WASHINGTON — The White House is proposing the federal government add an ethnic category for people of Middle Eastern and North African descent to the US census form.
The move, if enacted, would mark the first time in more than 40 years that the United States creates a new classification for a racially defined group of people. It would also mean that Israeli-Americans would not be considered “white” under the official governmental classifications.
The alterations would be intended to improve both the accuracy and reliability of race and ethnicity data.
And officials hope that the new category — currently known as MENA (Middle East and North Africa) — would initiate a new paradigm for recognizing racial identity within the country that has, since its founding, maintained the premise of being a “composite nation.”
While some of the specifics are still undergoing negotiations, the plan being outlined would entail allowing individuals to check a box on official forms that would identify themselves as Middle Eastern, alongside other categories like “Black” and “Asian.”
The White House’s Office of Management and Budget unveiled its proposal on Friday before seeking feedback from the Federal Register regarding what countries should be incorporated.
Israel is among the countries that census officials say would comprise people of such a Middle Eastern identity, as is “Palestine.”
Others countries in the proposed new category include: Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates and Yemen. Turkey, Sudan and Somalia are not included.
Federal officials wish to bring a bill before the Congress by 2018 so that, presuming it passes, the new category would go into effect for the 2020 Census.
USA Today noted that the move could have far-reaching implications, as census information is used to draw congressional districts, build affirmative action plans and monitor discrimination against minorities, among other functions.
Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Michigan) welcomed the move, telling the paper that adding a MENA category would allow many of her constituents to “accurately identify themselves and access the employment, health, education and representation services that are based on census data.”
Maya Berry, executive director of the Arab American Institute, told the Washington Post that “to be a community that’s invisible has been a real problem for us.”
‘To be a community that’s invisible has been a real problem for us.’
“Whether it’s a local school district trying to make decisions about English-as-a-second-language classes, or Voting Rights Act protections, or health research…we’d love to be able to say, ‘This estimate is based on this data,’ ” Berry said. “It means we could have our category the same way ‘Hispanic’ does…People will be able to finally see themselves in the census.”
But some are worried that the category could also help single them out during a period when people of Middle Eastern origin are often automatically considered suspicious.
“Unfortunately in today’s environment, we have to have concerns about the possible misuse of this data,” Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, told the Post. “We’ve had too many problems in the post-9/11 era when the American government singles out Arab Americans or Muslim Americans for profiling.”
Khalid Beydoun, a law professor at the University of Detroit, expressed similar reservations.
“It just aids and facilitates the state’s ability to know where these communities are in a very specific fashion,” he told USA Today. “My inclination is to think that individuals who might identify might not check the box for fear of retribution — especially if [Republican presidential nominee Donald] Trump wins.”
He stressed that: “In the grand scheme of things, it’s really a progressive stride forward” but that “in the broader landscape, it’s taking place in the context of greater animus against Arab Americans, and really, Islamophobia.”
Current US law states that people from the Middle East are considered white. This derives from a 1915 court ruling in Dow v. United States, in which a Syrian American, George Dow, appealed his being classified by the government as Asian. At the time, such a designation resulted in the denial of citizenship under the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act.
For the last three decades, activists have been lobbying to add a new category for Americans with roots in the Middle East, as many have said they feel unable to fully identify as either white, black or Asian.
In recent years, Census officials have been weighing such a change, but last week was the first time they seemed poised to actually do so.
There are estimated to be 3.6 million Arab-Americans in the United States, according to the 2010 Census. But that figure does not include the total number of the Middle Eastern and North African population.