I was like many American Arabs in 1980, 1990 and 2000, believing the US government cared about my ethnic community the same way it care about other communities.
Back then, I worked hard to convince American Arabs to support the Census that takes place every 10 years. I even received several recognitions for my efforts from the Federal government.
But the 30 years of broken promises forced me to realize the American government was lying. They didn’t care about Arabs, especially since after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Despite all the hard work to get America to include “Arabs” in their census count, it never happened. What did happen was that the government gave more power to other ethnic groups, while taking it away from us.
So in 2009, I began a lone battle against the Census. While many American Arabs took jobs working for the Census, and many American Arab and Muslim organizations took funding to promote the Census, I rejected it beginning in July 2009 when I wrote a column titled “Take This Census Form and Shove It!”
This year, in part because of that campaign, the American government is going to change the Census forms for 2020 and include a category for Middle Easterners, which is still short of what should be listed but better than what has been done in the past. It’s a major victory and here is why.
The American people are preoccupied with American Arabs and Muslims, but not in a positive way. They spy on us. They arrest us. Many in government positions call for our arrest, detention and expulsion from America. Even more libel Arabs and Muslims with racist stereotypes, repeating the ugly canard that “Islam is an Evil religion.”
In 2009, the government asked Arab, Muslim leaders and organizations to get our community to fill out the forms, even though “Arabs” were excluded from the long list of ethnic groups on the form.
The old form showcased only 29 privileged ethnic groups. Why is being showcased important? In America, groups that are showcased on the Census forms qualify for hundreds of millions of dollars in government grants and funding to support their goals. If you are left out, you get none. None for Arabs, despite the fact that Arabs are no different than the 29 other ethnic groups and also pay their taxes, abide by the country’s laws, and serve in the military risking our lives to protect this nation. The past Census form asked for your Race, but they listed choices favored by the Government to receive special funding.
The old Census form asks if you are “White,” but also asks if you are among 28 other ethnic groups.
It asked if you are “Hispanic, Latino or Spanish Origin” or if you are “Mexican, Mexican American or Chicano?”
Mexicans get two categories. But, what kind of race is “Chicano?” What country do “Chicanos” come from? “Chicano-stan?” It doesn’t exist. The old Census form asked if you are “Black, African American or Negro?” It asked if you are “American Indian or Alaskan Native.” They even give you a place to write in the name of your Tribe.
The old Census form asked if you are “Asian Indian, Japanese, Native Hawaiian, Chinese, Korean, Guamanian or Chamorro, Filipino, Vietnamese, Samoan or Other Asian” and they even gave you a space to print in your Asian race, suggesting “Laotian, Thai, Pakistani, Cambodian and so on.”
It asked if you are “Pacific Islander” and again gives you a space to write in your race, such as “Fijian, Tongan and so on.”
Who is a “Tongan?”
Way at the bottom of the old form, they printed a throwaway line asking you to “check here” if you are of “Some Other Race – Print Race.” That is where in 1980, 1990 and 2000, I had to hand-write that I am “Arab.” And proud of it too, by the way.
But, not every Arab or Muslim is proud to be Arab in America. Many activists and organizations took money from the government to stab their community in the back, telling them to explain to Arabs and Muslims that Arabs do not need to be identified on the Census form.
They worked hard, but they failed and more than 50 percent of Arabs and Muslims in America boycotted the Census forms in 2010.
I like to think my campaign – more than 30 columns written in more than 100 newspapers, online websites and blogs – helped convince Arabs and Muslims that it was time that we stood up and defended our reputations.
You see, in American politics, the best way to control a community is to oppress them with special laws, exclusion from the media, and harassment from police agencies. Arab and Muslim Americans suffered more prejudice and discrimination than any other ethnic group in America, per capita.
Not counting you puts the nail in the coffin. You never know how strong or weak you really are.
Arabs can guess only that there are 4.5 million Arabs in America and 7 millions Muslims. We don’t really know. And because we don’t know, the government can deny us funding. And without funding, we are not as effective in fighting for American Arab rights in this country.
The changes in the Census could end that discrimination against Arabs and Muslims. But we can’t give up. Instead of surrendering to American prejudice, we need to fight it. The new civil rights battle in America is the battle to protect the rights of Arabs and Muslims. No one else will stand up and defend us if we are not the first to stand up and fight for our own rights.
— Ray Hanania is an award winning Palestinian American columnist and radio talk show host. www.RadioChicagoland.com.