Counting Arab Americans in light of the Threat Narrative and White Privilege

By Louise A. Cainkar
Submitted to Session P4893 (What's Really New about the Trump Era for Arab and Muslim Americans?, 2017 Annual Meeting
North America;
19th-21st Centuries;
Arab American and Muslim racialization are socio-political processes tied to the rise of US empire, Zionism, and the notion of foreign threat. These processes differ in timing and pretext than those experienced by Native Americans, African Americans, Latinos, and Asian Americans, who were racialized as part of a domestic, white colonial settler project. This difference produced a number of socio-political outcomes. When the list of officially recognized minority groups in the US was produced in 1977, Arabs were not on it, largely for these historic reasons and because access to white privilege left them comparably advantaged. Their “American experience” was thus not subject to government mandated statistical monitoring for disadvantage and progress. In the 1990’s Arab American activists starting “lobbying” the US Census Bureau to create a statistical category allowing for data collection and monitoring. This quest for recognition was widely supported by grassroots Arab American organizations who faced barriers to funding due to their inability to demonstrate “need.” Some twenty years later, in 2015, the Bureau signaled that it was considering the creation of a MENA category. In the intervening years, however, Arab and Muslim Americans were increasingly “counted” by being placed on all kinds of security lists: no-fly lists, special registration lists, persons of interest lists, FBI lists, and Census zip code lists, firmly institutionalizing their racialized status as one thing: a threat to American interests and to Americans, a position mirrored in public opinion polls. President Trump’s advocacy for a Muslim registry and bans on Syrian refugees and immigrants from 7 Muslim majority countries must be placed in this line of continuity. This sequence alters the original meaning of the 2020 MENA Census category, from one that monitors disadvantage and progress to one that measures threat, rendering compliance with it both questionable and risky. At the same time, the Trump Administration’s unabashed, open championing of white, straight, male, Christian privilege has brought convergence to the distinct histories of all US people of color: a singular umbrella of brown/black threat encapsulates them. This climate has changed the organizing context for Arab and Muslim Americans, who stood alone much of their American history. Furthermore, little has changed for members of these groups, despite statistical monitoring, signaling that state indexing serves the myths of fairness and racial progress under white privilege. This paper traces these histories, the meaning of being counted, and Arab American centrality to a new awakening.