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 focusing on Hispanics, immigration and demographics at Pew Research Center.

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40 Comments

  1. Isthar4 weeks ago

    This is very stupid! Assyrians and Chaldean are no were genetically close to Arabs.
    Additionally, Assyrians come from turkey , greece, Iraq and armenia, Iran. are they gonna pick MENA or White?
    MENA should then include ethnic greek, armenians, georgians, azeris, Iranian, and arab.. can’t be just arabs.

    Reply
    1. Mellisma3 weeks ago

      MENA = Middle East North Africa. All those people you mention, exempting the Greeks, are from Middle Eastern countries. Turkey/Armenia are Eurasian, but still share cultural/religious and ethnic ties with the middle east.

      Reply
  2. Jessica3 months ago

    I love this article and I hope that the Middle-Eastern/North-African (MENA) category shows up on the 2020 Census! I will PROUDLY check the MENA box because my family and I have never been treated as White, never felt white, are not white and will NEVER be white! My skinny White blond school friends used to ALWAYS call me Princess Jasmine and my brother Prince Aladdin because we are Arab American with dark features (black hair/black full eyebrows/olive skin that tans easily/full lips/curvy body).

    My father is from Palestine and he moved to America and married my white mom, so technically I am biracial…but the stupid American Census inists that I am “white” so I am not classified as a racial minority EVEN THOUGH I HAVE BEEN TREATED LIKE A NON-WHITE ARAB AMERICAN MY WHOLE LIFE! I have been called a female terrorist after 911 when I was only a 9 year old girl, White girls ALWAYS were asking questions about my beautiful but “different” dark black/dry/curly/textured/coarse hair and Olive skin tone and full lips and curvy body. Do you know why these skinny white blonds/brunettes were so curious about my ethnic looks? Because they used their eyes and saw that I was not white, but a different race called Arab/Middle Eastern/North African!

    All races deserve to be represented and I am sick and tired of all this “color-blind” talk! There are different races people open your eyes and stop lying to yourselves! It’s not innocent white people being shot in the street for no reason, it is Black people being shot for no reason…why? Because of racial discrimination. It is important to see and recognize the beauty in all races.

    Reply
    1. Aksel Adjenssi3 months ago

      North-Africa is not middle-east !
      North-Africa is Tamazgha : a berber land !

      Reply
      1. Jessica1 month ago

        We are talking about RACE. North Africans, like Egyptions, are of the Arab race like Palestinians and Syrians.

        Reply
        1. Aksel Adjenssi4 weeks ago

          Let’s talk about race then.
          North-Africans ( from Morocco to Libya) are ethnically and genetically Berbers. North-Africans are absolutely not the same race as Palestinians or Syrians at all ! Not at all !
          Know how to make a difference between “arabized” ( by islam) and “arabs”, because it is not the same.
          And by the way “true arabs” from arabian peninsula are mulattos.
          “[…]The results showed that the Arabian Peninsula has received substantial gene flow from Africa (20%), detected by the presence of L, M1 and U6 lineages; that an 18% of the Arabian Peninsula lineages have a clear eastern provenance, mainly represented by U lineages; but also by Indian M lineages and rare M links with Central Asia, Indonesia and even Australia.[…]
          Although there is evidence of Neolithic and more recent expansions in the Arabian Peninsula, mainly detected by (preHV)1 and J1b lineages, the lack of primitive autochthonous M and N sequences, suggests that this area has been more a receptor of human migrations, including historic ones, from Africa, India, Indonesia and even Australia,[…]”.
          biomedcentral.com/1471-2148/8/45…

          Reply
      2. Mellisma3 weeks ago

        North Africans, like many peoples in the Middle East, are ARABIZED.

        Reply
  3. Sally4 months ago

    FYI…your half right saying that swahili is a language but swahili are the people of the coast who live along the east african shores who themselves are also of mixed races.. Like me here who is bantu with an arab ancestry and some say i have an oriental look… The people of east african coasts have arab, chinese, persian origins

    Reply
  4. Stuart Hurlbert6 months ago

    On the basis of long experience with and thought on the rationale and consequences of the divisive governmental practice of asking individuals to classify themselves into racial or ethnic categories, I suggest the Census Bureau drop this idea. Surely some in the Census Bureau are aware of the racist origins of governmental racial classifications in the U.S.?!

    It is ridiculous to propose adding new race/ethnicity categories instead of starting the process to eliminate all such categorization by government. The CB’s problem clearly is much bigger than the MENA proposal, and it is understandable the CB may not want to deal with the larger issue at the moment. But then when will it, some of us ask.

    The country’s situation is that while only about 2% of the population “checks more than one box” on the census form, the great majority of individuals in the US are to some degree and have been for some time, multiracial. Deliberately or not, the CB has obscuring that fact and perpetuating ideas about “race” more than a century out of date.

    Has any one in the CB been on a university campus recently and seen who’s holding hands with each other? And this is hardly anything new. As an “Anglo” I married a Chinese woman at Cornell half a century ago next week.

    Has anyone asked the MENA category proponents how they think the tens of thousands of children should be classified who have one MENA parent and one non-MENA parent? and the tens of thousands of such yet to be born? Mongrel infidels perhaps?

    About a dozen years ago in California we put the Racial Privacy Initiative (RPI) on the ballot. This would have forbid all state government entities from asking people to identify their race/ethnicity on forms of any sort (except where required by the federal government, and a few other exceptions). Reliable polls just a couple of months before the vote showed that in every racial/ethnic group in California, a majority of those with an opinion on the matter wished to eliminate the governmental racial classification of people.

    In gathering signatures to put that initiative on the ballot, I scoured local university campuses (San Diego State University, University of California at San Diego, San Diego community colleges) passing out a flyer on the subject and asking students to sign the petition form. It was a truly delightful experience, as in their very great majority (>90%) students of all racial groups signed enthusiastically. At SDSU I even had students wanting to sign seeking me out in the central plaza after hearing about the petition from their dorm mates and class mates.

    But shortly before the vote, leading opponent CA Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante with a war chest of ca. $12,000,000 began a massive campaign of TV and radio ads against the RPI. They paid former US surgeon general Everett Koop to go on TV and say the initiative would put millions of California children’s lives at risk, etc., etc. Then all the race hucksters got involved. So the initiative did not pass but it still got 37% voting in favor of it.

    Supposedly the data banks providing demographic data by race are especially needed to fight discrimination. But several points. 1) the resultant data sets have rarely been useful in winning actual discrimination cases, but have been and are relentlessly used, along with naive use of statistics and the cooperation of statistically naive journalists, to bring and publicize bogus and divisive charges of discrimination; 2) we do not need ethnicity/race data to fight racial discrimination any more than the government needs personal information on our political and religious beliefs in order to fight political and religious discrimination; 3) because a person’s self-classification usually ignores their actual ethnic/racial origins and because most Americans are multiracial/multiethnic the data sets are fairly meaningless — and valued mostly by academic social scientists, both conservative and liberal, who cry they will be unable to survive and publish articles if the governmentt stops supplying them with the bogus data sets on racial composition.

    From the beginning computer scientists have been warning us to understand the powerlessness of computers and statistics to overcome bad study design and bad data sets. “Garbage in, garbage out,” they say. This new proposal of the census bureau essentially aims to increase the flow of “Garbage in.”

    Reply
  5. Stuart Hurlbert6 months ago

    Absolutely ridiculous that we are adding new race/ethnicity categories instead of eliminating all such categorization as a function of government.

    The country’s situation is that while only about 2% of the population “check more than one box” on the census and other forms, the majority of individuals in the US are to some degree and have been for some time, multiracial. My own situation is that I’m an Anglo married to a Chinese woman, have one child, and worked in Latin America for three decades, where again most of the population is mixed race.

    And have you been on any university campus recently and seen whose holding hands with each other?

    About a dozen years ago in California we put the Racial Privacy Initiative on the ballot. This would have forbid all state government entities from asking people to identify their race/ethnicity on forms of any sort (except where required by the federal government). Reliable polls just a couple of months before the vote showed that in every racial/ethnic group, a majority of those with an opinion on the matter wished to eliminate governmental racial classification of people.

    In gathering signatures to put that initiative on the ballot, I scoured local university campuses (SDSU, UCSD, San Diego community colleges) passing out a flyer on the subject and asking students to sign. It was a truly delightful experience, as in their very great majority (>90%) students of all racial groups signed enthusiastically. At SDSU I even had students wanting to sign seeking me out in the central plaza after hearing about the petition from their dorm mates and class mates.

    But shortly before the vote, leading opponent CA Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamonte with a war chest of ca. $12,000,000 began a massive campaign of TV and radio ads against the RPI. They paid former US surgeon general Everett Koop to go on TV and say the initiative would put millions of California children’s lives at risk, etc., etc. Then all the race hucksters got involved. So the initiative did not pass but it still got 37% voting in favor of it.

    Reply
  6. John7 months ago

    The USA is not a multicultural country, it’s multiracial, get rid of the ethnic/racial categories all together and just be united Americans.

    Reply
    1. Hayley S.3 months ago

      Great idea, John.

      Reply
  7. Jamal7 months ago

    I am from Yemen.

    Let me start with an introduction to explain my idea! I never considered my white, Ever! but i am an Arab and I am mid-eastern. My example is Yemen where people’s skin, hair and eyes colors vary from white similar to brothers from Lebanon or Syria, in the Northern mountains to very dark and black skin and hair similar to people from Ethiopia and Somalia and that’s in the south.

    However, I am here in the united states and call me white and Caucasian. Do you know how much opportunities I lost when employers hire based on EOE. Do you how many Africans, Asians and Hispanics got hired in the Fed gov just because they are minorities?!

    Many people who told me I look like Egyptians and others told me I look like Iraqis. I am proud of what I’ve been told because that’s me I am Arab and I look like Arabs. nevertheless, No one ever told me that I look like Irish or Swedish but the government and employers did.

    Reply
    1. Jan Wu5 months ago

      I am from Kazakhstan.
      Let me start with an intro to explain myself. It’s not until coming to the United States that I’ve considered myself Asian, Ever! but I am a Mongolian and Central Asian. My example is Kazakhstan where people vary from white similar to brothers in Russia in the west, to Asian features similar to people from the Far East.
      Haha I get all those opportunities because I am a minority (Asian).

      Reply
  8. Allie Kentel8 months ago

    Indonesians are Asian, but their religion is Islam.

    Reply
  9. Vahid10 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.

    Reply
    1. Aaron10 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.

      Reply
      1. Mike3 months ago

        Now we both know that that statement just isn’t true. Two people with ancestries from the same continent would obviously be more closely related than two from different or distant continents. Two people from Europe are going to be more closely related than two people, one from Europe and one from sub-Saharan Africa. Saying there’s no such thing as race, though is sort of glaring, as other races will both notice, act and see it subjectively for what it is. Ignoring it for what it is sort of silly, and opposite to what people from other countries do, so why should we be any different? Anyway, think what you want, but the total genetic differences between our racial groups multiplied by three begets a new species. That’s rather amazing, and I think we can see that these noticeable differences were the start of a divergence that never truly separated us as the timescale didn’t have a chance to push it, and the modern world has connected us in a way like never before. Oh, and most middle easterners are Caucasian, they enslaved and castrated black Africans like mad in the past. Sorry, you don’t get to claim any special benefits by separating yourselves from common heritage.

        Reply
        1. Lucy2 months ago

          Actually, Aaron is right. There are very VERY few genes that code for race, which means two people who are the same height may have much more in common, genetically, than two people who are of the same race. You’re right to say that people living in close proximity for very many generations will have more in common but that has nothing to do with race. For example, there are many different races of people living in America but there is only a gene pool of about 300 million people to chose from. In, sub-saharan Africa, not only is the population size upwards of 800 million, but it is a fact that any and every gene found in humans anywhere around the world can also be found somewhere in Africa so the genetic diversity is endless. Even if you were to pick a section of Africa that only had 300 million people to compare us to, the genetic diversity there would far exceed ours. It would be more than reasonable to say that two people of a different race in America have more genetically in common than two people of the same race in sub-saharan Africa. Besides, none of this matters much because all throughout history, not just recently, humans have traveled/migrated/colonized and shared our genes with others so much that it prevents the genetic gap between different “races” from spreading too wide, otherwise, we would have speciated by now. Divergence, as well, would have never been possible because no population has any unique genes and we’ve never been isolated from each other for a decent amount of time. What you observe as the beginnings of divergence is really just a fixation on recessive genes that already existed but few had. Fixation can happen even when a population is isolated for an extremely short amount of time and can just as easily be undone. This is absolutely not to say that we should ignore the fact that people who look different are treated differently because it is a glaring issue.

          Reply
    2. FYI8 months ago

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

      Reply
  10. Luis Arroyo1 year 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.

    Reply
    1. brainster1 year 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.

      Reply
    2. Ali1 year 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.

      Reply
      1. Jensen Allsop12 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.

        Reply
        1. Yusef11 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?

          Reply
          1. Meri6 months ago

            Turkish people from Turkey are white caucasian. Even if they speak turkish (a language from Central Asia), they are actually the descendant of ancient Anatolian people. They are closer to Greek, Armenian, Georgian and Balkan people rather than semitic or asian people. With exception for some people living in the southeastern border with Syria and Irak (Hatay, Mersin, Adana etc.) who are ethnically arabs. Do you really think that someone living in Trabzon is non-white? This person is certainly a descendant of a greek! Genetically speaking, Turkish people have less than 10 % of mongoloid dna in their blood. You should check the genetic profile of turkish people. Don’t mix up Turkish people and Turkic people. They are two different races. The Khazars are Turkic people. And I’m fully Turkish (with Greek and Armenian blood) so I also know what I’m talking about.

          2. Mas4 weeks ago

            No, turks are not European. Turks genetically closer to Iraqi and levantine population than the greek population due to separation of religion.
            What about Assyrian/ Chaldeans from Turkey who later migrated to Iraq? Armenians? these populations are closer genetically to greek and Armenians than the turks.

    3. White Egyptian12 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.

      Reply
      1. Egyptian9 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.

        Reply
    4. Jefferson10 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.

      Reply
  11. Charlie Hendricksen1 year 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?”

    Reply
  12. Randa Kayyali1 year 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.

    Reply
  13. alexandron1 year 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.

    Reply
  14. Dan1 year 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.

    Reply
  15. Dan1 year 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.

    Reply
  16. Al1 year 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.

    Reply
  17. Raymond Bieber1 year 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.

    Reply
  18. Gary1 year 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?

    Reply
    1. Daniel1 year 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.

      Reply
  19. bruce crosby1 year 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.

    Reply