Two-hundred-and-thirty years after the United States’ first constitutionally mandated census, the country wants to include a MENA category in its 2020 survey. The Middle East- North Africa option, if it comes to pass, is breathlessly described by commentators as a massive realignment of federal racial definitions.
Its implications are immense. It will shrink the white population almost immediately because people of MENA origin — estimated at 1.8 million-3.7 million — are currently counted as white. More importantly, it will render Middle Easterners, Arabs and North Africans — no matter if they are mixed race Lebanese- Mexican like actress Salma Hayek or Armenian like reality television celebrity Kim Kardashian — instantly visible.
That can only be a good thing in terms of politics and policy, despite the extreme fears voiced by the paranoid and gentle concerns raised by the prudent.
Consider the import of having an accurate tally — age, sex, countries of origin — of people from a certain region. They would be able to track and cite discriminatory treatment with respect to housing and education, seek political representation in line with their numbers and apply for federal government grants for minority-run small businesses.
As a voting bloc, albeit cutting across different religious, racial, ethnic and cartographical lines, people of MENA-origin would have decided clout. They would become a distinct group for the purposes of health research and the tracking of employment and educational trends.
As Helen Hatab Samhan of the Arab American Institute recently said: “It helps these communities feel less invisible…It’s a good step, a positive step.”
She is right about the positive nature of being counted. The United States’ founding fathers considered census data so important they made it part of the constitution. They believed that representative democracy was fundamentally premised on numbers because representation should be based on population strength if it is to be viable and true. They wanted each community to get the right number of representatives in government.
And, as Penn State sociology and demography Professor Gordon de Jong pointed out, census tallies help with the equitable distribution of federal and state public funds for educational programmes, health care, law enforcement and highways that serve a community.
Unfortunately, there are two basic problems with the proposal to include a MENA category in the US Census in 2020. There may be marked public disagreement with the change. Even if everyone agreed, US President Barack Obama’s administration may simply run out of time to enact it.
The Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the largest executive entity within the White House, published a proposal on September 30th in the government’s official journal the Federal Register. It specified a month’s public consultation on whether to add a MENA category, which groups to include and what it should be called. This is part of the attempt to solve the Census Bureau’s headaches over the inclusion of Turkish, Sudanese and Somali Americans in the MENA grouping.
There is no certainty the White House consultation will generate the sort of positive vibes that MENA classification advocates, such as the Arab American Institute, want. An “Arab or Middle Eastern” census category was first proposed by the OMB in 1994 but agreement could not be reached on its composition.
Twenty years later, Obama’s OMB formed an Interagency Working Group to consider ways to improve federal data collection on race and ethnicity and a MENA classification was once again proposed. Again, no one could agree on the basis of measurement — should it be language, geography or something else.
Now, the White House is trying again but attempts to be statistically inclusive are viewed with suspicion by some Arab Americans who fear it could enhance the government’s ability to monitor and track citizens. The fear is understandable. We live in the age of Donald Trump and Islamophobia.
It is also a part of a larger distrust of government and official data collection. Even without a MENA category, questions have become more numerous and specific than the six asked in the first census in 1790: The name of the head of the household, the number of free white males older than 16, the number of free white males younger than 16, the number of free white females, the number of other free persons and the number of slaves.
But that is because the United States is becoming more diverse and a MENA census category would be recognition of the reality.