The Volokh Conspiracy

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The Proposed New MENA "Racial" Classification and the Jews

Arab and Iranian activist groups are trying to get the Biden administration to impose a new MENA classification; it would have some surprising effects on American Jews.


[Cross-posted from my blog at The Times of Israel]

The Biden administration is considering adding a new "Middle Eastern and North African" racial classification to the US Census. If this classification gets written into law, it will inevitably spread to college applications, civil rights forms, and other documents that ask Americans to indicate their race.

What would this mean for the American Jewish community? Will Israeli Americans be part of the MENA classification? Mizrahi Jews? Ashkenazi Jews who feel closer ties to their Middle Eastern heritage than to their more recent European places of origin? Why add a new classification to begin with?

As discussed in my new book, Classified: The Untold Story of Racial Classification in America, through the late twentieth century, most immigrants to the United States from Arab countries were Christians from Lebanon, along with a smaller number of Muslims and Jews. After some uncertainty early in the early twentieth century, American law and custom ultimately treated these immigrants and descendants as "whites." For example, actors such as Danny Thomas played "white" roles and co-starred with white leading ladies without controversy–something that would have been unthinkable for black or east Asian Americans.

In the late 1970s, when the federal government created our modern racial classification scheme, Arab Americans were placed in the white classification, along with Iranians, Afghans, Berbers, Jews, Chaldeans, Armenians, and others. This decision attracted no controversy, as the overwhelming majority of Arab Americans self-identified as white.

Nevertheless, in the 1980s, Arab American organizations lobbying for the US census to recognize a new Arab or Middle Eastern racial category. They hoped enumerating the Arab American population would increase its visibility and political clout, and perhaps plant the seeds for eligibility for affirmative action. Samer Khalaf, national president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, explained, "The MENA category was a bit of a compromise for us. In a perfect world we'd have an Arab category."

The lobbying efforts were unsuccessful, in part because of an unresolved debate over whether Israeli Americans would be included in the MENA classification.

In the meantime, more Muslims from Arab countries began immigrating to the US. A new generation of Muslim Arab American progressive political activists self-identified as "people of color." The media generally accepted this designation. For example, Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib and activist Linda Sarsour, both Muslims of Palestinian Arab descent, have been widely described, and describe themselves, as "women of color."

In Sarsour's case she attributes her "person of color status" despite her pale complexion to the fact that she wears a hijab, which causes others to see her an outsider to mainstream America. This raises the question of why Haredi Jews do not get "people of color" status based on their more dramatically non-mainstream religious garb.

In the early 2010s, the Census Bureau again began studying whether it should add a MENA category to the 2020 census. The proposed MENA classification would apply to "a person having origins in any of the original peoples of the Middle East and North Africa. This includes, for example, Lebanese, Iranian, Egyptian, Syrian, Moroccan, Israeli, Iraqi, Algerian, and Kurdish."

Census Bureau researchers reported that Israeli American and Jewish organizations told them that American Jews did not want to be included in the MENA category because they identify their ethnicity as Jewish, not Middle Eastern. The latter response, however, is beside the point, because there is no "Jewish" category on census and other forms; most Jews would have the choice between identifying themselves as white or as MENA. Many Mizrahi Jews (Jews of recent Middle Eastern and North African descent) would check the MENA box, as would many Israeli immigrants.

At least some Ashkenazim consider themselves to be descendants of a group indigenous to the Middle East. And if the MENA classification developed into an affirmative action category, Jews would have an incentive to identify themselves as MENA.

The Trump administration ultimately killed the new MENA classification. The failure to adopt a new MENA category resulted in part from lobbying by conservative political activists opposed to what they saw as further balkanization of the population. Another factor was the relative lack of enthusiasm from the grassroots for a new MENA racial category. Some Middle Eastern Americans were content being categorized as white; others thought any new category should be ethnic, not racial.

Arab American groups and their Iranian American allies are trying again in the Biden administration. American Jews should oppose this change, for several reasons. First, the groups pushing this change are, to say the least, not friends of the American Jewish community. They want a MENA classification primarily so that Americans of Middle Eastern Muslim descent can get official victim status, including eligibility for affirmative action. They also hope for a certain immunity from criticism. Already, when people criticize the likes of Sarsour and Tlaib for antisemitic and anti-Israel statements, the latter's defenders question how critics indulge in "white privilege" and dare attack "women of color."

Relatedly, as noted above many American Jews will adopt the MENA classification, leading to communal tensions with other MENA Americans as Jews take a share of whatever gains the others believe are "supposed" to go to them.

Finally, our current classification scheme is already incoherent, arbitrary, and divisive. An additional "racial" classification, especially for a group that is internally very diverse and fits no sensible definition of a "race," will just make matters worse.