With the 2020 Census approaching, many Americans will find themselves disappointed to see a new ethnic/racial category missing from the nation’s largest survey. The Trump administration decided against adding a new Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) category that was recommended under the Obama Administration.
The Arab American Institute is particularly disappointed by the Trump administration’s decision as it has advocated for the past three decades for a box that is reflective of their appearance, experience and identity.
Currently, there are five main categories of race that the census recognizes — American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, black or African American, Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander and White — as well as the option to identify being of Hispanic origin. For many people of Middle Eastern descent, such as myself, these categories do not represent our story.
The census currently classifies people of the Middle East — or North Africa — as white, despite the difference in our experiences. When people look at those of Middle Eastern descent, our brown skin, thick eyebrows and facial shape, ensures that we will be treated as such. Yet, the census continues to insist on classifying us as white.
The MENA category means so much more than just a checkbox. It is about recognizing the existence and oppressive experiences of a group of people that America has deemed to be a separate social group in society. The lack of a box that recognizes my experience makes me feel invisible and contributes to my marginalization. It is also about having access to information about the broader societal experiences of people of Middle Eastern and North African descent.
The census is the result of a decade of planning to collect a comprehensive set of information on every person living in the United States. Having this data is critical for the government to make decisions about congressional representation and where to allocate funds for public services such as roads, hospitals and public education institutions.
Adding a new MENA category could be utilized by legislators, academics and policymakers to enforce anti-discrimination laws, ensure diversity in employment and college admissions, monitor segregation policies and study institutional inequities between people of MENA descent and white people. Additionally, reclassifying millions of Americans from white to MENA would also ensure more accurate reports of discrimination against other groups. It would eliminate people who identify as MENA from clouding data on white Americans.
With the dearth of data on Americans of MENA descent, it is impossible to determine if there are inequities in outcomes for MENA Americans. If our society’s history can tell us one thing, it would be that social groups relegated to lower statuses — such as people who are or “look” Muslim — often experience unjust treatment that leads to gross inequities.
Given that Muslims are seen by many Americans as unfavorable, even referred to as “cancerous,” it is not unreasonable to expect that if and when data of people of MENA descent is analyzed, it would show marginalizing outcomes similar to other ethnic/racial minorities. There is some data that suggests people of MENA descent face poverty at twice the rate and have lower incomes, but they often pale in size when compared to the census.
The census has always been flawed in collecting racial data, at times excluding Hispanics, Asians, Native Americans and Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders despite having substantive populations in the U.S. It is long overdue for the creation of new Middle Eastern and North African census category.
As long as a MENA category is absent, millions of Americans go without having a box that reflects our racial identity and makes it impossible to recognize how racism affects us personally. With the census occurring every ten years, the only thing that people of MENA descent can hope for is that the 2030 census decides to recognize our existence.