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‘Middle Eastern or North African’ Census Category is ‘Long Overdue’, Community Members Say

The Biden administration is considering adding the MENA designation to federal forms and the U.S. census

When Mary Chammas applied to Cal State Fullerton in 2018, she identified as a White student on official forms since that is how those of Middle Eastern or North African descent are categorized.

But in reality, Chammas, who is Lebanese American, does not identify as White.

“We are not White. We don’t receive the same privileges when we speak our native tongues in public,” said Chammas.

The federal government is now considering adding a new category on federal surveys and the U.S. census to designate Middle Eastern or North African descent (MENA), a move Chammas says is “long overdue.”

The Biden administration’s proposal comes after several years of urging by Census Bureau officials to more accurately collect data as well as campaigning by MENA groups.

Now, the Office of Management and Budget, which sets the federal government’s standards on race and ethnicity reporting data, has five racial categories: American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Black or African American, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander and White. The standards were last updated in 1997 when the reporting of mixed race was included.

OMB is accepting public comment on the proposed new identifier until April 12.

In the meantime, the Anaheim-based Arab American Civic Council is conducting information workshops at universities, mosques and churches across Orange County to raise awareness of the proposed change and encourage community members to share public testimony.

“While I was working in the community towards designating Little Arabia, our city officials asked us how many Arab Americans live here,” said Rashad Al-Dabbagh, the Arab American Civic Council’s founder and executive director. “I don’t know. We don’t have data about our community. We don’t have accurate numbers of our community.”

A separate category on federal forms, Al-Dabbagh said, will allow the community to avail of resources, such as small business loans specifically available to marginalized groups, and to ensure ethnic enclaves are not divided during the redistricting process.

For UC Irvine Ph.D. candidate Sarah Abolail, a MENA designation could have opened up more scholarships and grant opportunities as she continues her education. Abolail, an Egyptian American, said she found some funding options were only “catered to minorities that are officially recognized,” but given her categorization as White, she did not have access to them.

The MENA category, Abolail said, is “essential” because it will create more visibility for certain minority groups.

Aside from community data, a MENA category could ensure health care disparities among different racial and ethnic groups are better addressed, according to Rep. Lou Correa. The Anaheim Democrat last year urged the Department of Health and Human Services to include such a designation “across all HHS data collection and reporting activities;” HHS has not included it thus far as it uses OMB’s standards.

“There are some groups that are more disproportionately affected by certain medical challenges than others, and so this is where good data makes a difference,” Correa said. “The more categories you have to identify communities of interest, the better you are at making decisions as a government.”

Orange County, home to the biggest concentration of Vietnamese people outside of Vietnam, Little Arabia, large Korean and Chinese communities and an emerging Ukrainian populace, is always changing, Correa said, and it’s vital to capture individuality.

And the unique identity and needs of the large Iranian and Arab American communities, said Sen. Dave Min, D-Irvine, aren’t captured in the current census.

“As more and more families — including my own — move towards multiracial categories, these changes will also help ensure that we’re better understanding the demographic changes in the U.S. population,” Min said.

While Chammas welcomes the federal government’s move, she said MENA is still not as inclusive as a SWANA, South West Asian and North African, designation.

Spurred by her own experience when applying to Cal State Fullerton, Chammas worked with the chancellor’s office in 2021 to add SWANA as a racial category prospective students can check when applying to the 23 campuses within the Cal State system. Under that designation, students can choose the ethnicity that applies to them — including Armenian, Jordanian and Turkish — allowing the university system to track students’ racial and ethnic backgrounds more accurately, she said.

“The Middle East, it’s not even the middle of the east so geographically it’s inaccurate. It’s a colonial term (coined by the British),” Chammas said. “SWANA fully encompasses the entire region.”

Source : The Orange County Register