The Biden administration’s proposal to add a “Middle East or North Africa” identifier, or MENA, to official documents like the census is the latest development in a decades-long fight to ensure representation of a historically invisible community from the statistically, advocates say.
in a Federal Register Notice released Friday, the federal Interagency Technical Working Group on Racial and Ethnic 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 of European descent, do not identify as white, and are not perceived as white by others.
“It’s like we always say, ‘white without privilege,'” said Abed Ayoub, 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 are counted as white, but we have never had the privilege that comes with it.”
Current race and ethnicity standards in the US are set by the Office of Management and Budget and have not 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 not Hispanic or Latino.
The Middle East and North Africa fall under the “white” category, which means that Americans having origins in those geographic regions must mark “white” or “other” on documents such as the census, medical paperwork, applications employment and federal assistance forms.
This has made a community that experts estimate at 7 to 8 million people invisible, underrepresented and unnoticed.
There is power in numbers, experts say
“The thing about data is that it sets policy. It is impossible to think of any aspect of life that is not affected by the way we use census data,” said Maya Berry, executive director of the Arab American Institute. “It decides where the trillions of dollars of federal spending go. 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 the American MENA community is anecdotal due to 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 in the MENA community, you’ll see that most” doesn’t paint the whole picture, Berry said. “We still don’t know how many of us got the Covid vaccine because of this.”
Also due to lack of data, MENA Americans have missed out on health and social service opportunities and even small business grants, said Samer Khalaf, former chair of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination 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 take advantage of grants that we are not entitled to, because we fall under the white category.”
Throughout history, MENA Americans have been “on the receiving end of bad policies” such as surveillance programs and watch lists, with no way to study those practices because there is no hard data, Ayoub said.
“We haven’t had a way to fight these policies and show our strength to the politicians, because we don’t have those numbers,” he said.
Who are the MENA Americans?
Migration from MENA countries to the US began in the late 19th century and increased in recent decades largely due to political turmoil, according to the Migration Policy Institute.
MENA Americans can trace their origins to more than a dozen countries, including Egypt, Morocco, Iran, Kuwait, and Yemen. The region is racially and ethnically diverse, and people who descend from it can be white, brown, or black, as well as identify with an ethnic group, such as Arab, Amazigh, Kurdish, Chaldean, and more.
“A lot of the way the United States views identity is based on skin color, because of its history. Dividing us into categories based on skin color is very old-fashioned,” Khalaf said.
The federal government’s proposed change would include “Middle East or North Africa” as a separate category, 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 identify themselves.
‘It’s like déjà vu’
This is not the first time the US has concluded that a MENA category is necessary.
The Census Bureau had already tested the inclusion of the category in 2015 and found that it was an improvement in the data collection process. When the Trump administration took office, 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 moving forward with the category, then the Trump administration abandoned that effort. Now, here I am in 2023, and the Biden administration has just put out this proposal.”
Khalaf says it’s like déjà vu and wonders why it took the Biden administration 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 in the administration to do this?”
it is a process
The recommendation for the WBO 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 OMB or the agencies participating in the Task Force,” said Karin Orvis, US chief statistician and spokesperson for the OMB.
Now that the Federal Register notice has been issued, experts and members of the public have until April 12 to submit comments on the proposed changes.
“We encourage everyone to provide your personal thoughts and reactions on these proposals, including how you think they may affect different communities,” Orvis said.
The race and ethnicity standards working group will share its findings with 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 have gone unnoticed, uncounted and made to feel like our identity doesn’t matter,” Ayoub said. “This would be huge for us.”
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