Federal proposal of the ‘MENA’ category was long overdue, proponents say

The Biden administration’s proposal to add a “Middle Eastern or North African” identifier, or MENA, to official documents such as the census is the latest advancement in a decades-long battle over the representation of a historic statistical secure invisible community.

In a Federal Register notice published Friday, the Federal Interagency Technical Working Group on Race and Ethnicity Standards recommended adding the identifier as a new category, arguing that “many in the MENA community do not share the same lived experience as white people of European descent, do not identify as white and are not perceived as white by others.”

“It’s like we always say, ‘White without privilege,'” said Abed Ayoub, the national executive director of the US-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, one of the first advocacy groups to push for an identification for the MENA community. “We are counted as white people, but we have never had the privilege that comes with it.”

Current race and ethnicity standards in the US are set by the Office of Management and Budget and have not been updated since 1997. According to the OMB, there are 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, according to the Federal Register notice.

The Middle East and North Africa fall under the “white” category, meaning that Americans who trace their origins to those geographic regions must check “white” or “other” on documents such as the census, medical paperwork, job applications, and federal assistance forms.

That has made a community of an estimated 7 million to 8 million people invisible, underrepresented and unnoticed.

There’s power in numbers, say experts

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

There is power in numbers, Berry said, and as it stands, much of the research on the US MENA community is anecdotal due to the lack of an identifier. The perfect example is the Covid-19 pandemic.

“There was a desire to understand how Covid is affecting certain communities, but if you look at the research that’s been done on the MENA community, you’ll see that most of it “wasn’t helpful, because the community wasn’t specifically identified, Berry said. “We still don’t know how many of us got the Covid vaccine because of this.”

As a result, MENA Americans have missed out on opportunities for health and social services and even small business grants, said Samer Khalaf, the former chairman of the US-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

“When we count, we get a piece of the pie, resources for health, mental health, education, you name it,” Khalaf said. “Small business owners in the community could benefit from subsidies that we are not entitled to because we fall into the white category.”

Throughout history, MENA Americans have been “on the receiving end of bad policies,” such as surveillance programs and watchlisting, without studying these practices because there is no definitive data, Ayoub said.

“We haven’t had a way to fight these policies and show our strength to politicians because we don’t have those numbers,” he said.

Who are MENA Americans?

According to the Migration Policy Institute, migration from the MENA countries to the US began in the late 1800s and has increased in recent decades, largely due to political unrest.

MENA Americans 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 who hail from there can be white, brown, or black, as well as identify with an ethnic group, such as Arabs, Amazighs, Kurds, Chaldeans, and more.

“A lot of how America views identity is based on skin color, because of its history. Dividing us into categories based on skin color is very outdated,” Khalaf said.

The amendment proposes to include “Middle Eastern or North African” as a standalone category, with subcategories of Lebanese, Iranian, Egyptian, Syrian, Moroccan and Israeli, according to the document. There would also be a blank space where people would write how they identify.

‘It’s like déjà vu’

It is not the first time that the US concludes that a MENA category is necessary.

The Census Bureau had already tested the inclusion of the category in 2015 and considered it an improvement in the data collection process. When the Trump administration came to power, the agency did not pick up where the previous administration left off.

“The politicization of the 2020 decennial census plays a role here,” said Berry. “We thought we were making progress with category, but then the Trump administration dropped that effort. Now, here I am in 2023, and this proposal has just been submitted by the Biden administration.”

Khalaf says it’s déjà vu and wonders why it took the Biden administration two years to get the proposal out.

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

It’s a process

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

Now that the Federal Register notice has been issued, experts and members of the public have 75 days to submit their comments on the proposed changes. The Working Group on Race and Ethnicity Norms will share its findings with the OMB in 2024. The OMB will decide whether to adopt this standard, adopt it with changes or not adopt it at all.

“Over generations, we went unnoticed and uncounted and made to feel that our identity didn’t matter,” Ayoub said. “This would be huge for us.

The OMB did not respond to requests for comment.

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com

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