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Count MENA: 2023 Update
Originally published on LinkedIn Mar. 20, 2023
If you've been following me for a while, you know I've written about recent proposals to update U.S. Federal race and ethnicity standards so persons of Middle Eastern or North African (MENA) descent would no longer be categorized as White. If you recently started following, some of those previous articles are available here, here, here, and here.
Earlier this month, the Office of Management and Budget Interagency Technical Working Group on Race and Ethnicity Standards held a few town halls to gather feedback from interested community members. And I have to admit, although I've read and submitted comments to related proposals in the past, hearing from such a diverse group of citizens who feel as passionately as I do about getting the data right - and identifying people by how they want to be identified, not what is preferred or convenient for others - was enlightening and confirmed for me and many others that this type of change is long overdue.
While there are a few proposals included in the most recent notice for comments related to the SPD15 revisions, I shared my perspective specifically on the MENA proposal in a comment published earlier today. I'm including it here for reference, but hope that if you have a perspective to share that you will take the time to submit your comment before the 12 April deadline.
NOTE: This is my personal opinion and not that of any employer or client.
I am writing in response to Federal Register Notice 88 FR 5375, OMB-2023-0001-0001 published on January 27, 2023. As an Egyptian American attorney and technology consultant, I fully support a distinct Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) ethnic reporting category within Statistical Policy Directive No. 15: Standards for Maintaining, Collecting and Presenting Federal Data on Race and Ethnicity (SPD 15). The current classification and description of "White" as "A person having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa" Is too broad and overlooks the diversity of appearance, culture, and religions represented by persons originating in the MENA region.
As a Coptic Christian raised in the south, I am keenly aware of the many layers of assumptions and biases based on my name, skin color, body stature, facial features, hair texture, and family origin. I am more frequently assumed to be multi-racial, Asian, Hispanic, or anything other than White. There are also religious assumptions and a general lack of awareness and familiarity with Middle Eastern Christian heritage, resulting in the same Islamophobic hostility MENA Muslims face based on stereotypes perpetuated by ignorance. This is compounded by anti-immigrant sentiment from other racial and ethnic minorities with family lineage impacted by historic U.S. policies focused on Black, Latino, or Native American communities. This disparate treatment across multiple dimensions of diversity has a cumulative lifetime impact on academic, economic and employment opportunities, social inclusion, political empowerment, and healthcare, among other things.
I also want to highlight how the current standards contribute to the many obstacles the MENA community faces with the accurate reporting of hate crimes, especially since 9/11. I recently published a more detailed analysis of the gaps here through Johns Hopkins University, available at http://jhir.library.jhu.edu/handle/1774.2/66668 and also attached. It is naïve to think the MENA community has not been disproportionately impacted by hate crimes over the last 20+ years, yet something as simple as properly classifying and reporting these incidents makes it even more challenging to address the social factors motivating more perpetrators to engage in this type of behavior.
It is past time for the government to acknowledge the social realities faced by those from the MENA region (not limited to those who identify as Arab or Muslim, which does not fully represent the diversity of ethnicities and religions indigenous to the region), and enable enforcement of their civil rights and protections under the law. As a society, we cannot properly ensure equal rights and protections for all if we are not able to properly identify those impacted by overt and covert discrimination through systemic biases in the first place. Recognizing a distinct MENA ethnic category for Federal reporting, including census, justice, health and other proper purposes, is an overdue step in addressing the disparities many in this community currently face.
April: Arab/MENA Heritage Month https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/april-arabmena-heritage-month-nivine-k-zakhari
MENA Identity FAQ: "What Are You?" https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/mena-identity-faq-what-you-nivine-k-zakhari-
US Census 2030: Count MENA https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/us-census-2030-count-mena-nivine-k-zakhari-
US Census 2020: Count MENA (updated) https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/us-census-2020-count-mena-nivine-k-zakhari-
U.S. Office of Management and Budget Interagency Technical Working Group on Race and Ethnicity Standards https://spd15revision.gov/content/spd15revision/en.html
Initial Proposals for Updating Race and Ethnicity Statistical Standards https://www.regulations.gov/document/OMB-2023-0001-0001