Advocates say 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 advance in a decades-long battle to secure representation for a historically statistically invisible community.
in Federal Register Notice The Federal Interagency Technical Working Group on Standards of Race and Ethnicity, published Friday, recommended adding the identifier as a new category, arguing that “many in the MENA community do not share the same experience as white people of European descent, nor do they identify as white.” Others don’t see them as white.”
“It’s like we always say, ‘white without privilege,’” said Abdel Ayoub, national executive director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, one of the first advocacy groups to push for an identity for the Middle East and North African community. “We counted as white, but we didn’t have the privilege that comes with it.”
Current standards of race and ethnicity in the United States are determined by Office of Management and Budget and it has not been updated since 1997. According to the Office of Management and Budget, there are five data categories for 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.
The Middle East and North Africa are included under the “white” category, which means that Americans who trace their ancestry to those geographic regions must check for “white” or “other” on documents such as censuses, medical papers, job applications, and federal aid forms.
This has left a community that experts estimate to be between 7 and 8 million people invisible, underrepresented, and unnoticed.
Experts say there is strength in numbers
“The thing about data is that it sets policy. It’s impossible to think of any aspect of life that isn’t affected by the way we use census data,” said Maya Berry, executive director of the Arab American Institute. “It decides where trillions of dollars in federal spending go. It affects the protection of our communities, our political representation — everything.”
There is strength in numbers, Perry said, and as things stand now, much of the research on American society in the Middle East and North Africa is anecdotal because there is no identifier to identify them. The perfect example is the COVID-19 pandemic.
There has been a desire to understand how Covid affects certain societies, but if you look at the research that has been done on the MENA community, you will see that the majority of it “doesn’t paint the full picture,” Perry said. “We still don’t know how many of us have had a Covid vaccine because of this.”
Also, due to a lack of data, Americans from the Middle East and North Africa region have been missing out on opportunities for health and social services and even small business grants, said Samer Khalaf, former chair of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.
“Come back will give us a piece of the pie, resources for health, mental health, education, you name it,” Khalaf said. “Small business owners in the community will be able to take advantage of grants that we are not entitled to, because we fall into the white category.”
Ayoub said that throughout history, Americans in the Middle East and North Africa region have been “on the receiving end of bad policies” such as watch programs and watchlists without any way to study these practices because there is no definitive data.
“We have no way to fight these policies and show our power to the politicians, because we don’t have these numbers,” he said.
Who are the Americans in the Middle East and North Africa?
Migration from Middle Eastern and North African countries to the United States began in the late nineteenth century and has spread in recent decades largely due to political upheaval, according to Immigration Policy Institute.
Americans in the Middle East and North Africa region can trace their ancestry to more than a dozen countries, including Egypt, Morocco, Iran, Kuwait, and Yemen. The region is racially and ethnically diverse, and those from there can be white, brown, or black, in addition to belonging to an ethnic group, such as Arabs, Berbers, Kurds, Chaldeans, and others.
Khalaf said, “A lot of how America views identity is based on skin color, because of its history. And our division into categories based on skin color is very outdated.”
According to the document, the change proposed by the federal government would include “the Middle East or North Africa” as a stand-alone category, with Lebanese, Iranian, Egyptian, Syrian, Moroccan and Israeli sub-categories. There will also be a blank space where people can write how they identify.
“It’s like deja vu.”
This is not the first time that the United States has concluded that the Middle East and North Africa category is necessary.
The Census Bureau had already tested category inclusion in 2015 and found it to be an improvement to the data collection process. When the Trump administration was sworn into office, the agency didn’t pick up where the previous administration left off.
“The politicization of the 2020 decile census is at play here,” Perry said. “We thought we were going forward in that category, and then the Trump administration gave up on that effort. Now, here I am in 2023, and that proposal was just put forward by the Biden administration.”
It’s a bit of déjà vu, Khalaf says, and wonders why it took the Biden administration two years to release the proposal.
“All of this work has already been done,” he said. “My problem with this is why did they wait two years in management to do this?”
The OMB’s recommendation to adopt the Middle East and North Africa category is just that.
“It is important to remember that the recommendations are preliminary — not final — and do not represent the positions of the Office of Management and Budget or the agencies participating in the working group,” said Karen Orvis, chief U.S. statistician and spokesperson for the Office of Management and Budget.
Now that the Federal Register Notice has been released, experts and members of the public have until April 12 to provide their comments on the proposed changes.
“We encourage everyone to offer your personal thoughts and reactions to these proposals, including how you think they might affect different communities,” Orvis said.
The Working Group on Race and Ethnic Standards will share its findings with OMB in 2024, and the agency will then decide to adopt them as is, to adopt them with changes or not to adopt them at all.
“For generations, we went unnoticed, uncounted, feeling like our identity didn’t matter,” Ayoub said. “That would be huge for us.”
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