Middle Easterners May Get a Census Category, but There’s a Downside

Some worry a proposed new box on census forms will be used against Americans of Middle Eastern heritage.
(Photos: Getty Images)
Oct 14, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Shari Sharpe is an editorial intern at TakePart.

Though it may be one of President Obama’s last bids for inclusive policy, a proposed change to improve census tracking of people from the Middle East and North Africa is raising concerns it could be twisted for Islamophobic aims, particularly because it comes amid a presidential campaign that has included calls for banning Muslims from entering the country.

The White House recently proposed adding a new racial category to government forms to identify the North African and Middle Eastern population. Until now, a broad swath of people from Iran to Morocco have been told that legally, they should choose “White” under an outdated law, though many—recognizing the inaccuracy—mark “Other” when given the option.

The new categorical option—MENA, short for “Middle Eastern or North African”—would finally give recognition to people of this heritage, stopping short of acknowledging ethnic and racial differences within the category.

The existing population numbers vary widely and are frequently outdated. When it comes to Arab Americans alone, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that there were 1.5 million households headed by people of Arab ancestry in 2013, the most recent survey available, while the American Arab Institute Foundation pegged the number at closer to 3.7 million in 2014. Experts venture that the current MENA population might be nearer to 5 to 8 million, particularly as it would include Iranians and North Africans, who might also identify as African American.

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Whatever the number, this population has longed for better visibility, considering its lengthy history in the United States, according to author Reza Aslan, who has written three books on religion, including Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.

“As someone who has spent most of his life in the U.S. checking off the box ‘Other,’ I think that this is actually a good thing. I was shocked to hear that the government assumes Middle Easterners are white, because never in a million years did it ever occur to me to check the ‘White’ box,” said Aslan, whose family emigrated to the U.S. from Iran when he was seven years old.

The policy would change future census forms, and Aslan hopes knowing more about this population would result in a “sea change” in “how the government relates to us.”

The commentator and University of California, Riverside, professor of creative writing adds that it “will give those from the Middle East and North Africa an opportunity to more genuinely and honestly identify themselves to the census bureau.”

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Nonetheless, the idea of tracking Middle Eastern people and North Africans more closely in an era that has seen the rise of Islamophobia is making some people wary of how the information will be used, according to a spokesperson for the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

“Collecting data that can be misused to target Muslim and/or Arab American or Middle Eastern people in the United States—that’s obviously a concern,” said Ibrahim Hooper, national communications director for the Washington, D.C.–based advocacy group.

Those concerns aren’t unfounded. A Pulitzer Prize–winning investigation by The Associated Press revealed in 2011 that following the terror attacks of 9/11, New York police and the Central Intelligence Agency surveilled the city’s Muslims, sending undercover officers into minority neighborhoods and mosques, though there was no evidence they harbored terrorists.

“We’re all in favor of having hard data on the American Muslim community and the Arab American community, people with Middle Eastern background, just in terms of knowing how many and where, and all these other normal things,” Hooper said. “But there’s always the concern about possible misuse by the government, based on actual incidents—whether it’s New York or other places—of profiling certain demographics.”

Homa Sabet Tavangar echoes those concerns. The Iranian American author of Growing Up Global: Raising Children to Be at Home in the World says the new racial category is a “double-edged sword.” She believes “many people of Middle Eastern heritage are happy to fly under the radar right now,” in part because some, like herself, look vaguely Mediterranean, which produces a notion of “freedom”—the idea that “you don’t have a label.”

RELATED: Is the Media Profiling Muslims as Terrorists?

Another issue with the racial category is how broad it is in terms of culture—in other words, the sheer breadth of race, language, religion, and ethnicity among those of MENA heritage, a vast and diverse population encompassing Egypt’s Coptic Christians, Israelis, and whirling dervishes spinning in the ecstasies of Sufi tradition.

“For example, I’m Iranian. Iranians don’t speak Arabic. We could be Christian or Jewish or Muslim or Baha’i or nothing. There’s an assumption of an ‘Arab-speaking Muslim’ in that category, and I am none of those,” said Tavangar. “I think that, on the one hand, it’s at least getting a little closer geographically. It’s just like a mixed-race person who is like, ‘I don’t know. What am I faithfully calling myself?’ ” Still, Tavangar said if there were a MENA box available on the next census, she would tick the box.

Aslan believes this will be the common reaction, adding, “The label ‘MENA’ washes over the tremendous cultural and ethnic diversity of the region,” which he knows is “unavoidable.” He compares the situation to other broad categories, saying, “Not everyone who checks the ‘Pacific Islander’ box shares the same culture and ethnicity.”

This is largely the reason why it has taken so long for consideration of this category to be proposed again, as the White House Office of Management and Budget notes. The conclusion of the review that occurred in 1997 was that “agreement could not be reached among public stakeholders on the intended measurement concept…nor, accordingly, a definition for this category.” Fast-forward through years of ongoing examination of the issue by the Federal Interagency Working Group for Research on Race and Ethnicity, and the Middle Eastern or North African category seems to be the answer.

Public comment on the proposal is open through the end of October, at which time further revisions or approvals may come from the Office of Management and Budget.