Federal proposals for a ‘Middle Eastern or North African’ category are long overdue, advocates say

Federal proposals for a 'Middle Eastern or North African' category are long overdue, advocates say
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The Biden administration’s proposal to add the identifier “Middle Eastern or North African,” or MENA, to government documents such as the census is the latest advance in a decades-long fight to secure representation for historically statistically invisible communities, advocates said.

A Federal Register Notice Released Friday, the federal Interagency Technical Working Group on Race and Ethnicity Standards recommended adding identifiers as a new category, arguing that “many in the MENA community do not share the same lived experiences as whites of European ancestry, do not identify as white, and others.” Not considered white by.”

“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’re considered white, but we’ve never had the privilege that comes with it.”

Current standards for race and ethnicity in the United States are set by Office of Management and Budget And hasn’t 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; Hispanic or Latino; and non-Hispanic or Latino.

Middle Easterners and North Africans are included under the “white” category, meaning that Americans who trace their origins to that geographic region must check “white” or “other” on documents such as census tracts, medical papers, job applications, and federal aid forms. .

This has rendered a community of what experts estimate to be 7 million to 8 million people invisible, unprepared and unrecognized.

There is strength in numbers, experts say

“The thing about data is that it drives policy. It’s impossible to think of any aspect of life that isn’t touched by the way we use census data,” said Maya Berry, executive director of the Arab American Institute. “It determines where trillions of dollars in federal spending goes. It affects the safety of our communities, our political representation — everything.”

There is power in numbers, Berry said, and as of now, much of the research on the American MENA community is anecdotal because it lacks an identifier to measure it. A perfect example of this is the Covid-19 pandemic.

“There was a desire to understand how Covid affects certain communities, but if you look at the research that’s been done on the MENA community, you’ll see that a lot of it doesn’t paint the full picture,” Berry said. “We still don’t know how many of us got the Covid vaccine because of it.”

Also due to a lack of information, MENA Americans miss out on access to health and social services and even small-business grants, said Samer Khalaf, former president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

“Counting us in 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 are included in the white category.”

Ayoub said throughout history, MENA Americans have been “on the receiving end of bad policies” and there is no way to study these practices like surveillance programs and watchlisting because there is no concrete data.

“We have no way to fight these policies and show our strength to the politicians, because we don’t have the numbers,” he said.

Who are Mena Americans?

Immigration to the United States from MENA countries began in the late 1800s and has increased in recent decades, largely due to political unrest. 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 from there can be white, brown, or black, as well as identify with ethnic groups such as Arab, Amazigh, Kurdish, Chaldean, and more.

“A lot of the way America views identity is based on skin color because of its history. Categorizing us based on skin color is very antiquated,” Khalaf said.

According to the document, changes proposed by the federal government would include “Middle Eastern or North African” as a separate category, with Lebanese, Iranian, Egyptian, Syrian, Moroccan and Israeli subcategories. There will be a blank space where people can write down how to identify.

‘It’s like deja vu’

This is not the first time that the United States has concluded that a MENA division is necessary.

The Census Bureau has already tested the department in 2015 and found it to be an improvement in 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 census plays a role here,” Berry said. “We thought we were moving forward with the department, then the Trump administration scrapped that effort. Now, here I am in 2023, and this proposal was just floated by the Biden administration.”

Khalaf says it’s like deja vu and wonders why the Biden administration took two years to issue the proposal.

“All this work was done beforehand,” he said. “My problem with that is why did they wait two years for the administration to do this?”

It’s a process

The recommendation for OMB to adopt a MENA Division is – A recommendation.

“It’s important to note that the recommendations are preliminary—not final—and they do not represent the position of OMB or the agencies participating in the working group,” said Karin Orvis, chief statistician for the United States and OMB spokeswoman.

Now that the Federal Register notice has been issued, experts and members of the public have until April 12 to submit their comments on the proposed changes.

“We encourage everyone to provide your personal thoughts and feedback on these proposals, including how you believe they might affect different communities.”

The Working Group on Race and Ethnic Standards 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 have been unnoticed, unrevealed and made to think that our identity doesn’t matter,” Ayub said. “That would be huge for us.”

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