where but for what purposes is that information used," he said.

Looking back, the incarceration of Japanese Americans and wartime relocation was really "the result of ... prejudice, wartime hysteria and a failure of political leadership," Anderson told NPR. "Because the political has shifted so radically [today], we're going to have a really complicated debate about this."

Story update: March 11, 2017

A previous version of this story incorrectly utilized "Arab American" to refer to people of Middle Eastern or North African descent.