Federal proposal on the ‘MENA’ category is long overdue, advocates say

The Biden administration’s proposal to add a “Middle Eastern or North African” identifier, or MENA, to official documents like the census is the latest advance in a decades-long struggle to ensure representation for a historically statistically invisible community.

In a Notice from the Federal Register 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, as we always say, ‘White without the privilege,'” said Abed Ayoub, the national executive director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, one of the first advocacy groups to push for an identifier for the MENA community. “We’re considered white, but we’ve never had the privilege that comes with that.”

The current standards of race and ethnicity in the United States are set by Office of Management and Budget and has not been updated since 1997. According to OMB, there are five categories for data on race and two for ethnicity: American Indian or Alaska Native; Asian, Black, or African American; Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander; White; Hispanic or Latino; and non-Hispanic or Latino, according to the Federal Register notice.

Middle Eastern and North African are included under the “white” category, meaning Americans who trace their origins to these geographic regions must check “white” or “other” on documents such as the census, medical paperwork, job applications, and federal aid forms.

It has made a community estimated by experts at 7 million to 8 million people invisible, underrepresented and unnoticed.

There is power in numbers, experts say

“The thing about data is that it sets 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 goes. 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 into 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 affects certain communities, but if you look at the research done in the MENA community, you will see that the majority of it” was not helpful because the community was not 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 lost opportunities for health and social services and even small business grants, said Samer Khalaf, the former president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

“Counting us would give us a piece of the pie, resources for health, mental health, education, you name it,” Khalaf said. “Small business owners in the community would be able to benefit from subsidies that we are not eligible for because we are included in the white category.”

Throughout history, MENA Americans have been “on the receiving end of bad policies” like surveillance programs and watch lists, with no way to study these practices because there is no definitive data, Ayoub said.

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

Who are MENA Americans?

Migration from the MENA countries to the United States began in the late 1800s and has accelerated in recent decades, largely due to political unrest, according to Migration Policy Institute.

MENA Americans can trace their origins to over a dozen countries, including Egypt, Morocco, Iran, Kuwait and Yemen. The region is racially and ethnically diverse, and people who descend from there can be white, brown, or black, as well as identify with an ethnic group such as Arab, Amazigh, Kurdish, Chaldean, and more.

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

The amendment proposes to include “Middle Eastern or North African” as a separate 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 themselves.

‘It’s like déjà vu’

This is not the first time the US has concluded that a MENA category is needed.

The Census Bureau had already tested including the category in 2015 and found it to be an improvement to the data collection process. When the Trump administration was sworn into office, the agency did not pick up where the previous administration left off.

“The politicization of the 2020 census plays a role here,” Berry said. “We thought we were moving forward with category, then the Trump administration dropped that effort. Now, here I am in 2023, and this proposal was just made by the Biden administration.”

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

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

It is a process

The recommendation to 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 Race and Ethnicity Standards Working Group will share its findings with OMB in 2024. OMB will decide to adopt it as is, adopt it with changes, or not adopt it at all.

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

OMB did not respond to requests for comment.

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com

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