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Freij: Arab Americans don't count as a minority. Here's why that's a problem | Opinion

My advocacy for the Arab American community often connects me to members of Congress. Most listen politely when I press them on social, economic and educational services needed for millions of Americans with roots in the Middle East and North Africa. Others are more blunt than polite: “Why should I care?” a lawmaker once asked me. “I don’t have any Arab Americans in my district.”

He was wrong; his district is home to thousands of Arab Americans. He didn’t know or care about this vibrant constituency for the same reason most U.S. political leaders give Arab Americans lip service: We are invisible to them. In the ways that matter to politicians and policymakers, we don’t count.

Americans from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) are erased from political maps and excluded from political data in a little-known form of ethnic redlining that leaves Arab Americans without the voice and power commensurate with our numbers. But there is a movement afoot to give us equal standing.

It starts by adding a MENA category to the list of minority groups recognized by the federal government.

The Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which determines how federal agencies collect data about Americans, defines a White American as “a person having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North America.” As a result, Arab American and other MENA populations must either identify themselves to census takers as “White” or “Other.”

There is nothing wrong with self-identifying as White — if you are White. But for the multitudes of Americans from the Middle East and North Africa, “White” is not the right answer. How many Americans are we talking about? The best estimates place the Arab American population at 3.5 million, but that’s almost certainly a major underestimation because there is no accurate counting of my community. Which is the point.

Americans who identify as Black, Hispanic or Latino, Native American, Asian and Pacific Islanders are not forced to call themselves White on Census forms. Dozens of federal agencies don’t count them as White in their policy and grant-making processes. Their designation gives them:

➤ Access to billions of dollars in federal funding programs, such as those supporting community development, public health and education for marginalized people. We’re talking Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, small business grants, Head Start and dozens of other threads in the social safety net.

➤ Power to be included when authorities track issues such as employment discrimination or infant mortality rates.

➤ Influence in local and national presidential campaigns managed by political consultants who segment voters based on government data, with agendas built to appeal to White voters and voters from recognized minority groups.

For White and minority populations recognized by the U.S. Census and the OMB, their federally recognized population numbers force politicians to cater to their interests. For the millions of Americans with origins in the Middle East and North America, there are no official numbers — and that makes us invisible.

The status quo is a travesty for all Americans. Rural White communities have unique needs that differ from urban Arab American communities. Lumping them together dilutes both communities’ political identity. And diluting political identity of one minority community is a threat to all minorities: When you deny political power to one community of color, you reduce the cumulative impact of all communities of color.

Fortunately, the OMB under President Joe Biden is reviewing Statistical Policy Directive Number 15, which establishes the minimum categories for all federal agencies conducting data collection on race and ethnicity. The agency has already updated its standards and outlined ways to collect more detailed demographic data, including a footnote describing a sample question asking about a person’s Middle Eastern and North African ancestry.

That’s a positive sign, but we need more than signals. We need to be counted alongside White and minority Americans who are already designated by the federal government as worthy of representation. Otherwise, millions of Arab Americans live in the shadows of U.S. politics, without access or power or influence. Without even a voice.

The next time a lawmaker asks me why they should care about Arab Americans, let me count the reasons.

Maha Freij is the president and chief executive officer at the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services, the largest Arab American community nonprofit in the United States. ACCESS offers a wide range of social, economic, health and educational services to a diverse population.