Federal working group proposes new 'Middle Eastern or North African' category for next census

A hand holding, Census 2020, letter and forms, in front of computer displaying website
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Federal officials are proposing changes to how the census collects race and ethnicity data, including adding a "Middle Eastern or North African," or MENA, identifier, NBC News reports. The suggested change comes after advocates fought to secure representation for what they consider a "historically statistically invisible community."

Based on the current standards set by the Office of Management and Budget in 1997, those who trace their origins to the middle east or North Africa check either "white" or "other" on official documents, such as the census. Advocates for the community say this has rendered a community of millions invisible and underrepresented.

The Federal Interagency Technical Working Group on Race and Ethnicity Standards recommended the new category in a report published last week. The group argued that "many in the MENA community do not share the same lived experience as white people with European ancestry, do not identify as white, and are not perceived as white by others." The suggested categorization would include people from over a dozen racially and ethnically diverse countries, including Egypt, Morocco, Iran, Kuwait, and Yemen, per NBC.

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Samer Khalaf, former president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, says that current standards have blocked MENA Americans from essential resources and welcomes the proposed change. "Counting us would give us a piece of the pie, resources for health, mental health, education, you name it," Khalaf told NBC. "Small-business owners in the community would be able to take advantage of grants that we're not entitled to, because we're factored into the white category."

A MENA category was supposed to be added to the 2020 census. However, those plans were scrapped by the OBM in 2018 until it could conduct further research on the category, Business Insider reports. The agency won't make the final decision on the proposals until the summer of 2024, but the OMB is currently seeking public feedback.

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