How America is erasing the Arab identity
The US House of Representatives passed legislation last month to include the Middle East and North Africa as a category in the Uniform Racial Classification Act, which requires state agencies to compile and report statistical data using racial classifications, thus effectively defining which groups are recognized and which are not.
The racism that Arabs face in the US, and the widespread ignorance about Arabs that drives Americans’ overwhelmingly negative perceptions of the Arab community, are obstacles that the new MENA category hopes to address. It was easier to approve than an Arab category, although the latter would have had far greater impact in strengthening the rights of Arab Americans.
But Congress really doesn’t want to empower Arab Americans, who have been fighting for recognition and inclusion without success for more than 50 years. So Arabs have decided to take what they can get, and call it a win.
But the MENA category is not a win. Rather it is a reinforcement of everything that anti-Arab racism has been built upon.
Racism is a powerful force in America, a country built almost entirely on welcoming immigrants. Paradoxically, it is that very diversity that has fueled racism. Every immigrant group that has come to America — from the Irish to the Germans, the Italians to the Chinese — has faced their own form of racism, and the Arabs are no different. However, Arabs have also faced unique challenges driven by the foreign policies of successive Washington administrations. This political aspect of anti-Arab racism, which encompasses the conflict with Israel, has added a steel-like coating that has made it impossible to break.
At the root of the problem is the US Census, which counts and categorizes every US resident every 10 years. Inclusion in the census as a racial group is the foundation for empowerment in a nation built on immigrant history. The census assigns power to specific racial groups, and orders grant funding to support their activities and needs. It also enables political power by recognizing cohesive geographic racial gatherings.
Categorized as MENA, Arabs will continue to be marginalized and defined as “Middle Eastern,” a hodge-podge of miscellaneous identities.
For example, if some areas of a state have a large concentration of a certain racial group, such as Hispanics, the US government is required to include as many of that racial group as possible within the boundaries of one or more Congressional districts, to give the community a stronger voter voice and result in the election of their own chosen candidates to Congress. This provision has done more than anything else to give Hispanics, black people, Asians and other “accepted” racial groups a legislative presence at both state and national level. The census prevents politicians from drawing lines through communities to divide them and weaken their voice.
But these benefits do not apply to Arabs, because they are not recognized as a distinct racial group. Arab American organizations have given up fighting for the higher principles that are supposedly guaranteed to every American, including Arab Americans, and have abandoned the demand to include the term “Arab” in the Uniform Racial Classification Act.
Instead of demanding a seat at the table where they can share equally in the loaf of bread — all the assets and powers of America — they have opted to scrape up the crumbs that have fallen off the table.
The preference for the MENA category over an Arab category is a sign of weakness. It will forever bury the demand that Arabs be recognized as equals in a society where all other racial groups are identified and empowered individually.
Categorized as MENA, Arabs will continue to be marginalized and defined as “Middle Eastern,” a hodge-podge of miscellaneous identities. Arab, the true identity of the Arab world and the Arab people, will be swept under that carpet and Arabs will be forced to compete with themselves for the rights that they deserve but which have been denied for generations in America.
Everything that Arab Americans have fought for will be lost, blurred, marginalized and politically diluted and cast aside without meaning.
Embracing the term MENA may even result in the American education system erasing the word “Arab” from classroom studies — which would make a lot of people who hate Arabs extremely happy.
• Ray Hanania is an award-winning former Chicago City Hall political reporter and columnist. He can be reached on his personal website at www.Hanania.com. Twitter: @RayHanania