A new MENA category: The reality and the headlines

In a presidential election cycle with little policy debate and lots of headline-making moments, the discussion around a major milestone related to the upcoming 2020 Census did not disappoint. 

Last week, the U.S. Census Bureau released results from the 2015 National Content Test that recommend the introduction of a reporting category for individuals from the Middle East and North Africa.  The category, “Middle Eastern or North African” is the culmination of more than three decades of work and partnership between stakeholder communities, including Arab Americans, and the Census Bureau. Put simply, the new category is a solution to a massive and systemic undercount of these communities — a problem the Census fully acknowledges. The results of the content test mean we are close to finally making the new category a reality, and should mean this is where we can all begin to celebrate the successful collaboration of a constituency and its government.  But that is not what we are doing today.


During an election rampant with bigotry, our decades-long effort has become fodder for headlines like the one that appeared on this site, “White House proposes new census category for Arab Americans.” The misinformed discussion that has begun through the click-grabbing headline overlooks the fact that the White House is not proposing the new category. The piece itself misses the mark insisting the new category is racial which it is not.  

First, placing this effort to arrive at better data at the footsteps of the Obama Administration allows it to be unfairly politicized. This characterization endangers the outcome of this work, throwing a decades-long effort for a better count into the crosshairs of a deeply partisan Washington. It also makes room for the bigoted political rhetoric that has regularly questioned the citizenship and religion of our nation’s first black president. During a highly charged campaign where one’s ethnicity or national origin or religion have allowed them to be the subject of government bans, or surveillance, or the targets of hate from fellow Americans, this has real implications. Already in the public discussion of the new category is praise for creating a “category for terrorists” or condemnation of President Obama “working hard at dividing America.” The reality is the move to create the MENA category is a community led effort. The notice from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is acknowledging that effort and announcing an open comment period. It does not take a declarative position.

Second, media coverage has lacked the nuance to understand that the category is not a vehicle to create a new identity. Those painting the creation of this new reporting category as a new racial category, or stating as fact that it requires the removal of Arabs from the white category are mistaken. Arab Americans, and those with ancestry in the Middle East and North Africa, are a diverse group. Some of us see ourselves as white, some as black, some as brown, and some – as the Census Bureau would say – as “some other race.” At a time when many in our nation are shifting their views on race, a category that doesn’t reduce our communities to a single race is welcome. 

What this category is about is visibility – visibility for a group of Americans that are seen only by our government when it comes to counterterrorism programming, and miss out when it comes to education, health care research, or English proficiency classes, to name a few examples. Improved data collection can have a real impact on people’s lives.

Being counted by the census is one of the most basic forms of inclusion in America. It is a way for a community that has been marginalized and misrepresented to show that we exist – to show that we too, make America. In our fight for visibility, it is important to remember that this is an effort of the communities included in this new category. It is important to remember that through our own efforts, and not the lens of bigotry or security so often aimed at us in our nation’s political sphere, we became visible. 

The MENA category is a reporting category that allows room for the breadth of diversity in our community, regardless of racial identification. If rolled out correctly and with outreach efforts, it can allow the Census to finally count my community. That is a real victory for us and the other communities who will benefit from the new category. That is what should be making headlines.

Maya Berry is Executive Director of the Arab American Institute, a nonprofit organization committed to the civic and political empowerment of Americans of Arab descent. Follow AAI on Twitter: @aaiusa and Berry on Twitter: @iMayaBerry

The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.