In the U.S. Census’ most recent American Community Survey, it is estimated that 51,972 people of Arab descent currently live in the greater Chicago areas of Cook, DuPage and Lake County. Another estimate, provided by the Advisory Council on Arab Affairs to the Chicago Commission on Human Relations, puts the number of Arabs at 150,000 in the metro Chicago area. A Zogby International study suggests the number is actually 182,000. But if you speak with local activists in the Chicago area, they’ll tell you the number is closer to 300,000. When the U.S. Census Bureau does its decennial sweep of the Chicago area in April 2010, a more accurate count isn’t likely to result.

When Arab Americans fill out their census forms in just a few months, they won’t find an Arab category listed next to Asian, Black or African American, or White. “Arab is not considered a race, so there’s no racial category,” explains Louise Cainkar, a board member of the Arab American Action Network. “They have to check the white box, and a lot of people feel that their experience is not the white experience, so that’s unfair.”

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This story is part of a unique collaboration of six Chicago area ethnic news media exploring the impact of the upcoming U.S. Census count on their communities. The stories were released simultaneously on Fri., Jan. 15, by Extra (Hispanic), the Polish Daily News, 4NewsMedia (Polish), Pinoy Newsmagazine (Philippine), Future newspaper (Arab), the India Tribune, and the Korea Daily News. Click here to access the other stories: U.S. Census needed for Korean elections, Census campaign means Spis Powszechny to the Polish community, Counting Hispanics in Little Village’s hands, Two Indian communities join to take on the U.S. Census, and U.S. Census challenges fragmented Filipino community.

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In the early 20th century, the unspoken protocol in the Arab community was that crossing the white box was a way to integrate and become part of American society. Many of the Arab-Americans working with the census recall this consensus from the older generation. “Some Arabs…think it is the best way to integrate,” says Rasmieyh Abdelnabi, from the Network of Arab American Professionals. “And then you have this other side who says, yes it’s good to integrate, but you also have to acknowledge your heritage.”

Abdelnabi says the difference in opinion is mainly a generational one, with older Arabs preferring to be counted as white, while younger and American-born Arabs want their ethnic backgrounds identified. It gets complicated, though, because some Arabs, particularly those who recently immigrated, also bring lingering distrust of government agencies, and therefore wish to blend in with larger white populations, says Fadi Zanayed, president of the Chicago American Arab Anti-Discrimination Council. Fears also stem from virulent anti-Arab sentiment following September 11, 2001, and from a government request for Census lists of Arab descendants organized by zip code.

In the past, national lobbyists pushed for the addition of an Arab category on the census, but the discussion is further complicated by internal divisions within the Arab community. “Iranians aren’t Arabs, so you still wouldn’t be counting people who feel that they’re having a discriminating experience,” Cainkar says. “Or Turks or Kurds. So the Middle East is full of groups that aren’t counted as Arabs.”

A Middle Eastern category has been suggested, but its inclusion of Israel remains a problem for many Arabs. Additionally, Cainkar points out that the Middle East is a social construct, and most individuals do not identify by that geographical region.

Although the possibility remains distant, the addition of some kind of Arab category would have significant advantages for the community. “When you’re not counted, your experiences are kind of denied. It’s hard to get grants, it’s hard to get anything, because nobody counts you,” says Cainkar. “If you’re a service agency and want to provide services, nobody’s going to give you money unless they have you stipulate or have you show that there’s a need but to show a need you have to show numbers and if there’s no numbers you can’t show a need so it creates that problem.”

At present, Arabs have the option to check “Other” and write in their preferred racial label. However, the Census Bureau recodes those responses as “White” for methodological reasons, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s official procedures for race and ethnicity classifications.

“It’s not good enough to simply write in the word ‘Arab,’” says Ray Hanania, radio personality, comedian and former Chicago Sun-Times reporter, in an online post. Hanania, who is a Palestinian-American, is asking Arabs to boycott the census entirely. However, Arab-American activist groups warn that there are serious consequences for non-participation.

“The message we’re very concerned about is that if you do not participate in the census, your community is not counted which means your community is underserved and underrepresented,” says Christina Zola, director of communications at the Arab American Institute. “You will not have enough money.”

Census data is used to allocate funds for services like hospitals, job training centers, schools, public works, and emergency services. The more people who are counted, the more money a community receives.

One of the other issues that the Arab community has to face in Chicago is that it is not a bounded community. Since the end of the 19th century, Chicago became a home for Arabs from many countries: Lebanon, Syria, Israel, Occupied Palestinian Territories, Jordan or Iraq. There isn’t an official Arab area but many Arab enclaves: near 18th Street and South Michigan Avenue, west of Harlem Avenue around 93rd Street where the Mosque Foundation was built in 1981. Many Arabs live in the suburbs of Chicago, including Bridgeview, Oak Lawn and Palos Hills, and Arabs in Chicago are scattered, which softens the sense of belonging to a distinct geographic Arab community. The census would be a way for a more pan-Arab community to be heard on the city scene, and also on the national scene.

Cainkar’s early 1998 report “Meeting Community Needs, Building Community Strengths” remains one of the only studies specifically examining the Arab-American community in Chicago. The survey indicated a great need by Arab residents for services all over the city.

One example is the southwest side of Chicago, where a large concentration of Arab-Americans lives in Gage Park, Chicago Lawn, West Lawn, and West Elsdon. This community is the most economically disadvantaged from among all the Arab enclaves. Residents there voiced the need for job training and job counseling services to address the large unemployment numbers. Additionally, there was a call for more services for the growing number of American-born children, including language training and daycare centers.

A more recent look at the area in 2009 by the Illinois Department of Economic Security’s Local Area Unemployment Statistics found underfunded schools and only a handful of tutoring centers. Unemployment had hit an all-time high for this area as well.

“We want to be a voice, firstly to work for our community as a whole, not just the Arab community,” Abdelnabi says. “If we want to be powerful in the Chicago area, to stay powerful, to have a lobby for us, to have representatives coming for us, to have candidates run for offices, we have to fill in the census. The only way to stay powerful is if we show them our numbers.”