A U.S. government advisory panel is proposing changes to how Latines and people of Middle Eastern or North African (MENA) descent are counted in federal government surveys, including the Census (Office of Management and Budget). The new classifications would allow people to check “Hispanic or Latino” as a race. The panel also recommends the addition of a MENA category, recognizing a population that has been rendered invisible.
The U.S. categorize people of Middle Eastern or North African descent as “white” despite many in the community not sharing the same experiences as white people nor identifying or being perceived as white. This classification has resulted in the undercounting, underrepresentation, and underfunding of a racially and ethnically diverse community.
• Write a comment today about the addition of a MENA category to federal forms and surveys. The deadline for comments is April 12.
• Donate to Arab American Civic Council, ACCESS, and Arab American Family Services supporting MENA communities.
• Demand your local representatives add a MENA category to state statistical data collection.
“Over the past 20 years, people who are from the Middle East and North Africa have experienced a form of stereotyping that presumes that they are inherently prone to violence, that they are prone to being sympathetic to terrorism, that they are forever foreign,” said Sahar Aziz, a law professor at Rutgers University Law School (NPR). “All of these stereotypes are what people who do not have the privileges of whiteness experience.”
According to the Arab American Institute, there are approximately 3.2 million people of MENA descent in the U.S., though this number could be higher (Census). A 2015 Census analysis found that when a MENA category was available, people opted for it, resulting in a drop from 85% to 20% in those selecting white (Census). Additionally, when factoring traits and characteristics like specific ancestry, names, and religion from these regions, white and MENA people designated them as non-white (PNAS). They also reported higher incidences of discrimination than white people, “on par with other groups of color,” and are stereotyped as “terrorists” in the media. And in states like California and Michigan, which have the largest Arab and MENA populations, they tend to be uninsured, living below the poverty level, less likely to own their home (BMC Public Health), and have lower life expectancy compared to their white counterparts (PLOS One).
Categorizing Arab Americans and people of MENA descent as white traces back to this country’s naturalization system. In the late 1800s, the first wave of immigrants from the Middle East, mainly those from the Ottoman region of Syria, modern-day Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine, came to the states (Migration Policy). Prior to their arrival, the 1790 Naturalization Act required citizens to be a “free white person.” As a result, many fought in court to be classified as white to gain citizenship. Two cases, Dow v. United States in 1915 and Ex parte Mohriez in 1944, paved the way for MENA people to be considered white by law, with District Judge Wyzanski saying in his ruling decision that “the Arab passes muster as a white person.”
Even with these rulings, being classified as white did not open up the privilege of whiteness to many Arab and other people of MENA descent or end xenophobia. Nor did it guarantee citizenship, as immigration laws and quota systems were still in place, limiting entry from parts of these regions.
It did, however, affect demographic data collection. The classification of MENA Americans as white means that there is no official statistical data on this community, which is not only erasure but creates disparities and inequities in how MENA people are supported in the U.S.
Not being accurately represented in the Census affects the reapportionment of seats in Congress and the distribution of federal funding for public services (The ARD). From civil rights protections to health and social programs, millions in federal funding and resources that could boost the wellbeing of MENA Americans are potentially not reaching them. This was evident during the height of COVID-19 when Arab and other MENA people were dying at high rates, like in Illinois, but going unnoticed due to a lack of population and demographic data (CBS News). Failure to recognize this meant MENA communities and organizations struggled to get funding for resources like testing and messaging for vaccination to help reduce the spread.
Supporters of a MENA category have been advocating for decades for such an addition, which would generate a more accurate representation and bring visibility to a community that has long been disenfranchised.
• The addition of a MENA category has been proposed for federal government surveys.
• Historically, Middle Eastern and North African people have been categorized as white in the U.S. despite not identifying with the label.
• The classification has meant that MENA people have been undercounted and underrepresented in the country.