Federal proposal of ‘Middle East or North African’ category is long overdue, advocates say

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The Biden administration’s proposal to add a “Middle East or North Africa” ​​identifier (MENA) to official documents such as the census has been used by dozens to ensure representation of historically and statistically invisible communities. Proponents say it’s the latest advance in a year-long battle.

so Federal Register Notice The Federal Interagency Technical Working Group on Race and Ethnicity Criteria, published Friday, recommended adding identifiers as a new category. , and is not recognized as white by others. “

“It’s like we always say ‘unprivileged white people,'” said the national secretary-general of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Commission, one of the first advocacy groups to call for an identifier for the MENA community. said Mr. Abed Ayoub. “We are counted as white, but we never get the privileges that come with it.”

Current standards of race and ethnicity in the United States are Office of Management and Budget Hasn’t been updated since 1997. According to OMB, there are five categories of data on race, and he has two on ethnicity. Asian, Black or African American; Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander; White; Hispanic or Latino; Non-Hispanic or Latino.

The Middle East and North Africa are included in the “white” category. This means that Americans originating in these geographic regions must check “white” or “other” on documents such as the census, medical forms, job applications, and federal aid forms.

This has left a community of seven to eight million people, estimated by experts, out of sight, underestimated and out of the spotlight.

There is power in numbers, experts say

“The problem with data is that it sets policy,” said Maya Berry, executive director of the Arab American Institute. It is.” “It determines where trillions of dollars of federal spending goes. It affects the protection of our communities, our political representation, everything.”

Berry said there is power in numbers. As it is now, much of his research on the MENA community in America is anecdotal, as there are no identifiers to quantify it.A perfect example is the Covid-19 pandemic.

“There has been a desire to understand how Covid will affect certain communities, but looking at the research that has been done in the MENA community, we see that most of it doesn’t paint the full picture.” We still don’t know how many of us got the Covid vaccine because of this.”

And because of the lack of data, Americans in MENA countries are missing out on health and social services and even small business subsidies, said former chairman of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Commission. One Samer Khalaf said:

“Counting us out will give us a piece of the pie, resources for health, mental health and education.” owners can take advantage of subsidies we do not receive.”

Throughout history, Americans in the Middle East and North Africa region have been “subject to bad policies” such as surveillance programs and watchlists, but without conclusive data, there is no way to study those practices, Ayoub said. said Mr.

“We opposed these policies and had no way to show power to politicians because we don’t have those numbers.

Who are the MENA Americans?

Migration from MENA countries to the United States began in the late 1800s and has rebounded in recent decades, largely due to political turmoil. Immigration 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 descending from it may be white, brown, or black, and may differ from ethnic groups such as Arabs, Amazighs, Kurds, and Chaldeans. You can also consider them to be the same.

“A lot of Americans’ views of identity are based on skin color because of its history. Classifying us based on skin color is very outdated,” Calaf said.

The changes proposed by the federal government include “Middle East or North Africa” ​​as a separate category, with subcategories for Lebanese, Iranians, Egyptians, Syrians, Moroccans and Israelis, according to the documents. increase. There is also a blank space where people can write how they identified.

“It’s like déjà vu”

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

The Census Bureau already tested the inclusion of this category in 2015 and found it 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 key role here,” said Berry. “I thought we were moving forward with this category, but the Trump administration has dropped that effort. Now, I’m in 2023, and this proposal has just been put forward by the Biden administration.”

Khalaf says it’s something of a déjà vu, and wonders why it took the Biden administration two years to issue the proposal.

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

it’s a process

The recommendation for OMB to adopt the MENA category is just that: a recommendation.

Now that the Federal Register notice has been issued, experts and the public have 75 days to submit comments on the proposed changes. The findings will then be shared with OMB, and the agency will decide whether to adopt them as is, with modifications, or not at all.

“For generations, we’ve been made to feel unnoticed, uncountable, and ignorant of identity. ‘This is huge for us.'”

OMB did not respond to a request for comment.

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