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Census Bureau: No Middle Eastern Or North African Check Box


Here in this country, the 2020 census is rolling out nationwide this week. Now, for decades, the U.S. government has categorized people with roots in the Middle East or in North Africa as white. Despite an ongoing push from some advocates, that is not changing for this year's census. We're bringing you an updated report about the controversial decision first made two years ago. Here's NPR's Hansi Lo Wang.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Naseem Alkobadi (ph) left Yemen as a young girl with her family 17 years ago. And after they settled in New York City, she noticed that when you fill out an official form here in the U.S., there always seemed to be a question about race and ethnicity.

NASEEM ALKOBADI: Everywhere - you can see it when you go to a doctor or schools. You always get this option.

WANG: And Alkobadi says she wasn't sure which checkbox is for her.

ALKOBADI: Honestly, it was hard for me to pick. I was like, oh, my God. What should I put? Should I put Asian or...

WANG: Other? Alkobadi says because Yemen is on the continent of Asia, she settled on Asian. And when she can on forms, she writes in Arab. But she says on the 2020 census, she would've liked to mark a box for Middle Eastern or North African.

ALKOBADI: It should be there because they have many nationalities. So why is it not there? It's unbelievable.

WANG: In 2018, the U.S. Census Bureau decided against adding a Middle Eastern or North African category now because, officials said, they need to do more research. That disappointed Mohammad Barakat. He works at the Arab-American Family Support Center based in Brooklyn and remembers grappling with the race question as a first-grader.

MOHAMMAD BARAKAT: My parents came here from Palestine. They didn't really know English. And so whenever there was paperwork, I had to do it.

WANG: And on one of those forms...

BARAKAT: I remember seeing white and then in parentheses, anyone from the Middle East or North Africa.

WANG: Which are the regions, along with Europe, that the U.S. government defines as white. But Barakat was perplexed. He went to school and asked a teacher if he could answer Asian.

BARAKAT: And she's like, well, if you want to put Asian, go ahead. But I think you should put white. And so I went around asking other teachers. And they all said, you're white. You're white. And I'm like, but look at me.

WANG: Barakat says he doesn't look white. And he's culturally not white. But, sometimes, he marks white if he sees the Middle East and North Africa listed next to it. Or he looks for a box for other, so he can write in Arab. This makeshift way of answering surveys means that information about people with roots in the Middle East or North Africa is often hidden within data about other groups.

MAYA BERRY: The fight right now is to say the category should be there because it will arrive at a better count.

WANG: Maya Berry is the executive director of the Arab American Institute, which is trying to get a category added to the 2030 census form. It's an issue that touches on a sensitive topic, especially after President Trump's travel bans against countries such as Iran, Libya, Syria and Yemen. Federal law prohibits the Census Bureau from releasing census responses identifying individuals for 72 years. But many in the Middle Eastern and North African communities in the U.S. worry about giving the federal government more personal information.

BERRY: That's the burden that our communities had to bear - trying to make a determination about, do you advocate for the inclusion of a category or not?

WANG: Berry says getting a Middle Eastern or North African checkbox onto the census is one fight. Getting people to fill it out is another. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOUSE ON THE KEYS' "MEMORY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Hansi Lo Wang (he/him) is a national correspondent for NPR reporting on the people, power and money behind the U.S. census.
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