The Volokh Conspiracy
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My Comment on OMB's Proposed New "MENA" Racial Classification
I submitted this comment to OMB.
I am the author of the recent book, Classified: The Untold Story of Racial Classification in America (Bombardier Books 2022). This comment is in opposition to the proposal to create a new MENA racial classification.
The most obvious problem is that "Middle East and North African" has never been treated in the United States as a race. Beyond that, while I support the notion of the government collecting more granular data about ethnic groups, the MENA classification will not do so.
There are approximately 3.5 million Arab Americans in the United States. About half are descended from early 20th century immigrants, predominately Christians. The other half are primarily Muslim immigrants who have arrived since the 1970s. Lumping these groups together as "Arab Americans" will obscure more than it illuminates. The even bigger problem, though, is that instead of creating an Arab American ethnic classification, the government proposes to create a MENA racial classification. This classification would include, in addition to Arab Americans, approximately 500,000 Israeli immigrants and their descendants, about 300,000 other MENA Jews, 600,000 Iranians, and 500,000 Chaldean Americans.
Regardless of official definition, one can also expect many Armenian Americans, Afghan Americans, and others to check the MENA box on forms rather than or in addition to white. One can also expect some percentage of Ashkenazic Jews to check the MENA box, especially given the current vogue of many Jews insisting that they aren't white, and DNA evidence showing that "European Jews" have significant Middle Eastern genetic heritage.
In short, a new "racial" MENA classification will not serve its purported purpose of providing data about Arab Americans; at least as many non-Arab Americans will be part of the classification as will Arab Americans. The "white" classification is admittedly a government-created pseudo-race that arbitrarily combines vastly different populations under a single heading. Unfortunately, rather than addressing the problem, creating a new MENA classification will create a new arbitrary pseudo-race.
With that said, some background based on Classified.
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." In the late 1970s, when the federal government created our modern racial classification scheme, Arab Americans were placed in the white classification. 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. 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." Sarsour explicitly attributes this designation to her being Muslim. However, while it's certainly true that Muslims face significant discrimination in the US, the US has never classified people by religion, and substituting MENA for Muslim neglects the fact that many, perhaps most, people who would qualify to check the MENA box are not Muslim.
In the early 2010s, the Census Bureau again began studying whether it should add a MENA category to the 2020 census. 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.
The Trump administration ultimately killed the new MENA classification, in part because of the relative lack of enthusiasm from the grassroots for a new MENA racial category. Arab American groups and their Iranian American allies are trying again in the Biden administration. 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.