March 24, 2014

Census Bureau explores new Middle East/North Africa ethnic category

Organizations representing people of Middle Eastern and North African descent are asking the Census Bureau to add a new ethnic category on forms. People of this heritage are now categorized as “white,” a decades-old practice advocacy groups say is inaccurate.

Arab-American Population in the U.S.The new category would be broader than the Arab ancestry data collected by the Census Bureau since 1980. The Arab-American population is small but growing, and its exact size is disputed. The Census Bureau estimates there are 1.8 million Arab-Americans in the U.S., up 51% since 2000. But the Arab American Institute Foundation estimates there are nearly 3.7 million Arab Americans living in the country. The Arab-American population is also diverse, with people claiming ties to 22 countries and various religious backgrounds.

“When immigrants come here they’re very confused by American race classifications,” said Helen Hatab Samhan, former executive director of the Arab American Institute Foundation. “They don’t necessarily relate to them, and they don’t know where they fit.”

A coalition of groups and individuals—including the Arab American Institute Foundation—sent a letter to the Census Bureau last summer that asked for a separate “Middle East/North Africa” ethnic category.

A question about Hispanic origin, currently the only ethnic category, has been asked of all households since 1980. The census form instructs respondents that Hispanic is not a race.

People of Middle Eastern and North African descent have historically identified themselves as white on census forms. But during the 2010 census, activists launched a campaign that urged people to check “some other race” on the form and write in their ancestry. The campaign’s slogan was: “Check it right; you ain’t white!

The Census Bureau is already looking at big changes to its form. One proposal would create a combined race and ethnicity question in which people would be offered all the race and Hispanic options in one place. Census data are vital to determining everything from how congressional districts are drawn to $400 billion in federal aid programs and enforcement of civil rights laws.

“We’re trying to develop a (race and ethnicity) question that satisfies everyone,” said Roberto Ramirez, a Census official who discussed the issue on a recent visit to the Pew Research Center. “It’s a very political endeavor. It always has been.”

Census officials say they are interested in further researching the Middle East/North Africa designation (also called MENA), and community leaders are optimistic the bureau will test a new ethnic category before the 2020 population count. Samhan said a meeting last week between Census Bureau Director John H. Thompson and groups asking for the new category included discussions about how to proceed with research.

In a combined race and ethnicity question tested during the 2010 Census Alternative Questionnaire Experiment, the white race category included several examples—among them “Egyptian” and “Lebanese”—to guide those who might check the box. But when census officials convened focus groups to study the proposed changes, people said the Egyptian and Lebanese examples were “wrong” and “inaccurate,” said Nicholas Jones, a Census official who recently visited the Pew Research Center to talk about the bureau’s research.

The push to be counted as something other than white is a reversal from a century ago. In the early 20th century, people from the Middle East argued in court to be counted as white instead of Asian. A major concern was anti-Asian legislation that sought to restrict immigration and deny Asians U.S. citizenship. A prominent example of this was the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

Because of distrust of the government, some in Middle Eastern and North African communities need to be convinced that a more accurate population count is in their interest, said Samhan of the Arab American Institute Foundation. The Census Bureau came under criticism in 2004 when it was revealed the agency shared data that listed where Arab Americans lived by city and ZIP code with the Department of Homeland Security. The data, though publicly available online, were handed over to DHS less than three years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

It’s too soon to say whether a Middle East/North Africa category will appear on the 2020 census.  Census officials say any changes would have to be approved by the Office of Management and Budget, which determines and defines the race and ethnicity categories. Any proposed topics must be submitted to Congress by 2017. Question wording is due to Congress the following year.

Topics: Middle East and North Africa, U.S. Census

  1. is a Writer/Editor at the Pew Research Center's Hispanic Trends Project.

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  1. Allie Kentel1 month ago

    Indonesians are Asian, but their religion is Islam.

  2. Vahid3 months ago

    This stupid problem started when whiteness which is a feature of skin was confused with race. Our race is Caucasian , but we can have different skin colors. Europeans have whiter skin, people of MENA are swarthier. Nevertheless both are part of Caucasian race. North Indians and central Asians are also Caucasian. Other races are Asian (Chinese, Japanese, Korean, …) and African (Nigerian, Swahili, …) and Australoid. The best way is to categorize races based on genetic distances.

    1. Aaron3 months ago

      also at issue is there really is no true scientific basis for the race classification system you are referring to. At a genetic level, there can be just as much diversity between two white skinned Caucasians as there might be between a Caucasian and an African.

    2. FYI4 weeks ago

      Swahili and ‘Nigerian’ are in the same category– one, the former, is a language the other is a nationality.

  3. Luis Arroyo8 months ago

    Arabs are a swarthier sub branch of Mediterranean white. Regardless of swarthyness the vast majority are of caucasian family.

    The census liberals wants to cut and splice whites into a minority in US.

    1. brainster8 months ago

      it’s not the “census liberals” which want the ME category for people of that region but those people themselves. Tell me, is them technically being white stop them from racial profiling on the airports, or discrimination because of being Muslims etc. ?? It just strips them of the protection offered to other ethnic minorities.

    2. Ali8 months ago

      Indians have caucasoid facial features too but they’re not white. I’ve been in America long enough to know that “white” means people who descend from indigenous Europeans. I look nothing like a German, I’m not from the same background, not the same culture, most probably not the same religion. Sorry, but I don’t identify as “white”. I usually check “some other race” too. I wish they’d add a Mena box for us Arabs, as well as the Berbers, the Persians, and the Turks.

      1. Jensen Allsop5 months ago

        You would include Turks in the non-white category? You might as well include Italians then as neither looks like your average white American. But then again most white people in the world don’t look like your average white American who mostly descended from Northern Europeans.

        1. Yusef4 months ago

          Turks are not white. They are Turkic-Semitic. I should know I’m 1/4 Turkic Khazar. We originate from Turkestan which is located in Central Asia. Are you going to classify Western Chinese/Northern Indians as white? Mr.Liberal?

    3. White Egyptian5 months ago

      This is stupid. Just liberals wanting to put white in the minority, like another person on here said. I am a North African (Egyptian) and I consider myself white. In fact, very rarely do people think I am not white. Strangers often think I am a Mediterranean Caucasian (Italian, to be specific) because of my olive skin tone, and frankly, that’s what I consider myself. You can’t even put us, north Africans, in the sane basket as Middle Easterners. If you compare us to Saudi Arabians or Yemenese or anyone from the Arabian Peninsula (with the except of Lebanon and parts of Syria), you will clearly see that we are much lighter-toned than them.

      1. Egyptian2 months ago

        You’re completely wrong I’m Egyptian too, from Cairo and I’m not white at all. I have light olive-skin, but my features aren’t white. You obviously know nothing about Aswan, Luxor, and Upper Egypt (South of Egypt), people that have genetic ties to these areas generally have a wider nose and much kinkier hair than Caucasians. I myself have very, very curly/dry hair, and my wider nose and tall stature has most people either thinking I’m hispanic or half-black.

    4. Jefferson3 months ago

      The majority of Whites in the U.S are of Northern European descent, so I don’t know how re-classifying Middle Easterners and North Africans as Nonwhite means Whites will become a Minority in the U.S.

      The 3 most common ancestries among White Americans is German, English, and Irish.

  4. Charlie Hendricksen9 months ago

    Race and ethnicity are bogus classifications. People are themselves. Asking such a question is asking a lot of people. What do race and ethnicity mean? Do I really know my ancestry? Do I want to be classified by the Census bureau?

    A more useful classification would be by acculturization: “How many generations ago did your family move to the USA?”

  5. Randa Kayyali9 months ago

    What this article is sorely missing is that many of the more recent immigrants, and some of the descendants of older generations of immigrants, do not feel that they are treated as “white” and do not self-identify as “white.” In the last census, those who identified as Arab or Iranian (as well as other terms) in the “other” race box, were re-classified by the Census Bureau in the statistics as “white.” At issue here is the state’s classification (and re-classification) system that is deficient and inaccurate. The OMB and the Census Bureau need to adopt an inclusive Middle Eastern and North African ethnic identity box, and Congress needs to approve this ASAP in order for it to make on the 2020 Census.

  6. alexandron9 months ago

    Once upon a time in America, people were offended by being categorized by race and/or color. Now it appears to be the opposite. Convenient, since the old adage “divide and conquer” has been a driving force behind this effort since the early 20th Century. It’s just picking up steam.

  7. Dan9 months ago

    Ones customs and culture are a private matter.
    We all strive for a colorless society and equal laws for all colors, races.
    But in selected areas we insist on color and race identification.
    We cannot have it both ways: a colorless society as well as fostering color identity.

  8. Dan9 months ago

    Ones customs and culture are a private matter.
    We all strive for a colorless society and equal laws for all colors, races.
    But in selected areas we insist, often for political reasons, on color and race identification.
    We have enough pressure groups, no need to add more.
    We cannot have it both ways: a colorless society as well as fostering color identity.

  9. Al9 months ago

    We are all either citizens or non-citizens. Race/ethnicity are confusing the issue. Are there catagories for Irish? English? Sweedish? French? etc.?
    When will it all stop?
    Will we eventually have an unlimited list?
    It all really boils down to citizens/non-citizens.

  10. Raymond Bieber9 months ago

    There is no actual race all of us are homo sapien and the color of skin denotes how close our ancestry live to the equator.

  11. Gary9 months ago

    I grew up in the South in a city with many people
    of Lebanese and Syrian descent and they were every bit as white as those of Italian descent. Why make a distinction now?

    1. Daniel7 months ago

      My dad’s side of Puerto Rican, and in Puerto Rico, there are a lot of people there who you’d consider white, but they consider themselves Hispanic or Latino. The point is, although Hispanics/Latino and Arabs/Persians look like other races, they have their own culture, way of life, and they are a blend of many cultures. So they are basically their own race.

  12. bruce crosby10 months ago

    This is a significant issue which is essential to address. Iranian Americans bristle at the notion that they are “Arabs” and will remind you they are Persians. It is easy for the dominant culture to impose constructs that violate the sensibilities of others out of ignorance, but once the ignorance is dispelled then it is incumbent upon that culture to honor the ethnic heritage of the group, particularly if it is important that the offspring of that culture be “assimilated” (sic) into the dominant culture.