Advance Notice: Briefs

Tlaib slams census for leaving out Middle Eastern, North African people

By: - February 20, 2020 5:29 pm

U.S. Rashida Tlaib at the Detroit NAACP dinner | Andrew Roth

In a testy exchange with the U.S Census Bureau director last week, U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit) slammed the bureau’s failure to include more diverse demographic information for people of Middle Eastern and North African descent.

The moment garnered social media attention on Wednesday when the news organization NowThis News posted a video on Twitter of the exchange, which occurred during a U.S. House Oversight Committee hearing.

“Do I look white to you?” Tlaib asked U.S. Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham during the hearing. “… Do you think if I circled [the] ‘white’ category, that would be an accurate depiction of my racial and ethnic background?”

New census website launches ahead of 2020 survey

Tlaib, who is Palestinian American, notes that research efforts had been long underway to add the new category of “Middle Eastern/North African” (MENA) to the 2020 survey. Based on those findings, the U.S. Census Bureau under the former President Obama administration had recommended for the category to be added.

However, things changed under the President Trump administration. In January 2018, the Census Bureau announced it would no longer be adding the new category for the 2020 census.

President Donald J. Trump on Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019 at the White House. | Official White House Photo by Tia Dufour via Flickr Public Domain

“The previous administration decided to put MENA on the form,” Tlaib said. “They [the Trump administration] ignored it.”

Tlaib said that by not including the MENA category, people who are Arab, Middle Eastern or North African are forced to identify as “white” on the survey. She argued that this can lead to critical federal funding for those communities not being allocated, leading to potentially worse outcomes for those who are not properly counted on the census.

Currently, the race and ethnicity categories for the 2020 census include:

  • American Indian or Alaska Native
  • Asian
  • Black or African American
  • Hispanic or Latino
  • Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander
  • White
Attorney General Dana Nessel at the Lansing Women’s March, Jan. 18, 2020 | Anna Liz Nichols

The “white” category is defined by the Office of Management and Budget as “a person having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa.”

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel quote-tweeted the NowThis video later on Thursday with words of support for Tlaib.

“I urge everyone to watch this phenomenal statement by [Tlaib] about the erasure of Arab Americans and other ethnic minorities from the census form and the important reasons why being properly represented in census data matters so much,” Nessel said.

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Laina G. Stebbins
Laina G. Stebbins

Laina G. Stebbins is a former Michigan Advance reporter. A lifelong Michigander, she is a graduate of Michigan State University’s School of Journalism, where she served as Founding Editor of The Tab Michigan State and as a reporter for the Capital News Service.