The Biden administration’s proposal to add the identifier “Middle Eastern or North African,” or MENA, to official documents such as the census is the latest development in a decades-long struggle to ensure representation for a community that has historically been statistically invisible, advocates say.
One Federal Register notice The Federal Interagency Technical Working Group on Race and Ethnic Standards, published Friday, recommended adding the identifier as a new category, arguing that “many in the MENA community do not share the same experiences as white people of European ancestry, do not self-identify as white, and by others.” not perceived as white.
“We always say ‘underprivileged white,'” said Abed Ayoub, national executive director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, one of the first advocacy groups to demand an identifier for the MENA community. “We’re considered white, but we’ve never had the privilege that comes with it.”
Defines current standards for race and ethnicity in the United States Office of Management and Budget and has not been updated since 1997. According to OMB, there are five categories for information on race and two for ethnicity: American Indian or Alaska Native; Asian, Black, or African American; Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander; White; Spanish or Latin; and non-Hispanic or Latino.
Middle Easterners and North Africans are included in the “white” category, meaning Americans who trace their ancestry to those geographic regions must check “white” or “other” on documents such as census records, medical records, job applications and federal aid forms.
It has left a community of what experts estimate to be 7 to 8 million people invisible, underrepresented and ignored.
There is strength in numbers, experts say
“The thing about data is that it informs policies. It’s impossible to think of any aspect of life that isn’t touched the way we use census data,” said Maya Berry, 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 is power in numbers, Berry said, and as it stands now, much of the research on America’s MENA community is anecdotal due to the lack of an identifier to quantify it. A perfect example is the Covid-19 pandemic.
“There was a desire to understand how Covid was affecting certain communities, but if you look at the research on the MENA community, most of it doesn’t capture the full picture,” Berry said. “So we still don’t know how many of us have received the Covid vaccine.”
Samer Khalaf, former president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, also said MENA Americans lost access to health and social services and even small business grants due to a lack of information.
“Counting us in will give us a piece of the pie, resources for health, mental health, education,” Khalaf said. “Small business owners in the community can take advantage of grants that we don’t because we fall into the white category.”
Throughout history, Ayoub said, MENA Americans have been “on the receiving end of bad policies” such as surveillance programs and watchlists with no way to learn about these practices because there is no accurate data.
“We had no way to fight these policies and show our power to politicians because we don’t have these numbers,” he said.
Who are MENA Americans?
Migration from MENA countries to the United States began in the late 1800s and has increased in recent decades, largely due to political turmoil. Migration Policy Institute.
MENA Americans can trace their ancestry to many countries, including Egypt, Morocco, Iran, Kuwait, and Yemen. The region is racially and ethnically diverse, and people from there can be white, brown, or black, as well as belonging to Arab, Amazigh, Kurdish, Chaldean, and many other ethnic groups.
“There are a lot of things that America’s identity is historically based on skin color. Categorizing us based on skin color is very outdated,” Khalaf said.
The federal government’s proposed change would include “Middle Eastern or North African” as a stand-alone category, along with Lebanese, Iranian, Egyptian, Syrian, Moroccan and Israeli subcategories, according to the document. There would also be a blank space where people could write how they know each other.
‘It’s like deja vu’
This is not the first time that the US has concluded that the MENA category is necessary.
The Census Bureau already tested including the category in 2015 and found it to be an improvement in the data collection process. When the Trump administration came to power, the agency did not pick up where the previous administration left off.
“This is where the politicization of the 2020 decennial census comes into play,” Berry said. “We thought we were going to move forward with the category, then the Trump administration stopped that effort. Now, here I am in 2023, and this proposal has been put forward by the Biden administration.”
Khalaf says it’s like déjà vu and wonders why the Biden administration took two years to roll out the proposal.
“All these works have already been done. “My problem with that is, why did they wait two years in the administration to do this?”
It is a process
The recommendation for OMB to adopt the MENA category is that – a recommendation.
Now, after the Federal Register notice is issued, experts and members of the public have 75 days to submit comments on the proposed changes. The race and ethnicity standards task force will share its findings with OMB in 2024, and the agency will then decide whether to adopt it as is, adopt it with changes, or not adopt it at all.
“For generations, we’ve been ignored, not counted, and made to feel like our identity doesn’t matter,” Ayoub said. “That would be huge for us.”
OMB did not respond to requests for comment.
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