Online census event highlights importance of Assyrian visibility

April 11, 2020 | By Yasmeen Altaji

CHICAGO — Vote Assyrian took to Facebook Live Thursday evening to answer questions from an audience of about 40 viewers.

Mary Oshana, executive director of Vote Assyrian’s census project, and Joseph Hermiz, a Ph.D. student at the University of Chicago’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, co-hosted the session. 

The pair spoke about elements related to the census, such as confidentiality of census responses and the large-scale impact on the Assyrian community and its subsections within the U.S. 

Hermiz, who specializes in Assyrian history, addressed the argument that Assyrians should mark “white” on the census. 

He said that the decision by many Assyrians to mark “white” instead of “other” stems from national quotas, a practice utilized in the early 20th century to limit the number of immigrants allowed annually into the United States. Marking “white” increased immigrants’ chances of being able to enter the country, according to Hermiz.

Now, Hermiz said, today’s reality is different. 

“Many [Assyrians] have done very well for themselves, and that’s terrific,” Hermiz said. “But…that doesn’t mean that there aren’t services that our community could definitely use.” 

Such services, including job training and language training, are geared toward minority communities, Hermiz said. The low number of Assyrians in the United States that the 2010 census reflects has inhibited the Assyrian community from obtaining minority status. 

Many Assyrians have cited an unwillingness to publicize personal information, such as immigration status and employment history, as reasons not to complete the census, according to Oshana.

“Thankfully,” Oshana said, “the census is very confidential. The Census Bureau takes [confidentiality] very seriously.”

Hermiz said that the various geographical concentrations of Assyrians within Illinois, such as those in Skokie, Niles and Morton Grove, can also have an impact on census data, saying it will definitely make Assyrians “more visible.”

“There’s a much deeper meaning behind the census and what it does,” Oshana said. “We need to make sure we get counted.”


Following this article’s publication, Joseph Hermiz issued the following clarification of his statement about the origins of some Assyrians’ decisions to mark “white” on the census:

“The path to naturalization at the beginning of the twentieth century was limited only to white persons and aliens of African nativity and persons of African descent. This left immigrants from Asia and other parts of the world in an ambiguous situation as to their ‘race’ and ultimately racialized communities that had no such categorizations before. As a result, immigrants had to demonstrate their ‘whiteness’ before district courts of the United States.

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