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A New Step Towards MENA Recognition with the Office of Management and Budget-OMB

posted on: Sep 21, 2022

By: Mariam Alyakoob / Arab America Contributing Writer

Americans of Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) descent, who are meant to fill in the White category box in the U.S. Census, have been fighting for decades to include a separate classification. It seems that there may be some progress towards achieving this. 

The U.S. federal government labels any person of Middle Eastern and North African descent as being “White”, despite a great deal of individuals of MENA descent not perceiving themselves this way. Many MENA individuals are in fact not phenotypically White and thus do not garner the same privileges. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, White is defined as anyone “having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa”.

Surprisingly, compared to other North American and European countries, the U.S. is one of the only countries that classify MENA individuals as White, having done so since 1944. The remaining countries generally include a separate MENA category, allowing for more accurate data. According to sociologist Neda Maghbouleh, an individual having full Arab ancestry, as opposed to someone with a definite European ancestry, increases the likelihood of them identifying as MENA by 51 percentage points if that was an option. That means that individuals of MENA descent are much more likely to self-identify with this category rather than as simply White.

Efforts to Implement MENA Classification In U.S. Census

For years, the effort was made by Middle Eastern communities and organizations such as Access and the Arab American Institute, to include this separate category. During a 2020 House of Representatives Oversight and Reform Committee meeting, Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib asked the Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham “Do I look White to you?”. Tlaib also criticized Dillingham, a 2018 Trump nominee, for not including the MENA category in the 2020 Census.

The decision to continue these inaccurate categorizations was a shock to many given that a 2015 study, in which the category was put into the field for testing, resulted in the recommendation of a separate MENA category by the Census Bureau for the 2020 Census.

Despite many years of effort as well as evidence indicating its importance, the MENA category was not included in the 2020 Census. Instead, they included a write-in, in which MENA individuals still checked off White, but were given the option to include their specific background. In this case, the Census categorizes Lebanese and Egyptian as being within the same classification of people identifying as German, Irish, etc.

New Steps Towards MENA Recognition

Although this decision for the 2020 Census was upsetting for many MENA communities, there may still be hope for this classification to be added in the future. During Biden’s presidential campaign, prior to him winning against Trump, one of his promises if elected was to support the creation of the new Middle East and North African category box in the U.S. Census.

At the end of July of this year, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) published a memo.

Within the memo, OMB states that “ to collect data about those of Middle Eastern or North African (MENA) heritage, an agency may offer MENA as one of the multiple detailed groups under the SPD (Statistical Policy Derivative) 15 minimum category of “White” or by adding a question in addition to, but separate from, questions about a person’s race and ethnicity”.

The implications of this statement indicate that desegregated data would mean that MENA and White individuals would be differentiated. It also means that there are more opportunities to analyze different outcomes (relating to health, economic conditions, etc.) suggesting potential disparities between being White as opposed to being Middle Eastern and North African. 

Although the guidelines released by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) do not guarantee that a MENA category will be included in the 2030 census, it is still a step forward toward this objective, and will help improve data analysis by Federal agencies to be more inclusive of the MENA population.

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