Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) had a question that the director of the U.S. Census didn't really want to answer: "Do I look white to you?"
It wasn't a pop cultural sensitivity quiz, but a query that aimed for the heart of an ongoing problem with the U.S. Census, which is just getting started in remote parts of the country. That is that it seems likely to wind up significantly undercounting immigrants and minorities, or, in the case of people like Tlaib, one of just two Muslims in Congress, counting them as white.
Tlaib's question hit on two looming problems that advocates see with the Census.
First, the decennial survey lacks a category for people who hail from the Middle East and North Africa, and who do not fit into the Census box of white or black, which is their only choice, aside from an option to write in something else.
As Tlaib explained to Census Director Steven Dillingham at an Oversight Committee hearing Wednesday, that literally means that people of Middle Eastern and North African extraction (the category is referred to as MENA) do not count in a statistical sense.
She pointed out that without counting the MENA category, it means there is no data on millions of people for civil rights enforcement, to determine needs for language programs, to guide health research or to inform small businesses interested in such customers. (Census data is linked to some $220 billion in economic activity every year.)
"You're making us invisible," Tlaib said. "The continued absence of this ethnic category contributes to erasing us."
Second, the only reason there isn't a MENA category, or a more accurate way to describe Latinos for that matter, is that the Trump administration decided not to make those reforms.
The changes had long been sought and extensively studied by advocates and the Census Bureau's own experts, who recommended that the adopt them. Changing the way Latinos were counted and allowing the MENA category would improve the count, they concluded.
Why the administration ignored its own experts in those cases is not entirely clear, but litigation over the administration's attempt to add a citizenship question revealed what a judge called "racial animus." In the case of the citizenship question, documents revealed that its proponents saw it as a way to suppress the count of non-white Hispanics, and boost the white tally.
The Supreme Court eventually blocked the citizenship question.
Dillingham told Tlaib that the Bureau is looking at the MENA category again, but she said that was not good enough.
"It's too late. It's too late because for 10 years we will be invisible," she said. "We will be invisible for another decade in our country. And I think it's wrong."