The term Arab will be meaningless if we don’t stand behind it and choose “MENA” instead
By Ray Hanania
Last month, members of the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation, House Bill 3768, which would include the term MENA (Middle East and North Africa) in the “Uniform Racial Classification Act” which requires state agencies to compile and report statistical data using racial classifications.
Essentially, it defines who is recognized and who is not recognized.
The MENA category is easier to approve than pushing for the ARAB category which would have a greater impact in strengthening the rights of Arab Americans.
But the challenges of racism that Arab face in America, and the lack of education that Americans have about Arabs that drives the overwhelmingly negative perceptions of the Arab community are obstacles that using the term MENA hopes to circumvent.
In other words, members of Congress really don’t want to empower “Arabs” and Arab Americans, who have been fighting for recognition and inclusion without success for more than 50 years, have decided to take whatever they can get just so they can say they have a “win.”
But MENA is not a win. It is a re-enforcement of everything that anti-Arab racism has been built upon.
Racism is a powerful force in America, a country that was built almost entirely on the welcoming of foreign immigrants. America is a country of races and that diversity has fueled various levels of racism against different racial groups.
Every racial immigrant group that has come to America has faced their own form of racism whether it is the Irish, Germans, Italians, Chinese, or Africans. Those that came here as welcomed groups, like the White Europeans, had a different racial experience than Blacks who were captured in Africa and sold into slavery.
The Chinese were welcomed as “cheap labor” and often denigrated with the term “Yellow people.”
Arabs, in contrast, not only shared the same challenges but also faced a heavier burden of challenges driven by American foreign policy.
That political aspect of anti-Arab racism, which encompasses many negative racial stereotypes including the never ending conflict with Israel, has added a steel-like coating that has made it impossible to break.
On top of the politics has been the differences in religion. All Arabs are perceived by the generally uneducated American public as being “Muslim.” Arab Christians are ignored by the mainstream American Christian community which is the dominant religion of the majority of immigrants that came to America over the past four centuries.
Almost every racial group has achieved some form of acceptance in America, except for Arabs.
While the other racial groups have been identified for what they are in the cornerstone of racial equality, the U.S. Census, such as Africans, Hispanics, Asians, Native Americans, Arabs have been excluded.
Why? Because inclusion in the U.S. Census is the first foundation for American empowerment in a nation built on immigrant history. The Census assigns power to included racial groups, mandating grant funding to support their activities and needs. The Census also provide a political power by recognizing cohesive geographic racial gatherings.
If an area of a state has a large concentration of a certain racial group, such as Hispanics, the American Government is mandated to include as much of that racial group within the boundaries of a Congressional District to give the community a stronger voter voice and thus result in the election of one of their own to the Congress.
That provision has done more to give Hispanics, Blacks, Asians and other “accepted” racial groups a presence in Congress, on the national level, and in recognizing statewide political districts such as state legislative districts.
The Census prevents the politicians from drawing lines through communities to divide them and weaken their voice as was done to the Arab community very recently.
In Illinois, the former 3rd Congressional District was recognized in a New York Times analysis of district, to have the largest concentration of Arab and Palestinian voters. As a consequence, in 2020, the district elected one of the most vocal representatives for Arab and Palestinian rights, Congresswoman Marie Newman.
Newman was a progressive Democrat who championed humanitarian rights in a state that has historically been very anti-Arab. Illinois was one of three American states that approved the first Anti-BDS laws in 2015, laws punishing anyone who sided with Arabs and Palestinians who criticized Israel’s government, making the BDS movement (Boycott, Divestment, Sanction) illegal and punishable.
Since 2015, more than 25 more states have embraced the Illinois definition prohibiting and criminalizing the boycott of Israel, a foreign country. The anti-BDS laws as a violation of the U.S. Constitution that supposedly guarantees in the First Amendment five “inalienable rights” that include Freedom of speech, press, petition, assembly and religion.
In the face of this overwhelming American campaign of anti-Arab rights, Arab American organizations have tired of fighting for the higher principles supposedly guaranteed to every American, including Arab Americans, and have abandoned the demand to include the term “Arab” in the Uniform Racial Classification Act in states like Illinois.
Instead of demanding a seat at the table where they can equally share in dividing the “loaf of bread,” (a euphemism for all the assets and powers of America), they have opted to scrape the crumbs that have fallen off the table and not taking a seat.
Passage of MENA over the term Arab, is a move of weakness. It will forever bury the demand that Arabs be recognized and equals in a society where all other racial groups are identified and empowered individually.
Under 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 a carpet and Arabs will be forced to compete with themselves for rights that they deserve but 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.
Who knows, embracing the term MENA may even result in the American education system erasing the word “Arab” from classroom studies, making a lot of people who hate Arabs extremely happy.
(Ray Hanania is an award winning former Chicago City Hall reporter. A political analyst and CEO of Urban Strategies Group, Hanania’s opinion columns on mainstream issues are published in the Southwest News Newspaper Group in the Des Plaines Valley News, Southwest News-Herald, The Regional News, The Reporter Newspapers. His Middle East columns are published in the Arab News. For more information on Ray Hanania visit www.Hanania.com or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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