There has been much criticism, in terms of morality and feasibility, of the suggestions of GOP contenders such as Jeb Bush and Donald Trump to limit or delay importing more Muslim Middle Easterners. Common arguments against selectivity or prudence have been that the government has no way of knowing who is what, and counting and favoritism just aren’t who we are as Americans. And besides, all calls for more precision are motivated by Islamophobia and White Privilege.
Meanwhile, the Census Bureau continues to quietly test Arab ethnic activists’ demands for breaking the White category down to allow Middle Easterners and North Africans to give up their White Privilege and, in effect, become eligible finally for affirmative action privileges via disparate impact discrimination lawsuits.
My impression has long been that how the government counts has far reaching ramifications. For example, in the 1970s and early 1980s, Indian immigrant businessman demanded to no longer be considered Caucasian so that they could qualify for minority business development programs like their Oriental rivals were. Republicans didn’t object since everybody knew that Indian businessmen were natural Republicans, and so this was just politics 101: reward your friends. Except, once Indians were no longer officially white, Indian-American intellectuals immediately developed a financial interest in promoting the anti-white narratives that justify their uncles’ legal preferences over whites. Changing Indians from “Caucasian” to “Asian” added a loquacious element to the otherwise rather taciturn and unpersuasive Asian group.
So, I went looking for recent articles on this subject of the Census Bureau’s experiments with dealing with Arab demands to not be white anymore. Not surprisingly, the most interesting articles I found were in the Jewish press debating whether it would be good for the Jews. From The Forward:
Debra Nussbaum Cohen (Haaretz)June 19, 2015
Does being Jewish mean being part of a race? Or a religion? What ethnicity are Jews? Many American Jews have found these questions difficult to answer every 10 years, when a census taker knocks on the door as part of the decennial national head count.
The only choices: “white, black or Asian” for race and, under ethnicity, “Hispanic/Latino” don’t quite fit the way many American Jews – and others – see themselves. Religion is not asked about at all, for reasons rooted both in privacy concerns and objections by American Jewry in the years immediately following the Holocaust.
Now the United States Census Bureau is testing a new category, “Middle East-North Africa” or MENA, in response to more than three decades of lobbying by Arab American organizations for a designation that better represents them. The testing, to start in September, will refine wording and sub-categories for the 2020 census. Nineteen options will be offered under the MENA designation, among them Israeli and Palestinian, as well as Egyptian, Syrian, Lebanese, Turkish, Iranian, Moroccan and Algerian. Even Sudanese and Somali are being considered.
“Most Arabs don’t consider themselves white,” said Samer Khalaf, national president of The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, which has long lobbied for a more accurate label than “white.” Khalaf was one of 30 participants in a May 29 meeting convened by the U.S. Census Bureau so that researchers and representatives of MENA communities could discuss and offer feedback on the proposed changes.
“It’s a little arrogant for the government to dictate to any citizens what you should be identified as,” Khalaf told Haaretz later. “The MENA category was a bit of a compromise for us. In a perfect world we’d have an Arab category.” Instead, they agreed to settle on the geography-based MENA designation.
At least some in the Israeli-American community welcome the addition of a MENA option, though others prefer not to label themselves.
At a time when notions of race and ethnicity in America, like gender, are increasingly fluid, what will the addition of this category mean for the American Jewish community? If Israelis choose to be identified as part of MENA, will that in any way separate them from American Jews who opt for “white?”
And as the meaning of race is being refracted through the lens of the Rachel Dolezal scandal, after the head of the Spokane, WA NAACP chapter was outed as white, though she long identified as black, will these census changes serve to clarify ethnic identity in America or cloud the issues further?
… “We allocate billions of dollars to state and local governments based on these counts,” said Ramirez.
The last change to the race and ethnicity categories was in 1970, when Hispanic was added as an option to some questionnaires. In 1980 it became part of the form distributed to every household. While the census bureau is testing MENA and other issues under consideration for changes in the 2020 census, ultimately it is up to the White House Office of Management and Budget and the U.S. Congress to approve new classifications, Ramirez said.
To date, the only way to glean the contours of foreign-born communities has been through a census question asking where respondents were born. But that doesn’t capture people’s real sense of national/racial/ethnic identity, particularly when it comes to a country like Israel, where people are often born in other countries and there is a great deal of mobility.
Oren Heiman, chairperson of Moatza Mekomit, was part of the May 29 census meeting in Washington and is a good illustration of some of the unique challenges of Israeli identity: Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, he moved to Israel at the age of 9, where he lived in Herziliya until age 30. Now an attorney in New York, Heiman has lived here for many years and is returning shortly to Israel with his wife and infant daughter. Since he previously answered American-born, until now he would not have been counted by the U.S. government as Israeli, though it is very much the way he identifies himself.
“How do you count people who deem themselves Israeli, have Israeli citizenship, did the military, speak Hebrew at home and children who have both parents Israeli? Now if you have a MENA category, with Israeli in a drop-down menu, they can,” he said in an interview.
But some Israelis don’t even like the notion of being identified that way on a U.S. Census.
Ronit Lavi was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, to a Jewish mother and Lithuanian father. She emigrated to Israel alone as a young teenager, becoming religious, and Hebraized her name. Lavi, who is now a physical therapist in Brooklyn and lives in Sheepshead Bay, a heavily Russian-Jewish neighborhood, stayed in Israel for 16 years. Blond and with a fair complexion, she was catcalled by Israeli men and teenagers when she lived in Jerusalem. …
The addition of new census categories will be good for the Jews beyond Israeli Americans, said demographer Steven M. Cohen.
In America, with its “melting pot” orientation, Jews assimilate more rapidly than do fellow tribe members in Canada, Great Britain or Australia, which have smaller Jewish populations but cultures more sympathetic to the perpetuation of ethnic group ties, Cohen said.
“Being unwelcoming of the perpetuation of ethnic identity actually speeds up Jewish assimilation,” he told Haaretz. “Jews have an interest in an America which is more vividly Hispanic, Hindu, Muslim and Middle Eastern. This would be a small blow in favor of recognizing ethnic variation in America, which in the long run will survive as a distinct ethnic group.”
“Anything that fosters ethnic identity in America actually helps Jewish continuity,” he said. “It makes the culture more empathetic to perpetuation of ethnic group ties.”
In Jewish population studies most, though far from all, American Jews say they are Jewish by religion. And no race/ethnicity category, by itself, can fully reflect the truth of what it means to be Jewish.
“Faced with a census form and the mental images of a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant, a black Baptist, a Korean Buddhist or a Hispanic Catholic, white, black, Asian and Sephardi Jews might have some conflicted feelings,” said Rabbi Avi Shafran, a spokesman for Agudath Israel of America, in an email. “While Judaism is a religion, the Jewish people is a people. Peoplehood, at least Jewish peoplehood, transcends ethnicity and race.”
The last time the federal government asked about religion was 1957, said Alan Cooperman, director of religion research at the Pew Research Center, in a population survey rather than decennial census. Subsequently “there was a debate and a number of religious groups and civil liberties groups asked that the census not ask about religion, as a violation of church and state or intrusion on privacy.”
Concepts of race and ethnicity have a complicated, terrible history for Jews, and American Jewish organizations were among those opposed to census questions about religion….
Yet “there was a time when Jews referred to themselves as the Hebrew race,” noted Kelner.
“American Jews want to maintain a distinct identity and on the other hand want to be fully integrated into broader society and don’t want the distinctiveness to come at a price,” Kelner said. “Being marked on the census as Jewish gives you more information. It affirms the difference. Maybe it will have some type of legal consequences and benefits. But on the other hand, it goes against a century-plus of how American Jews have managed that tension.”