WASHINGTON — The White House is putting forward a proposal to add a new racial category for people from the Middle East and North Africa under what would be the biggest realignment of federal racial definitions in decades.
If approved, the new designation could appear on census forms in 2020 and could have far-reaching implications for racial identity, anti-discrimination laws and health research.
Under current law, people from the Middle East are considered white, the legacy of century-old court rulings in which Syrian Americans argued that they should not be considered Asian — because that designation would deny them citizenship under the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. But scholars and community leaders say more and more people with their roots in the Middle East find themselves caught between white, black and Asian classifications that don't fully reflect their identities.
"What it does is it helps these communities feel less invisible," said Helen Samhan of the Arab American Institute, which has been advocating the change for more than 30 years. "It’s a good step, a positive step."
On Friday, the White House Office of Management and Budget advanced the proposal with a notice in the Federal Register, seeking comments on whether to add Middle Eastern and North African as a separate racial or ethnic category, which groups would be included, and what it should be called.
Under the proposal, the new Middle East and North African designation — or MENA, as it's called by population scholars — is broader in concept than Arab (an ethnicity) or Muslim (a religion). It would include anyone from a region of the world stretching from Morocco to Iran, and including Syrian and Coptic Christians, Israeli Jews and other religious minorities.
But the Census Bureau, which has been quietly studying the issue for two years, also has gotten caught up in debates about some groups — such as Turkish, Sudanese and Somali Americans — who aren't included in that category. Those are issues the White House is trying to resolve before adding the box on 2020 census forms.
Adding a box on the census form could have implications beyond racial identity. According to the White House notice, the new data could be used for a wide range of political and policy purposes, including:
• Enforcing the Voting Rights Act and drawing congressional and state legislative district boundaries;
• Establishing federal affirmative action plans and evaluating claims of employment discrimination in employment in the private sector;
• Monitoring discrimination in housing, mortgage lending and credit;
• Enforcing school desegregation policies; and
• Helping minority-owned small businesses get federal grants and loans.
Adding the classification also would help the government and independent scholars understand more about trends in health, employment and education.
"We can't even ask questions like that, because we don't have the data," said Germine Awad, an Egyptian-American and professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas at Austin.
The racial classifications have been unchanged since 1997, and Michigan's congressional delegation has argued that they're due for an update. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., said Friday the White House action was good news. Adding a MENA category, she said, would allow many of her Michigan constituents to "accurately identify themselves and access the employment, health, education and representation services that are based on census data.”
There are an estimated 3.6 million Arab-Americans in the United States, but that doesn't include other ethnic groups that could put the total Middle Eastern and North African population above 10 million. According to the Census Bureau's American Community Survey — a survey conducted in between the 10-year census cycle based on a statistical sample — about 1 million people from the region are first-generation immigrants to the United States.
In the 2010 census, many Middle Easterners skipped the question entirely — an action some activists encouraged as a form of silent protest. "Check it right; you ain't white," went one campaign.
"You have individuals within this designation that would consider themselves white, and they certainly have a right to their identity. It’s not about identity in the psychological way. It’s about where would you fit the best on this form," Awad said. "If you talk to anybody at the census, they’ll tell you that their job is not to help anybody with their racial or ethnic identity."
And some, especially in the Muslim-American community, are also concerned about how the data might be used — especially given proposals by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump for a moratorium on Muslim immigrants and for increased surveillance of Muslim communities.
"It just aids and facilitates the state's ability to know where these communities are in a very specific fashion," said Khalid Beydoun, a law professor at the University of Detroit. "My inclination is to think that individuals who might identify might not check the box for fear of retribution — especially if Trump wins."
But Beydoun, a naturalized citizen with Egyptian and Lebanese parents, said he still supports the proposal as an expression of Middle Eastern identity.
"In the grand scheme of things, it’s really a progressive stride forward," he said. "But in the broader landscape, it’s taking place in the context of greater animus against Arab Americans, and really, Islamophobia."
Comments on the proposal are due in 30 days, making it possible for the Obama administration to enact the change in the last three months of a presidency that has spent considerable effort to be more inclusive of Arab-Americans and other Middle Easterners.
"I think with him being the first African-American president and being an obvious example of making the American fabric more diverse, that this could be great sign of inclusion about what it means to be an American," Awad said.