Flint, MI—One Flint organization is joining a nationwide effort to change the way Arab Americans are counted in the census.

When it comes to being counted in the census, the Arab American population faces a unique challenge. People who identify as being Middle Eastern or North African are counted as white by the U.S Census Bureau. Though the census offers a space to list countries of origin, it makes it clear that anyone identifying as being from a country like Lebanon or Egypt must mark themselves down as white, along with people of Irish or German descent, for example.

For organizations like Flint’s Arab American Heritage Council, a non-profit dedicated to preserving Arab culture and history in the city, not having a way to determine population numbers inside the community they serve can get in the way of their mission.

“I think for organizations like the AAHC, this data is absolutely essential. For one, we service this community, and our role is to identify the needs of the community. Having accurate population data better positions us to address those needs,” Lucine Jarrah, the AAHC’s marketing and outreach coordinator said.

The 2020 U.S Census counts people from the regions of the Middle East and North Africa as being white. (Courtesy Photo | U.S Census Bureau)

Though the AAHC is local to Flint and Genesee county, it has now become part of a joint effort made up of hundreds of similar organizations across the county to add MENA—Middle Eastern or North African—as a category in future censuses. 

Jarrah has been spearheading the organization’s MENA campaign project. She said for the AAHC, which offers immigration and language services and tracks the growth of the community, ambiguous census numbers have a very real effect on its operations. 

Jarrah explained one of the most important aspects of the campaign is its focus on raising awareness.

“The goals of the campaign are really twofold. We want people to be asking questions about why the (MENA) box is essential and how not being properly counted affects our communities. We also want to get our community partners involved so we can create a coalition of sorts around this subject. “Jarrah said.

Though similar efforts have been made in the past to no avail, Jarrah believes keeping pressure on the government to make the right changes is “imperative.”

“Getting this box is one way we can increase our representation so it’s fundamental that we continue to encourage this conversation,” Jarrah said.

She also noted an inaccurate count of the population they serve can also cause financial problems. 

One of the census’s most important functions is determining the amount of federal funding that goes toward communities and organizations based on their population makeup. In 2020, Flint’s Census offices determined each person in Flint counted on the census represented about $30,000 worth of federal funds to the city and organizations in it over the course of 10 years. 

Though census takers can clarify their specific ethnicity below the “white” category, at the federal level, Arab Americans are counted simply as white. 

“The reality here is that without accurate representation in the data, we lose government funding for addressing population-specific needs. It also makes it harder to address disparities in jobs and access to things like education, health care and mental health services,” Jarrah said. 

Devin Bathish, executive director at the AAHC explained how the lack of a MENA category has been affecting the Arab American community in Flint and across the country for years. 

He used Flint’s Latinx population as an example. 

Though, there is a stigma around filling out the census in the Latinx community, there is still a category for Hispanic people. While not 100 percent accurate, organizations like the Latinx Technology and Community Center will have access to a newly updated population count by the end of 2021. 

The AAHC, however, has had to base its population estimates on a 2004 survey done by the Genesee County Health Department. 

“We have no accurate data. The best we can say is we estimate there are about 20,000 Arab Americans in the Genesee County area. The only reason we have that number is because of a 2004 survey. Back then we counted 12,000 people and since then we have just gradually tried to estimate the growth of the population,” Bathish said. 

This lack of data then precipitates further issues. 

In the past year these discrepancies in population numbers became all the more pertinent as data regarding COVID-19 and how it affects people from different ethnic backgrounds started coming out. 

“Where the need for this information really comes into play is in areas like public health. When you look at COVID-19 vaccination rates we really have no idea how the Arab American population is doing,” Bathish said. 

For now, the AAHC and other Arab American-centric organizations have 10 years to advocate for the inclusion of MENA on the U.S Census.

Throughout its 231-year history, the U.S census has lagged behind the most up-to-date standards for identifying race. The first census only included three race categories, “white, all other races and slaves.” By 1850 the category “Mulatto” was added to include people of mixed race. It wasn’t until 130 years later, in 1980, that “Hispanic” would be added as a category. 

In the meantime, Bathish said MENA populations are not getting the benefits they deserve, but are suffering consequences of other ways the government views them.

“The United States government does not track the Arab American community for the benefit of the community. They have absolutely tracked us to surveil us. Every way in which it can be detrimental to be tracked, surveilled or monitored, the U.S has done that. The one thing that we are fighting for is actually being counted in a way that benefits the community,” Bathish said. 

For more information on the AAHC, you can visit their website here. 

Santiago Ochoa is Flint Beat's Latinx Community reporter. He is always looking to write about anything Flint or Latinx. He especially enjoys investigative reporting and human-interest stories. A communications...