Visibly Invisible: Little Arabia and the Redistricting Process

By: Amin Nash

Visibly Invisible

It is hard to miss Little Arabia. Just head down to Anaheim and take a drive down Brookhurst Street. Between Crescent and Katella, you’ll notice hundreds of signs written in Arabic and English.

Little Arabia is an anchor for Southern California’s Arab American Community and is one of Anaheim’s most well-loved cultural districts. Yet, despite the public support for Little Arabia, which represents the people’s affection for Arab, Middle Eastern, and North African cultures, Arabs are not categorically represented at the federal level. In other words, although Arabs visually contribute to the economic and cultural fabric of Southern California, they remain “invisible” to the government. And because of this (un)conscious oversight, the fate of Little Arabia was on the brink of being torn apart during Orange County’s and Anaheim’s Redistricting Process.

The Issue

Data from the 2020 Census reveals that Anaheim’s population fluctuated around District 2, where Little Arabia resides. Population increases in Districts 3, 4, and 5 have inspired some to redraw district lines, potentially splitting communities and reducing access to a single representative who can respond to the community’s needs. Access to school resources, for example, would be reduced if districts either maintained or did not consider the minority population. Moreover, these population changes reveal that Arab and other minority populations miss essential healthcare and economic support services. Despite a significant Arab presence in District 2, Anaheim avoids factoring Arab groups in municipal decision-making processes.

Orange County’s Redistricting Process revealed gaping holes in the recognition of Arab Americans at the government level. Studies have shown that the unofficial number of Arabs in Southern California sits around 373,000. Still, the lack of the official Middle East and North African box on the Census form means surveyors cannot capture Arabs in the data, rendering them invisible in terms of official demographic counts. And since the government only sees numbers, not actual people, Arabs are invisible to officials. The administration of Donald Trump exacerbated the situation when they did not include the MENA category in the 2020 ballot, all but guaranteeing an uphill struggle for Arab representation.

A History of Advocacy, a History of Challenges

Arabs in Anaheim have referred to Little Arabia as their Community of Interest since the 1990s, and they have advocated for the community during significant electoral changes from 2012 to 2015. In these meetings, the Arab community argued how they helped invigorate the area around Brookhurst and provide food, culture, and life to the area throughout the years, bolstering Little Arabia’s strength as a Community of Interest. 

Fragmenting the district would disjoint the community’s ability to market and provide services to their customer base around Anaheim. However, the potential economic issue is outweighed by the loss of access to a city representative who can care, listen, and respond to the community’s needs. Without representation, the community fears they will not have proper awareness and will face further misunderstanding and xenophobia. 

Recognizing this potential loss, the Arab American Civic Council began advocating for the community. Throughout 2021, The Council organized meetings, workshops, and community engagements to inform the Little Arabia stakeholders about the potential damages of redistricting. However, much of the Arab community has become disillusioned by the government’s treatment of their community, making advocacy challenging and sometimes isolating. 

But the unique thing about Anaheim’s Little Arabia is that it is a multi-cultural, multiethnic district, known for its Arabic signs but equally for its diverse residents. Just as Arabs become disenchanted with the uphill battle for recognition, the rest of Anaheim’s community has encouraged them to push forward.

Rise Together

Pressured but not defeated, the Arab American Civic Council began looking for ways to partner with other minority communities who have shared similar challenges when advocating for the invisible. Other minority communities in Anaheim – such as Asian American and Latinx communities – have uplifted the Arab community through advocacy and relationships built over the years. These communities have often recognized and empathized with the struggles of the Arab community and, through their advocacy, have uplifted and defended the community as one essential to Anaheim’s makeup.

Thus, the Arab American Civic Council joined the People’s Redistricting Alliance (PRA) to foster a community of like-minded minorities. The PRA has worked to defend and represent workers and citizens of Anaheim who have been marginalized, erased, or ignored during previous redistricting processes. Recognizing Little Arabia’s contributions to Anaheim’s multiethnic communities, the PRA treated the Arab community as a legitimate demographic in Anaheim’s cultural makeup. Together, this coalition of multiracial and minority groups began writing testimonies, drawing maps, and advocating as a unit for their cause. 

Throughout 2021, the Arab American Civic Council alongside members of the PRA organized, advocated, and represented their communities across Orange County, culminating at the OC Board of Supervisors Meeting. The coalition of like-minded ethnic groups, representing all types of educational and professional levels, were physically present, conscious, and ready to make a significant change. The coalition provided dozens of testimonies about the lived experiences of Little Arabia, and all equally recognized the harmony Little Arabia holds between Arabs and non-Arabs alike. Advocates affiliated with Arab American Civic Council alone submitted more than twenty five oral and written testimonials, all mentioning Little Arabia.

Victory in OC, Victory in Anaheim. Still, More to be Done

On December 15th, 2021, the OC Board of Supervisors drew the maps approved by their committee for the Primary Elections, signaling that the work of the Arab American Civic Council and the PRA has paid off at the State and the City level. However, even though Orange County has recognized the Arab American community as a legitimate Community of Interest, advocacy had to continue for one more vote: Anaheim’s Redistricting Vote on March 15th

A series of maps kept Little Arabia whole in Anaheim but did not allocate essential resources to minority residents, specifically at schools that cater to Latinx and Arab youth. To ensure the correct map is selected, representatives from the Arab American Civic Council and the Anaheim Citizens Redistricting Committee attended the March 1st meeting in Anaheim to advocate for Map 114. 

On March 15th, in a 5-1 vote, the Anaheim City Council announced that it has formally adopted Map 114. The people were successful in their efforts, and for another decade, Little Arabia will be kept whole, and the residents will be able to build their representation for the future.  Arab Americans are still struggling to be included in the Census form to ensure such a challenge doesn’t occur again. The community advocates for their cultural center, Little Arabia, to be designated as an official location in Anaheim’s rich, diverse city. Ultimately, the Arab American community hopes that their advocacy and efforts will help recognize the community as a positive and essential piece of America’s rich tapestry, from the past to the future.

Amin Nash is a PhD student at Claremont Graduate University and a NNAAC Fellow at the Arab American Civic Council. Special thanks to Noah Allison for providing insight and edits to this piece.