A new census category in the Middle East or North Africa helps community members feel seen

Suara Salih, a 32-year-old Kurdish-American, has been reluctantly marking “white” on federal forms all his life. But that's not what he sees when he looks in the mirror.

“My whole life I was a brown kid, and my skin was darker than my white friends,” Saleh told NBC News. “I was very culturally confused in that way when I was a kid, like, ‘What am I supposed to be?’ I’m not white, I’m not black, I’m not Latino.”

New Middle East or North Africa category Announced by the Office of Management and Budget Experts say Thursday will help shed the cloak of invisibility that has been worn over community members, like Saleh, for decades.

Adding this category to the Office of Management and Budget's standards for race and ethnicity for the first time in U.S. history means that an estimated 8 million Americans with roots in the Middle East and North Africa will no longer have to choose “white” or “other” on federal forms. Including the US Census.

“We were forced to define ourselves as something we were not, in a way that erased the community and erased any data about it,” said Abed Ayoub, national executive director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC). One of the first advocacy groups to push for an ID for Americans in the Middle East and North Africa. “We are a different community and since we have been here we have not been able to get an accurate picture of who we are.”

New “Middle East or North Africa” ​​ID.Office of Management and Budget

An Office of Management and Budget spokesperson said the new identifier will have six subcategories under it that include Lebanese, Iranians, Egyptians, Syrians, Iraqis, and Israelis, which were chosen to represent the largest population groups in the United States. The identifier will also include a blank space where people can write about how they determine if their ethnicity is not in the subcategories.

While advocacy groups don't believe the geographic addition is enough to cover the region's diversity, they say it's a long-overdue step in the right direction.

Undernumbered, underrepresented and unnoticed

The lack of an identifier for Middle Eastern and North African Americans has left them undernumbered, underrepresented, and unnoticed in American society.

Americans in the Middle East and North Africa region can trace their ancestry to more than a dozen countries, including Egypt, Morocco, Iran, Turkey and Yemen. The region is racially, ethnically, and religiously diverse, and people from there can be white, brown, or black, as well as identifying with an ethnic group, such as Arabs, Berbers, Kurds, Chaldeans, and others. Migration from countries in the region to the United States began in the late 19th century and has rebounded in recent decades due largely to political unrest, according to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation report. Migration Policy Institute.

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The largest group in the Middle East and North Africa region in the United States is Arab Americans, according to data collected by advocacy groups. The new identifier came days before the start of Arab American Heritage Month on April 1.

Tariq Raouf, 33, a Palestinian-American, described feeling like his identity was erased when he had to put a “white” mark on job applications.

“When I fill it out, it's like, 'This is ridiculous, because I'm not white,'” Rauf said. “Then, if I say I'm white, I may lose out on opportunities at companies looking to hire culturally and racially diverse employees. Who knows how many applications people may have missed because they're forced to run in a race that doesn't represent them.”

The MENA region and white societies differ in many ways, including culturally, socially, economically, and politically. Maya Berry, Executive Director of the Arab American Institute (AAI), said the MENA ID will help federal agencies collect important data that will in turn improve policy decisions. The lack of ID meant that research on the community was largely anecdotal, and resulted in its members losing out on federal resources such as health and social services.

“This category is how we engage with our community that has been invisible in the data for decades,” Perry said. “There is direct harm when communities don't have the kind of information needed about them, anywhere from the issues we've seen during the COVID pandemic, to the way congressional districts are drawn, to health research about our people, to protecting our community.” civil rights.”

Even the eight million Americans from the Middle East and North Africa that advocacy organizations estimate live in the United States may be an undercount, Ayoub says.

“We will have clear data on how many people from the region are in this country, where we live — everything from our spending habits to health issues to education,” Ayoub says of adding the identifier. “In this day and age, you really need data to be a strong advocate for your community. This will allow us to get a better picture of our community.”

Rauf is excited because he won't have to mutilate himself anymore.

“I think it's time,” he said. “It's a little frustrating that it's taken so long to get to this point. But mostly, I think it's exciting because we'll be able to get a greater idea of ​​how many people there are in this country, and get better representation.”

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A decades-long effort

Getting a MENA identifier into the census has taken decades, and has been a sustained effort by groups like ADC and AAI.

The Census Bureau had already tested this category in 2015 and found it It yielded data that provided a better view of the MENA community. This category was abandoned when the Trump administration came to power.

The Office of Management and Budget announced the long-awaited update more than a year after the Federal Interagency Technical Task Force on Race and Ethnicity Standards met. It is recommended to add the ID as a new category. This is the first time the Office of Management and Budget has updated its race and ethnicity standards since 1997; Before this change, there were five data categories for race and two for ethnicity: American Indian or Alaska Native; Asia; Black or African American; Native Hawaiians or other Pacific Islanders; white; Hispanic or Latino; and non-Hispanic or Latino.

The Office of Management and Budget has issued instructions to all federal agencies “To begin updating their surveys and administrative forms as quickly as possible,” a statement said. Federal agencies have five years to bring all data collection into compliance with the updated standards, which means Americans could start seeing that update in documents within that period.

Perry says we may see a 'ripple effect' Nongovernmental institutions, such as hospitals and universities, are adopting the new OMB standards.

“Let's say I work in a hospital and I want to apply for federal research grants. I would absolutely make sure I was compliant with federal standards,” Perry said. Federal standards.”

Not the perfect solution

Experts warn that this category is not the exact solution they have been advocating, and could lead to another decline in the number of diverse community in the United States.

Countries such as Somalia and Sudan are among the 22 countries that make up the Arabic-speaking world, according to the report. AdcMany people coming from these countries identify as Arabs and Africans. But the Office of Management and Budget's new category does not include a way for African Arabs to identify themselves, a sticking point for experts who influenced the change.

“Let’s say I’m Sudanese – I check MENA because I identify ethnically as MENA and I write ‘Sudanese’ in there,” Berry explained. “I'm not sure they will still be coded in the MENA region, because the code for Sudanese now is black or African American.”

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Before the MENA category existed, many MENA Americans would mark “other” on the census, write in their IDs and be registered in the white community anyway — and Perry fears the same thing will happen to African Arabs.

“And just like before, we didn't want to be exclusively white. Going forward, we can't have a category that excludes African-Arabs from being part of the MENA region if that's how they want to define it,” Perry said. .

Perry said that while people are free to tick more than one box, it is not clear how hyphenated MENA identities will be counted.

Aya al-Mufti, a 25-year-old Iraqi-American, disagrees with the use of the term “Middle East” for the category that 19th-century European officials coined and used for the region in proportion to its proximity to Europe.

“I would prefer SWANA (Southwest Asia and North Africa) any day,” she said, adding that the new category was still an upgrade.

Ayoub also cautioned against including Armenian Americans in the Middle Eastern and North African category, many of whom were forced to move to countries in the Middle East during the Armenian Genocide, and may identify ethnically as Middle Eastern.

One way to avoid that is to let the Census Bureau, which conducts statistical research on race and ethnicity, formulate the category question based on its findings, Perry said.

in statementThe Census Bureau said it follows standards set by the Office of Management and Budget and that it will make plans to implement them in censuses and surveys, such as the annual American Community Survey and the decennial Census.

Both Perry and Ayoub say they will continue to advocate for better community representation.

For now, Rauf hopes this update will give future generations what he didn't get while growing up.

“The feeling of being able to validate your truth is a feeling that I think none of us have ever really experienced,” Raoof said. “And I think for the kids, and everyone who grows up and fills those boxes in the future, I hope it adds some sense of pride.”

Although it's not an ideal category, Saleh says it beats having to identify as white without the benefit of the privilege it offers, especially against the backdrop of anti-Arab and Islamophobic sentiment.

“I think this allows us to assert our identities in a community that has largely wanted to avoid us, and prevent us from coming here,” Saleh said. “But now we are able to officially say: 'No, we are here. We exist.'”

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