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Is the MENA Checkbox Good or Bad for Arab Americans?

posted on: Oct 5, 2016

Image Credit: Al Jazeera

BY: Nisreen Eadeh/Staff Writer and Marissa Ovassapian/Contributing Writer

The Obama Administration and the White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) on Friday proposed the addition of a new ethnic category on the U.S. Census for people of Middle East and North African (MENA) descent. The category would include Arab Americans and anyone else with an ethnicity that could be traced back to the Middle East or North Africa, such as Chaldeans, Turks, Israelis and Iranians.

The addition of the MENA checkbox would allow those people the opportunity to check a different option other than “white”. For decades, Arab Americans have been considered “white” on census forms, but many argue that this classification has not afforded them the same privileges as European Americans. Arab Americans have suffered discrimination, racial and religious insensitivity, hate crimes, and harassment because of their ethnicity, which is distinct from other white Americans.

The White House’s MENA initiative is not the first time the category has been proposed. For over ten years, leaders in the Arab American community have been working with the U.S. Census Bureau to put MENA on the list. With White House support, Arab Americans are closer than ever to getting this recognition, but now the community is wondering: Does a MENA checkbox further widen the racial and ethnic gaps between Americans, or does it provide recognition for a population that, unfortunately, does not usually receive such positivity?

Many Arab Americans are viewing the MENA checkbox as an opportunity to allow for more accurate self-identification, which was not previously afforded to them. The checkbox would also offer a section to write-in nationality, offering better data on the countries of origins of all Americans. Culturally, the checkbox would also grant Arab Americans a chance to fully embrace their heritage and identity with their representatives, bringing light to the community and its contributions to the U.S.

For civil rights advocates, this proposed addition is a victory for Arab Americans, rather than a negative categorization. Advocates argue that the proposed addition to the U.S. Census will make it easier to track hate crimes against the MENA community. Civil rights groups would also be able to better target policy to the districts where hate crimes and discrimination towards Arab Americans are particularly rampant.

According to The Hill, expanding the census would allow the government to enforce voter rights and take Arab Americans into account during the redistricting process. If congressmen are more aware of their Arab American constituents, they can better address their concerns and hear their voices.

Other benefits to the MENA checkbox include financial, educational and medical incentives. If recognized on the census, Arab Americans could earn grants for minority-owned businesses. Students and job seekers would be able to take advantage of affirmative action programs. Also, medical professionals would be able to better identify health issues that affect specific ethnic groups, such as Arab Americans.

While many are enthusiastic about the MENA checkbox, others are suspicious of its intent. One reason for the widespread wariness is due to the historical ramifications seen with any major policy change. There have been several laws, bills and policy changes passed throughout history that were a direct result of fear towards Arabs and the Arab world. The Patriot Act is perhaps the most recognizable, but other acts include the Department of Justice Guidance on Racial Profiling and the Immigration and Nationality Act.

The Patriot Act, passed after 9/11 by President George W. Bush, allowed the government a broad range of powers in order to protect civilians from “terror.” Those powers have since affected the daily lives of Arab Americans, including: unconstitutional stop and frisk procedures; the ability to intercept electronic communications at any time; placing spies in public Arab American organizations and institutions; kicking off Arab Americans who do not pose a threat from airplanes; and forced recruitment into surveillance programs for the government.

With a MENA checkbox, some are worried that the Arab American community will be even more exposed to both civil rights abuses and ethnic bias. For decades, Arab Americans have been shielded from absolute targeting because of the white check box. Could the MENA option open the door to a host of divisions never before experienced by the community? For Arab Americans, the benefits and downsides to the checkbox will need to be weighed carefully.