The Biden administration’s proposal to add a “Middle East or North Africa,” or MENA, identifier to official documents like the census is the latest advancement in a decades-long struggle to ensure representation of a community historically statistically invisible.
In a Federal Register notice published Friday, the Federal Interagency Technical Task Force on Racial and Ethnic Standards recommended adding the identifier as a new category, arguing that “many members of 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, national executive director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, one of the first advocacy groups to push for an ID for the MENA community. “We are counted as white, but we have never had the privilege that goes with it.”
The current race and ethnicity standards in the United States 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 data on race and two on ethnicity: American Indian or Alaskan. Native; Asian, Black or African American; Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander; White; Hispanic or Latino; and not Hispanic or Latino, as determined by the Federal Register.
The Middle East and North Africa are included in the “blank” category, which means that Americans tracing their origins in these geographic regions must check “blank” or “other” on documents such as the census, medical documents, job applications and federal assistance forms.
It has rendered a community that experts estimate at 7-8 million people invisible, underrepresented and unnoticed.
There is power in numbers, experts say
“The problem with data is that it sets policy. It’s impossible to think of any aspect of life that isn’t affected by how we use census data,” said Maya Berry, executive director of the Arab American Institute. “It decides where trillions of dollars in federal spending go. It affects the protection of our communities, our political representation – everything.”
There is power in numbers, Berry said, and as is currently the case, much of the research on the American 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 on the MENA community, you will see that the majority” was not helpful, because the community was not specifically identified, Berry m ‘said. “We still don’t know how many of us got the Covid vaccine because of this.”
As a result, Americans in the MENA region have lost opportunities for health and social services and even small business grants, said Samer Khalaf, the former chairman of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.
“Counting us would give us a slice of the pie, resources for health, mental health, education, etc,” Khalaf said. “Community small business owners could take advantage of grants that we are not eligible for because we are counted in the white category.”
Throughout history, Americans in the MENA region have been “victims of bad policies” like surveillance programs and watch lists with no way to study these practices because there is no data. final, Ayoub said.
“We have no way to fight these policies and show our strength to politicians because we don’t have these numbers,” he said.
Who are the Americans in the MENA region?
Migration from MENA countries to the United States began in the late 1800s and has accelerated in recent decades largely due to political unrest, according to the Migration Policy Institute.
Americans in the MENA region 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 descended from it can be white, brown or black, as well as identify with one 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 ourselves into categories based on skin color is very antiquated,” Khalaf said.
The change proposes to include “Middle East or North Africa” as a standalone category, with Lebanese, Iranian, Egyptian, Syrian, Moroccan and Israeli subcategories, according to the document. There would also be a blank space where people would write how they identify themselves.
“It’s like deja vu”
This is not the first time that the United States has concluded that a MENA category is necessary.
The Census Bureau had previously tested the inclusion of the category in 2015 and found it to be an improvement in the data collection process. When the Trump administration was sworn in, the agency did not pick up where the previous administration left off.
“The politicization of the 2020 decennial census plays a role here,” Berry said. “We thought we were moving forward with the category, and then the Trump administration abandoned that effort. Now here I am in 2023, and this proposal has just been put forward by the Biden administration.”
Khalaf says it’s like deja vu and wonders why the Biden administration took two years to release the proposal.
“All this work had already been done,” he said. “My problem with that is why did they wait two years in administration to do that?”
It’s a process
The recommendation to the OMB to adopt a MENA category is nothing more than a recommendation.
Now that the Federal Register notice has been published, experts and members of the public have 75 days to submit comments on the proposed changes. The Racial and Ethnic Standards Task Force will share its findings with the OMB in 2024. The OMB will decide whether to adopt it as is, adopt it with modifications, or not adopt it at all.
“For generations we went unnoticed, uncounted and felt like our identity didn’t matter,” Ayoub said. “It would be huge for us.
The OMB did not respond to requests for comment.
This article originally appeared on NBCNews.com