Chicagoland Study Shows Why We Need a MENA Category in The U.S. Census

Originally published in The Chicago Reporter here

We have major problems in this country in how we think about and get appropriate government assistance to Arab Americans. Social workers, translators, housing and transportation experts, health workers, and community-based funding agencies all face three substantial difficulties.

First, the U.S. Census folds Arab Americans into the category “white/Caucasian,” making it nearly impossible to access comprehensive data about Arab Americans’ condition.

Second, racist government policies and media rhetoric create myths that further obscure the realities of Arab American life, projecting racist tropes onto everyone within this diverse category. We only need to look to Hollywood for the fiction that all Arabs, Middle Easterners, and Muslims are the same or that they are all connected, in one way or another, to violence or terrorism.

Third, when policymakers do look at the data for Arab Americans, they use “collective averages” rather than paying attention to important group differences. This can be quite deceiving. For Arab Americans, as with Asian Americans, collective averages cover up not only the diversity but also the significant gap between rich and poor, thus turning attention away from the needs of economically disenfranchised Arab Americans.

The economic situation of Asian Americans, for example, would be profoundly misunderstood if statistics were not disaggregated. The report, Uncovering the Diversity of Asian American Students at the University of Illinois at Chicago, shows that while 37% of 1,700 survey respondents indicated being first in their family to attend college, the disaggregated data shows that this number is higher for Southeast Asian American students (66%) and Chinese American students (54%) at UIC. Disaggregated data show how economic and educational disparities among different ethnic groups based on immigration and refugee histories are obscured by the aggregate data.

Sociologists Chris D. Poulos, Louise Cainkar, and Rita Stephan are currently helping me develop the report, The Status of Racial Justice for Arab Americans for the Institute for Research on Race and Public Policy (IRRPP) at UIC. They skillfully zeroed in ancestry, rather than the typical race or ethnicity questions within a smaller data set, the U.S. Census’ American Community Survey (ACS), to access data on Arab Americans. As a result, we were able to assess some overarching patterns in the data for Arab Americans. While less robust than accessing information from the full population count Census, this approach does allow for disaggregating data by ancestry group.

Looking at the Chicago Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) when disaggregating data by ancestry group, we found that economic challenges vary by ancestry group. Egyptians and Lebanese, for example, have a much higher median household income relative to both Arab Americans overall and relative to the overall MSA population. Contrastingly, eight Arab ancestry groups have median household incomes below the Chicago MSA median.

We also found that while a larger portion of Arab Americans has bachelor’s degrees or higher relative to the Chicago MSA (45 percent versus 35 percent, respectively), some groups (Jordanians, Assyrian/Chaldean/Syriacs, and Yemenis) have much lower educational attainment relative to both the Chicago MSA and Arab Americans overall. Even for those with high rates of college education, there is evidence that they are receiving lower expected returns for their years of education. While we have yet to determine what accounts for this, we speculate that anti-Arab racism is a factor.

This is why collective averages are not useful. Many individuals from the groups at the top (Lebanese and Egyptian) came to the U.S. decades before others, are in their third and fourth generations, and were already highly educated. Especially those with privileges such as lighter skin tone or a Christian religious identity are thriving here.

The success rates of Lebanese and Egyptians, when included in collective averages, cover up the devastating socioeconomic challenges facing other groups within the category Arab American, many of whom are recent immigrants, came as refugees, and are among the most socioeconomically struggling in the region.

Collective averages impede recognizing nuances like the difference between those who come on H1B visas — who are among the most highly educated in the places they come from — and those coming as refugees. We need to pay attention to that diversity. We can’t see both while using a general category.

Most importantly, we can’t see those groups that have high levels of need and require resources and support to survive and thrive.

Chicagoland’s Arab American community needs a census category.

Research conducted by the Arab American Institute (calculated in 2017) suggests that the way the U.S. Census currently collects data through the American Community Survey (ACS) leads to significant undercounting  (by about 1.6 million). That is because the ACS relies upon a small sample of the US population (about 3.5 million households a year pre COVID), while the Decennial Census is meant to obtain a full count and is sent to all households.

While the Census does not have an ancestry question, it does include questions on race/ethnicity.

Yet while the Office of Management and Budget, which provides guidelines for the Census, requires that data be collected on five racial groups, Arabs are not one of them. The decennial census form encourages Arab Americans to fill out ‘white’ for race/ethnicity. Although anyone can fill out multiple race/ethnicity categories, the issue is that Arab Americans are then lumped in with other racial/ethnic groups.

If a Middle East North Africa (MENA) census category was included in the race question, we would approach a fuller count of MENA populations and better enable them to gain access to the resources they need.

Adding a Middle East North Africa question on the decennial census would effectively disaggregate Arabs from other racial/ethnic groups. This could affect political redistricting and the allocation of public dollars.

Even with the problems of collective averages, the data show that Arab Americans in the Chicago MSA collectively have a higher rate of poverty, lower median household income, higher portion of renters, and a higher portion of rent-burdened renters than the Chicago MSA overall. This signals that the successes of some Arab American groups are not enough to conceal the economic challenges faced by a substantial proportion of Arab Americans.

The vast differences within the Arab American community require that community leaders — whether in government, education, or public health — look more precisely at the communities before them. The socioeconomic issues confronting many (not all) Egyptian Americans are often strikingly different from those affecting refugee communities recently arriving from the region or even those affecting other Arab American communities here for decades. Public policy will falter if pollsters and leaders continue to speak of the Arab American community as monolithic and not comprised of diverse parts.

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