Washington, DC – A United States government advisory panel has recommended adding a Middle East and North Africa (MENA) category to the US Census – a longstanding demand from Arab-American activists whose communities have been counted as white for decades.
In preliminary recommendations released on Thursday, a working group of representatives of various government agencies called for adding “a response category for Middle Eastern and North African, separate and distinct from the ‘White’ category” on the Census.
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The survey is sent out every 10 years to households across the US and is used to determine the allocation of federal government funds across health care and education, among other areas.
Maya Berry, executive director of the Arab American Institute (AAI), a Washington, DC-based think tank, told Al Jazeera she was “beyond thrilled” by the news, which she said paves the way for the accurate counting of people from the MENA region.
“There’s literally nothing that isn’t impacted by Census data in terms of everyday American lives,” Berry said.
The working group also recommended combining the Census’s race and ethnicity questions, which are currently separate. This had complicated efforts to add a MENA category to the document amid questions on whether such an option would fall into the race or ethnicity section.
The rules for collecting race and ethnicity data have not been changed since they were set in 1997.
The working group was tasked with “proposing recommendations for improving the quality and usefulness of Federal race and ethnicity data”, the White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) said on Thursday.
The office added that it will solicit public comments on the issue until April 12 before making final recommendations next year for the 2030 Census.
Arab-American advocates have for years argued that being counted as white renders their communities invisible and deprives them of much-needed resources. It also makes it tough to conduct health and social research on US residents from the MENA region.
The issue came under renewed focus during the COVID-19 pandemic, when it was difficult to tally the number of coronavirus infections and deaths among Arab Americans and tailor public health policies and recommendations for them.
“I can’t tell you the rates of Arab-Americans that are suffering from diabetes; I can’t give you information on how to best put out information on COVID,” Berry told Al Jazeera.
“In Arab-American communities across the country, we can’t talk about the language access related to voting. I mean, there’s nothing.”
The US Census compiles data on the country’s demographics, including population size, race and income among other statistics. In addition to the allocation of government funds, it also is used to draw up congressional districts.
The administration of former President Donald Trump, which decided against including a MENA category in the 2020 Census, was widely condemned for attempting to add a citizenship question to the form. Critics said this was a clear attempt to politicise the survey.
“The 2020 process was upended by everything that went down in the bizarre politicisation of the decennial census for the first time ever,” Berry said.
“So here we are looking at 2030, and I’m just incredibly hopeful with the way this recommendation is framed.”