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US to review adding MENA category to Census

A letter from the Census Bureau regarding the 2020 Census, San Ramon, California, April 24, 2020. [Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images]
A letter from the Census Bureau regarding the 2020 Census, San Ramon, California, April 24, 2020. [Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images]

As part of plans by the Biden administration to change how the US census and federal surveys classify racial and ethnic data, the White House is considering adding a Middle East or North African (MENA) category.

It follows last week's letter sent by Democratic Congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Carolyn Maloney to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the US Census Bureau, renewing calls for them to update the standards for the federal data collection on race and ethnicity.

"This long-overdue action would reverse a baseless decision by the Trump Administration—which overruled the Census Bureau's recommendation to add a MENA category—and would ensure that this vibrant American community can receive crucial federal resources and support," the letter stated.

Currently, Americans of MENA origin have to identify as "white" under race and ethnicity when filling out census and other data collection forms. According to the census, the"white" category is for anyone "having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa".

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However many from the region, including Arab Americans, do not agree with this definition, as the letter explained that "Federal demographic data does not reflect the realities of MENA individuals and community-based organizations, which makes it increasingly difficult for advocates, researchers, agency officials, and policymakers to communicate, understand, and address community needs."

"As a result, federal policymaking and program implementation rarely address the lived experiences of members of the MENA community."

In 1997, OMB guidance decided against adding the MENA category, instead recorded data collected on individuals from the MENA region within its "white" reference category. In 2017 the Census Bureau recommended adding the MENA category, but the administration of former President Donald Trump overruled the recommendation.

In a separate development on Saturday Dearborn, Michigan's Mayor Abdullah Hammoud, the first Arab American and first Muslim mayor in the US city, announced that Dearborn, which has the nation's highest percentage of Arab American citizens, will have Arabic translated ballots ahead of August's primary and subsequent elections.

Hammoud described it as a "Big moment for our democracy".

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