The Biden administration’s proposal to add a “Middle East or North Africa,” or MENA, identifier to official documents like the census is the latest advance in a decades-long struggle to represent a historically statistically invisible community, supporters say.
And a Announcement of the Federal Register The Federal Interagency Technical Working Group on Race and Ethnicity Standards, released Friday, recommended adding the identifier as a new category, arguing that “many in the MENA community do not share the same lived experiences as white people of European descent, not identifying themselves as identify as white, and are not perceived as white by others.”
“It’s like we’re always saying, ‘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 that.”
The current standards of race and ethnicity in the United States are set by the Office of Administration and Budget and have not been updated since 1997. According to the OMB, there are five categories for race data 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 in the “white” category, meaning Americans tracing their ancestry from these geographic regions must check “white” or “other” on documents such as the census, medical records, job applications, and federal assistance forms .
This has rendered invisible, underrepresented and unnoticed a community that experts estimate at 7 to 8 million people.
There is power in numbers, experts say
“The thing about data is that it sets guidelines. 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 of federal spending goes. It’s protecting 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 there’s no identifier to quantify it. The perfect example is the Covid-19 pandemic.
“There has been a desire to understand how Covid is affecting certain communities, but if you look at the research of the MENA community, you’ll find that the bulk 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 due to a lack of data, MENA Americans have missed out on opportunities for health and social services and even small business grants, said Samer Khalaf, former president of the America-Arab Antidiscrimination Committee.
“Counting us would give us a piece of the pie, resources for health, mental health, education, whatever,” Khalaf said. “Small business owners in the community could be eligible for grants that we are not eligible for because we are placed in the white category.”
Throughout history, MENA Americans have been “on the receiving end of bad policies” like surveillance programs and watchlists, without the ability to study those practices because there is no definitive data, Ayoub said.
“We haven’t had a chance to fight this policy and show politicians our strength because we don’t have those numbers,” he said.
Who are MENA Americans?
Migration from the MENA countries to the US began in the late 1800s and has increased in recent decades, largely due to political unrest, according to the Institute for Migration Policy.
MENA Americans can trace their ancestry to over a dozen countries, including Egypt, Morocco, Iran, Kuwait, and Yemen. The region is racially and ethnically diverse and people descended from there can be white, brown or black and identify with an ethnic group such as Arabs, Amazigh, Kurds, Chaldeans and others.
“A lot of how America sees identity is based on race because of its history. It’s very antiquated to divide us into categories based on skin color,” Khalaf said.
According to the document, the change proposed by the federal government would include “Middle East or North Africa” as a separate category with the subcategories Lebanese, Iranians, Egyptians, Syrians, Moroccans and Israelis. There would also be an empty space for people to write how they identify themselves.
“It’s like deja vu”
This is not the first time the US has concluded that a MENA category is necessary.
The Census Bureau tested including the category back in 2015 and found it to be an improvement in the data collection process. When the Trump administration was sworn into power, the agency did not pick up where the previous administration left off.
“The politicization of the 2020 decennial census plays a role here,” Berry said. “We thought we were going to move forward with the category, then the Trump administration dropped that effort. Now here I am in 2023 and this proposal has just been put forward by the Biden administration.”
Khalaf says it’s like déjà vu and wonders why it took the Biden administration two years to table the proposal.
“All that work was already done,” he said. “My problem with this is why did they wait two years in government to do this?”
It’s a process
The recommendation for the OMB to adopt a MENA category is just that—a recommendation.
“It is important to remember that the recommendations are preliminary, not final, and do not represent the positions of the OMB or the agencies participating in the working group,” said Karin Orvis, chief US statistician and spokesperson for the OMB.
After the Federal Register decision has been issued, experts and the public have until April 12 to submit their comments on the proposed changes.
“We encourage everyone to share their personal thoughts and reactions on these proposals, including how they think they could impact different communities,” Orvis said.
The Working Group on Racial and Ethnicity Standards will report its findings to the OMB in 2024, and the agency will then decide to adopt them unchanged, adopt them with changes, or not adopt them at all.
“For generations, we’ve gone unnoticed, uncounted, and made to feel like our identities don’t matter,” Ayoub said. “That would be huge for us.”
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