'Metamorphosis': US Census to Add Middle Eastern, North African Category | Racial Issues News

Advocates for Arab Americans have routinely used one word to describe how various communities from the Middle East and North Africa have been classified in U.S. censuses for decades: “invisible.”

But that's about to change when the next federal census is conducted in 2030, with the White House's Office of Management and Budget (OMB) announcing new federal standards for collecting race and ethnicity data on Thursday. For the first time, Americans who trace their ancestral roots to the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) will receive their own category in the decennial survey.

“It's worth changing,” said Maya Perry, executive director of the Arab American Institute (AAI), who has advocated for the update for years.

“For more than four decades, since the foundation of our organization, we have highlighted the lack of a check box on federal data collection forms, particularly the census, that lacks an accurate count of our community,” he said.

“It's incredibly important and will have a very real and tangible impact on people's lives.”

In the United States, official counts of population have wide-ranging implications, affecting how federal dollars are distributed to meet the needs of certain communities, how congressional districts are drawn, and how certain federal anti-discrimination and racial equality laws are enforced.

But U.S. residents with racial and ethnic ties to MENA previously fell into the “white” category, although they could write in the country they ethnically identify with. Observers say it has long been underrepresented in large numbers of the community, making it impossible to conduct meaningful research on health and social trends.

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Speaking to Reuters on Thursday, an OMB official said the latest standards are “to ensure we have high-quality federal data on race and ethnicity.” The official said it would help to understand the various impacts on “individuals, programs and services, health outcomes, employment outcomes, educational outcomes”.

'The First Step'

Abed Ayoub, executive director of The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, hailed the update as a much-needed “first step.”

“It's been a long time coming,” Ayub told Al Jazeera. “We feel it resets the conversation on the issue.”

“Earlier, we were completely ignored. We have no category. The conversation moving forward is, 'How do we refine this category and ensure that it's a representative and fair category to revisit over the years?'

With the last update in 1997, changes in the way such data are collected are rare. President Barack Obama proposed new standards for the U.S. Census system, but President Donald Trump has delayed implementing them.

Beyond the census, new standards released Thursday require federal agencies to submit a compliance plan within 18 months and update their audits and administrative forms within five years. Among other measures, the new standards remove the use of derogatory terms such as “Negro” and “Far East” from federal documents.

They conflate race and ethnicity into a single category, blurring the often hard-to-parse distinction between classifications based on physical characteristics and classifications based on shared language and culture.

Advocates have argued that separating the two has historically caused confusion, while complicating efforts to add new categories.

The Leadership Conference Education Fund, a coalition of civil and human rights groups, noted that segregation disproportionately affected those who identify as Latino, typically referring to races from the United States, many of whom identify with the Hispanic distinction. and Latin Confusion.

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About 44 percent of Latino respondents to the 2020 U.S. Census chose “some other race.” According to to the group.

'Harm to Lives'

Like Ayoub, AAI's Perry noted that reception of the new standards has been somewhat muted, saying more tests should have been conducted to refine the subcategories included in the MENA category to better reflect the U.S. population.

As an example, he points to the lack of a specific subgroup for groups such as black Arabs who came from across the Middle East.

“Normally we're in a place where we have to celebrate the new genre,” he said. “And sadly … we have to worry a little bit more about how we make sure we don't create a continuing underpopulation of our community.”

Still, the U.S. is one step closer to a data collection system that reflects the country's diversity, which Perry said is essential.

“Governments, state governments, local authorities, everybody needs data to do every aspect of the way they deliver services to citizens,” he said. “There's really nothing that the multitrillion-plus-dollar federal budget isn't affected by in terms of federal data collection.”

He pointed out that the Covid-19 pandemic is a good example of how important it is for governments at all levels to be able to quickly identify the needs of diverse communities across the country.

“Part of how government should work and inform their policy is with data about where communities are and how best to reach them,” Perry said.

“If you're invisible to that data, you're not there. Dramatically under-accounts for policies that actively harm people's lives.

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