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Rashida Tlaib renews call for MENA category in US census

Americans from the Middle East and North Africa have to class themselves as 'white' under the race and ethnicity category
US census
The official US Census form, pictured on 18 March 2020 in Washington DC (AFP)

US Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib is renewing her call for a Middle Eastern or North African (MENA) category to be included in the US Census and other federal and health data. 

In a letter sent to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the US Census Bureau on Tuesday, Tlaib and Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney urged the department to update the standards for the federal data collection on race and ethnicity to include a MENA response category. 

People from the MENA region currently have to categorise themselves as "white" under race and ethnicity in the 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".

"It includes people who indicate their race as 'white' or report entries such as Irish, German, Italian, Lebanese, Arab, Moroccan, or Caucasian," said the letter.

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"For over a century, Americans of Middle Eastern or North African descent have been making valuable contributions to every aspect of American society - through the labor of workers, the innovations of scientists, the ingenuity of small business owners, and the creativity of artists.

"Many individuals in the MENA community have strong social bonds, forming a coherent social group within American society that shares many communal values regarding family and religion, moral values such as honor, hospitality, and humility, and common experiences of emigration and acculturation."

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If adopted, the MENA box would not only be shown on the Census but also on all federal applications that enquire about race and ethnicity.

"Doing so would demonstrate the full extent of our collective commitment to racial equity in policymaking and support the growth and development of a burgeoning, and distinctly American, social group," the letter added. 

In 2020, Tlaib accused Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham of "erasing" people of Middle Eastern descent during a House of Representatives Oversight and Reform Committee meeting.

"Do I look white to you?" a defiant Tlaib asked Dillingham.

The census, which is required every 10 years, maps out the US population and details its demographic features. 

In 1997, OMB guidance decided against adding the MENA category and instead reported data collected on individuals from the MENA region within its "white" reference category.

At the time, the OMB also recommended that "further research should be done to determine the best way to improve data on this population group".

Since then, the 2010 Census Race and Hispanic Origin Alternative Questionnaire Experiment has found that "many participants across focus groups felt that the inclusion of the examples of Egyptian and Lebanese with the White racial category was 'wrong' or 'inaccurate'. These comments were often connected to the recommendation that there be a separate racial category for those who would identify as Middle Eastern, North African, or Arab".

In 2015, the Census Bureau tested a MENA category for the 2020 Census, and in 2017 recommended adding the category, but the administration of US President Donald Trump overruled the recommendation.

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