Advocates say the Biden administration’s proposal to add the “Middle East or North Africa” identifier (MENA) to official documents such as the census is part of a long-running effort to ensure representation of historically statistically unknown communities. The latest progress in a decade-long struggle.
In a Federal Register notice released Friday, the Federal Interagency Technical Task Force on Race and Ethnicity Standards recommended adding the identifier as a new category, arguing that “many people in the Middle Eastern and North African community do not have the same life experiences as white people of European ancestry.” , don’t think of yourself as white, and don’t be thought of as white by other people.”
“As we often say, ‘white people without privilege,'” said Abed Ayoub, national executive director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Council, an advocacy group that first pushed for the MENA community ID. one. “We were counted as white, but we never enjoyed the privileges that came with it.”
America’s current race and ethnicity standards are set by the Office of Management and Budget and haven’t been updated since 1997. According to the OMB, race data is broken down into five categories and race data is divided into two categories: American Indian or Alaska Native; Asian, Black or African American; Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander; White; Hispanic Hispanic or Latino; and non-Hispanic or Latino.
The Middle East and North Africa fall under the “white” category, meaning that Americans who trace their origins to those geographic areas must check for “white” or “other” in documents such as the census, medical paperwork, job applications, and federal aid forms.
This leaves a community of one expert estimate of 7 million to 8 million people neglected, underrepresented and unnoticed.
There is power in numbers, experts say
“The thing about data is that it sets policy. There’s no way we’re using census data that we can think of that hasn’t touched any aspect of life,” said Maya Berry, executive director of the Arab American Institute. “It dictates where trillions of dollars of federal spending goes. It affects the protection of our communities, our political representation — everything.”
There is power in numbers, Berry said, and as it stands, much of the research in the US MENA community is anecdotal because of the lack of identifiers to quantify it. The best example of this is the Covid-19 pandemic.
“People want to understand how Covid is impacting certain communities, but if you look at the research that’s been done on MENA communities, most of it” doesn’t paint the full picture, Berry said. “We still don’t know how many people have been vaccinated against the new crown because of this.”
Also because of a lack of data, Americans in the Middle East and North Africa are missing out on access to health care and social services and even small business grants, said Samer Khalaf, former chair of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Council.
“Counting us will give us a piece of the pie, health, mental health, educational resources, 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 are classified as white.”
Throughout history, Americans in the MENA region have been “on the receiving end of bad policies,” such as surveillance programs and watchlists, Ayoub said, but the lack of clear data makes it impossible to study these practices.
“We have no way to oppose these policies or show our power to politicians because we don’t have the numbers,” he said.
Who are MENA Americans?
According to the Migration Policy Institute, immigration to the United States from MENA countries began in the late 1800s and has picked up in recent decades, largely due to political unrest.
The origins of Middle Eastern and North African Americans can be traced to more than a dozen countries, including Egypt, Morocco, Iran, Kuwait, and Yemen. The area is racially and ethnically diverse and people coming down from there can be white, brown or black or identify with an ethnic group like Arabs, Amazighs, Kurds, Chaldeans, etc.
“Because of America’s history, how a lot of Americans view identity is based on the color of our skin. Classifying us based on the color of our skin is very outdated,” Khalaf said.
According to the document, the federal government’s proposed changes would include “Middle East or North Africa” as a separate category, with subcategories Lebanon, Iran, Egypt, Syria, Morocco and Israel. There will also be an empty space where people can fill in their identities.
‘It’s like deja vu’
This is not the first time the US has concluded that there is a need to classify the MENA region.
The Census Bureau has tested this category in 2015 and found it to be an improvement to the data collection process. When the Trump administration was sworn in, the agency did not continue the work left off by the previous administration.
“The politicization of the 2020 decennial census played a role here,” Berry said. “We thought we were advancing the category, and then the Trump administration dropped that effort. Now, I’m in 2023, and this proposal was just made by the Biden administration.”
Khalaf said it felt like déjà vu and wondered why it took the Biden administration two years to release the proposal.
“All of this work has been done,” he said. “My question is, why did they wait two years after taking office to do this?”
it’s a process
OMB’s proposal to adopt MENA categories is only a suggestion.
“It’s important to remember that these recommendations are preliminary—not final—and they do not represent the position of the OMB or the agencies participating in the task force,” said Karin Orvis, US chief statistician and OMB spokesperson.
Now that the Federal Register notice has been published, experts and the public have until April 12 to submit their comments on the proposed changes.
“We encourage everyone to provide your personal thoughts and responses to these proposals, including how you think they impact different communities,” Orvis said.
The Race and Ethnicity Standards Working Group will share its findings with the OMB in 2024, after which the agency will decide to adopt them as is, with modifications or not at all.
“For generations, we have been unnoticed, uncounted, and considered our identities to be irrelevant,” Ayyub said. “It means a lot to us.”