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February 29, 2024

MENA Category in the U.S. Census – Memo

The U.S. government has never had a category in its census and other government forms that truly reflects the Iranian-American community, and Middle Eastern/North African communities more broadly. That may be about to change under new guidance being considered by the Biden administration, which would be a game-changer in enhancing the community’s representation and eligibility for key programs and studies.

What is being considered?

On January 27, 2023, the Biden administration began collecting public comments on a proposal to update the government’s race and ethnicity statistical standards ahead of the 2030 Census. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) first established standards for federal data on race and ethnicity under Statistical Policy Directive No. 15 (SPD 15) in 1977, which created the official categories of American Indian/Alaska Native, Asian, Black/African American, Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander, and White. These standards have only been updated one time, in 1997, to include a separate Hispanic/Latino ethnic category. But now, proposals have been put forth to update Statistical Policy Directive No. 15 for the first time in nearly thirty years to finally include a Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) racial category. This is a key development for MENA communities to be counted to be able to have better political representation, better access to government programs and contracts, and life-saving data on health disparities.

The proposal included significant prospective changes for the Iranian-American community and many other communities. Of chief importance was a proposal to include “Middle Eastern and North African” as a new default category and the inclusion of “Iranian” as a new detailed subcategory in future government surveys. Presently, there is no option that is a good fit for the Iranian-American community and many other Middle Eastern, North African, and South Asian groups, which have comparably different experiences and conditions as opposed to their white, European-descended counterparts. In prior years, in addition to advocating for a MENA category for the Census, the National Iranian American Council had urged members of the community to check “other” on the census and write in “Iranian-American.” However, a specific box would deliver much greater specificity.

NIAC was among many groups and individuals who submitted comments welcoming the proposal during the comment period, which closed in April 2023, supporting the inclusion of a MENA category and Iranian subcategory and urging that detailed subcategories be utilized as the default option.

While the period of public comment collection has closed, OMB has indicated that it is aiming to complete its proposed revisions by the summer of 2024. Presently, there are no further details on how the revisions will be finalized and rolled out, though it appears likely that significant changes should be implemented well in advance of the 2030 Census.

What are the benefits of a MENA category?

For the 2030 Census and additional government surveys, the addition of a MENA category would finally address the significant gaps in research and policymaking on subjects such as socioeconomic conditions, civic engagement, and health disparities relevant to the Iranian-American and other MENA communities. 

Accurate demographics and better representation:

  • MENA communities have historically been limited in achieving proper political representation in local and federal government due to the failure of the government to collect data on the communities. As there has not been accurate government data on the size and dispersal of MENA communities, it has been difficult to determine the size of these groups and the impact of various laws and policies on them.
  • This means that MENA communities have lacked power and representation in the design, implementation, and evaluation of government policies and programs that impact them, and that it is impossible for the government to identify inequalities in federal programs that may negatively impact MENA communities.
  • By collecting detailed data on MENA communities for the first time in the Census and other government surveys and programs, MENA communities and the Iranian-American community would be far better empowered to address inequality and systemic discrimination and access programs suited to their specific socioeconomic conditions. 
  • Sociological research also demonstrates a desire for a MENA category. According to sociology professor Dr. Neda Maghbouleh, MENA individuals have statistically rejected the white label and have preferred identifying with MENA as a more accurate reflection of their lived experiences. Dr. Maghbouleh conducted a study using factors such as appearance, ancestry, religion, cultural engagement, and self-identification habits as indicators of how both MENA and non-MENA people perceived MENA racial status. Her research found that “when MENA are not offered a MENA label, 80% choose to identify as White. However, when MENA is offered as a category, only 10% continue to exclusively choose White. The majority instead choose MENA…” 

Economic support and incentives:

  • A MENA category could also have significant benefits for MENA small business owners and entrepreneurs. As many MENA small businesses exist in specific enclaves, they still suffer from various cultural, linguistic, and political barriers. The recognition of MENA communities as a minority group by OMB would better enable them to take advantage of non-governmental grants that aim to support minority small businesses. Additionally, some states such as California create policies that specifically seek to stimulate minority business development, an effort that would directly impact MENA communities with the establishment of the OMB category.

Improvements to public-health resources:

  • A MENA category could also have significant health benefits. In December 2022, Representatives Debbie Dingell (MI-12) and Rashida Tlaib (MI-13) submitted a letter to the Department of Health and Human Services asking them to collect and report data on MENA individuals in an attempt to address health disparities. Representatives Dingell and Tlaib emphasized how the creation of a MENA category “would allow (the Department of Health and Human Services) to recognize and address the social determinants of the MENA community’s health outcomes and serve as an important step to addressing minority health concerns and health disparities across the United States.” Additional legislation has been introduced in both the House and the Senate to address these disparities. 
  • The health disparities facing MENA communities were most recently exemplified in the COVID-19 pandemic, where Arab American households were disproportionately impacted due to the lack of data and resources allocated for this distinct racial and ethnic group. According to USA Today, Arab American households faced “numerous risk factors for the virus, including large numbers of immigrants and refugees, poverty, multigenerational households and high rates of hypertension, diabetes and heart disease” during the pandemic. These are the sorts of conditions that could have been preempted by the appropriate distribution of COVID-19 resources specifically tailored to MENA communities had MENA data not been bundled with data from the white category, as indicated in Directive 15.

How did we get here?

The Office of Management and Budget’s (OMB) Directive 15 was initially created in 1977, following recommendations made by the Ad Hoc Committee on Racial and Ethnic Definitions in 1975, to enable federal agencies to collect and maintain data on race and ethnicity, particularly as it pertains to their public programs. The directive established the racial categories of White, Black, American Indian or Alaskan Native, Asian or Pacific Islander, as well as an ethnic category for those of Hispanic origin. 

During the 1997 revision of the Directive, suggestions to include a MENA category were initially rejected by the OMB, citing research that indicated MENA individuals had identified with the White category. However, significant research and organizing from MENA communities has since supported the incorporation of a MENA category. Driven by the research indicating these changes, the Census Bureau tested a MENA category in 2015, leading to their official recommendation in 2017 for the category to be included in the 2020 Census. This recommendation was, however, overruled by President Trump who ordered that it be walked back. As former President of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, Samer Khalaf, stated to Al Jazeera, “The MENA category was a 95 percent certainty going to happen until the Trump administration came in.”

Upon assuming office in 2021, President Biden issued Executive Order 13985, which mandated the federal government to pursue more equitable policies for minority groups – including with regard to race. The order specifically tasked the OMB with identifying methods to assess current policies that either create or exacerbate barriers to equity for all. Following this order, at the start of 2023, the Biden administration formally endorsed the specific inclusion of the MENA category for the 2030 Census.

What happens after the MENA Category is established?

While the OMB Directive 15 can serve as a direct pipeline to some aspects of representation for MENA communities – particularly with political representation and participation – there are still further steps that must be taken to ensure the full application of this category to all facets of life for MENA communities. 

The purpose of Directive 15 is to serve as a minimum standard and foundation upon which federal agencies and lawmakers can expand. Where health disparities are concerned, the establishment of the MENA category alone would not automatically mandate the collection of data needed on health outcomes and circumstances faced by MENA communities. As such, continuing to advocate for public policies that mandate the collection of health data for MENA communities is an essential next step in this ongoing process.

H.R. 2730 – the Health Equity and MENA Community Inclusion Act of 2023 – introduced by Representative Rashida Tlaib in the House with a companion bill in the Senate introduced by Senator Alex Padilla, is one such example of public policy that directly mandates data collection on MENA health disparities. It focuses on equipping the Office of Minority Health (OMH) under the Department of Health and Human Services, which is responsible for conducting concentrated health disparity research and data collection for defined minority groups in the U.S., with a designated directive to perform and collect the same research on MENA communities. The bill notes that current federal standards on race and ethnicity, which do not include MENA, have limited the OMH in its purpose as a federal agency conducting essential research. However, with the eventual inclusion of a MENA category in Directive 15, bills like this can be further developed to more specifically allocate the proper federal funding for MENA health-related research to be carried out by agencies like the OMH. Thus, there are more steps ahead in the campaign to ensure accurate data collection of MENA communities and equitable treatment by the federal government.

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