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Federal proposal of 'Middle East or North African' category is long overdue, advocates say

For decades, Americans who trace their origins to the Middle East and North Africa have had to choose "white" or "other" on the census and other government and business forms.
The 2020 Census.
The 2020 census.Justin Sullivan / Getty Images file

The Biden administration’s proposal to add a “Middle Eastern or North African” identifier, or MENA, to official documents like the census is the latest progress in a decadeslong fight to secure representation for a historically statistically invisible community, advocates say.

In a Federal Register notice published Friday, the Federal Interagency Technical Working Group on Race and Ethnicity Standards recommended adding the identifier as a new category, arguing that “many in the MENA community do not share the same lived experience as white people with European ancestry, do not identify as white, and are not perceived as white by others.”

"It's like we always say, 'white without the privilege,'" said Abed Ayoub, the national executive director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, one of the first advocacy groups to push for an identifier for the MENA community. "We're counted as white, but we've never had the privilege that comes with it."

The current standards for race and ethnicity in the U.S. are set by the Office of Management and Budget and haven't been updated since 1997. According to the OMB, there are five categories for data on race and two for ethnicity: American Indian or Alaska Native; Asian, Black or African American; Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander; White; Hispanic or Latino; and non-Hispanic or Latino.

Middle Eastern and North African are included under the "white" category, meaning Americans who trace their origins to those geographical regions have to check “white” or "other" on documents like the census, medical paperwork, job applications and federal assistance forms.

This has rendered a community that experts estimate to be 7 million to 8 million people invisible, underrepresented and unnoticed.

There's power in numbers, experts say

"The thing about data is it sets policies. It's impossible to think of any aspect of life that isn't touched by the way we use census data," said Maya Berry, the executive director of the Arab American Institute. "It decides where trillions of dollars of federal spending goes. It affects the protection of our communities, our political representation — everything."

There's power in numbers, Berry said, and as it is now, much of the research on the American MENA community is anecdotal because of the lack of an identifier to quantify it. The perfect example is the Covid-19 pandemic.

"There was a desire to understand how Covid affects certain communities, but if you look at the research done on the MENA community, you'll see that majority of it" doesn't paint the full picture, Berry said. "We still don't know how many of us received the Covid vaccine because of this."

Also because of a lack of data, MENA Americans have lost out on opportunities for health and social services and even small-business grants, said Samer Khalaf, the former president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

"Counting us would give us a piece of the pie, resources for health, mental health, education, you name it," Khalaf said. "Small-business owners in the community would be able to take advantage of grants that we're not entitled to, because we're factored into the white category."

Throughout history, MENA Americans have been "on the receiving end of bad policies" like surveillance programs and watchlisting with no way to study those practices because there is no definitive data, Ayoub said.

"We've had no way of fighting these policies and showing our strength to politicians, because we don't have those numbers," he said.

Who are MENA Americans?

Migration from the MENA countries to the U.S. began in the late 1800s and picked up in recent decades largely because of political turmoil, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

MENA Americans can trace their origins to over a dozen countries, including Egypt, Morocco, Iran, Kuwait and Yemen. The region is racially and ethnically diverse, and people descending from there can be white, brown or Black, as well as identify with an ethnic group, like Arab, Amazigh, Kurdish, Chaldean and more.

"Lots of how America sees identity is based on skin color, due to its history. Slicing us up in categories based on skin color is very antiquated," Khalaf said.

The change proposed by the federal government would include "Middle Eastern or North African" as a standalone category, with the subcategories Lebanese, Iranian, Egyptian, Syrian, Moroccan and Israeli, according to the document. There would also be a blank space where people could write in how they identify.

'It's like déjà vu'

This isn't the first time the U.S. has concluded that a MENA category is necessary.

The Census Bureau had already tested including the category in 2015 and found it to be an improvement to the data-gathering process. When the Trump administration was sworn into power, the agency didn't pick up where the previous administration had left off.

"The politicization of the 2020 decennial census plays a part here," Berry said. "We thought we were moving forward with the category, then the Trump administration dropped that effort. Now, here I am in 2023, and this proposal was just put forward by the Biden administration."

Khalaf says it's like déjà vu and wonders why the Biden administration took two years to issue the proposal.

"All this work had already been done," he said. "My problem with this is why did they wait two years into the administration to do this?"

It's a process

The recommendation for the OMB to adopt a MENA category is just that — a recommendation.

"It’s important to remember that the recommendations are preliminary—not final—and they do not represent the positions of OMB or the agencies participating on the Working Group," said Karin Orvis, chief statistician of the U.S. and OMB spokesperson.

Now that the Federal Register notice has been issued, experts and members of the public have until April 12 to submit their comments about the proposed changes.

"We encourage everyone to provide your personal thoughts and reactions on these proposals, including how you believe they may affect different communities," Orvis said.

The working group on race and ethnicity standards will share its findings with the OMB in 2024, and the agency will then decide to adopt it as is, adopt it with changes or not adopt it at all.

"For generations, we’ve gone unnoticed, uncounted and have been made to feel like our identity didn’t matter," Ayoub said. "This would be enormous for us."