April 12, 2024

The new census category for the Middle East or North Africa makes community members feel seen

Swara Salih, a 32-year-old Kurdish American, has reluctantly checked “white” on federal forms his entire life. But that’s not what he sees when he looks in the mirror.

“All my life I’ve been a brown child, I’ve had darker skin than my white friends,” Salih told NBC News. “As a kid, I was very culturally confused that way, like, ‘What am I supposed to be?’ I’m not white, I’m not black, I’m not Latino.”

The new Middle East or North Africa category announced Thursday by the Office of Management and Budget will help shed the cloak of invisibility that has been draped over community members like Salih for decades, experts say.

The addition of this category to the OMB race and ethnicity standards for the first time in U.S. history means that an estimated 8 million Americans with origins in the Middle East and North Africa will no longer have to choose ‘white’ or ‘other’. ” on federal forms, including the U.S. Census.

“We were forced to identify ourselves as something we were not, and in a way that erased the community and erased all record of the community,” said Abed Ayoub, the national executive director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC). one of the first advocacy groups to push for an identifier for MENA Americans. “We are a different community and since we have been here we have not been able to get an accurate picture of who we are.”

The new identifier ‘Middle Eastern or North African’.OMB

The new identifier will include six subcategories, including Lebanese, Iranian, Egyptian, Syrian, Iraqi and Israeli, selected to represent the largest populations in the U.S., an OMB spokesperson said. The identification also includes a blank space for people to write how they identify if their ethnicity is not one of the subcategories.

While advocacy groups don’t think the geographic addition goes far enough to reflect the region’s diversity, they say it’s a long-overdue step in the right direction.

Undercounted, underrepresented and unnoticed

The lack of an identifier for Middle Eastern and North African Americans has left them underexposed, underrepresented, and unnoticed in American society.

MENA Americans can trace their roots to more than a dozen countries, including Egypt, Morocco, Iran, Turkey and Yemen. The region is racially, ethnically, and religiously diverse, and people from there can be white, brown, or black, but can also identify with an ethnic group, such as Arabs, Amazighs, Kurds, Chaldeans, and more. According to the Migration Policy Institute, migration from countries in the region to the U.S. began in the late 1800s and increased in recent decades, largely due to political unrest.

The largest MENA group in the US is made up of Arab Americans, according to data collected by advocacy groups. The new identification came days before the start of Arab American Heritage Month on April 1.

Tariq Ra’ouf, 33, a Palestinian Arab American, described feeling like his identity was being erased when he had to check “white” on job applications.

“When I fill them out, I think, ‘This is ridiculous,’ because I’m not white,” Ra’ouf said. “And if I say I’m white, I may miss opportunities at companies that are looking for culturally and ethnically diverse employees. Who knows how many applications people have missed because they were forced to drop out of a race that doesn’t represent them.”

The MENA and white communities are different in many ways, including culturally, socio-economically and politically. A MENA identifier will help federal agencies collect crucial data that will in turn improve policy decisions, said Maya Berry, the executive director of the Arab American Institute (AAI). The lack of an identifier has meant research into the community has been largely anecdotal and led to members missing out on federal resources such as health care and social services.

“That category is how we deal with the fact that our community has been made invisible in the data for decades,” Berry said. “There is direct harm when communities don’t have the kind of information needed about them, from the problems we saw during the Covid pandemic to the way congressional districts are drawn, to health research about our people, to protecting our civil rights .”

Even the eight million MENA Americans that advocacy groups say live in the U.S. could be a subsample, Ayoub says.

“We will have clear data on how many people from the region are in this country, where we live – everything from our spending habits to health issues and education,” Ayoub said of the addition of the identification. “Today you really need data to be a strong advocate for your community. And through this we can get a better sense of who our community is.”

Ra’ouf is excited that he doesn’t have to misrepresent himself anymore.

“I think it’s about time,” he said. “It’s a little frustrating that it’s taken so long to get to this point. But more than anything, I think it’s just exciting because then we can really get a better sense of how many of us there are in this country and get better representation.”

A decades-long effort

Obtaining a MENA identifier for the census has been a decades-long, back-and-forth effort by groups like the ADC and the AAI.

The Census Bureau had already tested and found the category in 2015 it provided data that provided a better understanding of the MENA community. This category was abandoned when the Trump administration came to power.

The OMB announced the long-awaited update more than a year after the Federal Interagency Technical Working Group on Race and Ethnicity Standards recommended adding the identification as a new category. This is the first time since 1997 that OMB has updated its race and ethnicity standards; Before this change, there were five categories for race data and two for ethnicity: American Indian or Alaska Native; Asian; Black or African American; Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islanders; White; Hispanic or Latino; and non-Hispanic or Latino.

The OMB ordered all federal agencies “start updating their surveys and administrative forms as soon as possible,” a statement said. Federal agencies have five years to bring all data collection into compliance with the updated standards, meaning Americans could see this update in documents within that time.

Berry says we may see a “ripple effect.” in which non-governmental institutions, such as hospitals and universities, adopt OMB’s new standards.

“Suppose I’m a hospital and I want to apply for federal research grants. I would absolutely make sure I met federal standards,” Berry said. “I can’t imagine any aspect of our society — businesses, healthcare facilities, universities, corporations — that doesn’t want to be in compliance with federal standards.”

Not a perfect solution

Experts warn that the category is not the exact solution they advocated for, and could lead to a new undervaluing of America’s diverse community.

Countries such as Somalia and Sudan are among the 22 countries that make up the Arabic-speaking world, according to the ADC, and many from these countries identify as both Arab and African. But the OMB’s new category does not include a way for Afro-Arabs to identify themselves, a sticking point for experts who have spoken out about the change.

“Let’s say I’m Sudanese – I check MENA because I identify ethnically within the MENA category and I write ‘Sudanese’ in the space,” Berry explained. “I’m not sure they will still be coded within MENA because the code for Sudanese is now Black or African American.”

Before the existence of a MENA category, many MENA Americans would check “other” on the census, write down their identity, and be counted as part of the white community anyway – Berry fears the same will happen to Afro-Arabs.

“And just like before, we didn’t want to be exclusively white. In the future, we cannot have a category that excludes Afro-Arabs from participating in MENA if that is how they want to identify,” Berry said.

While people are free to check more than one box, it’s not clear how hyphenated MENA identities will be counted, Berry said.

Ayoub also cautioned against including Armenian Americans in the MENA category, many of whom were forced to move to Middle Eastern countries during the Armenian Genocide and may identify ethnically as Middle Eastern.

One way to avoid this would have been to have the Census Bureau, which conducts the statistical survey of race and ethnicity, formulate the category question based on its findings, Berry said.

In a statement, the Census Bureau said it is following OMB’s standards and will develop plans to implement them in censuses and surveys, such as the annual American Community Survey and the decennial census.

Both Berry and Ayoub say they will continue to advocate for better community representation.

For now, Ra’ouf hopes this update will give future generations what he didn’t get growing up.

“The feeling of actually being able to check off what you really are is a feeling that I don’t think any of us have really experienced,” Ra’ouf said. “And I think for the kids, and for everyone who grows up in the future and fills out those boxes, I hope that this will add a sense of pride.”

While it’s not a perfect category, Salih says it’s better than having to identify as white without taking advantage of the privilege it offers, especially against the backdrop of anti-Arab and Islamophobic sentiment.

“I think it allows us to assert our identity in a society that has generally wanted to shun us, ban us from coming here,” Salih said. “But now we can say more officially: ‘No, we are here. We exist. ”

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