Standards on how federal agencies collect, maintain and report race and ethnicity data are up for review for the first time since 1997. These data are used for a wide range of purposes, including the enforcement of civil rights laws, the tracking of hate crimes, the development of minority business programs and the surfacing of labor and health disparities. They are also used to redraw Congressional districts and enforce the Voting Rights Act.
Twenty years ago, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) began requiring federal agencies such as the Departments of Justice and Education to track Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander and multiracial populations as their own entities. One major change under current consideration is the creation of a new category called "Middle Eastern or North African" ("MENA") that would include Lebanese, Iranian, Egyptian, Syrian, Moroccan, Israeli, Iraqi, Algerian and Kurdish populations. Historically, people from these regions have been conflated within the “White” race category.
"The MENA category is long overdue for millions of people," says Ahmad Abuznaid, executive director of the National Network on Arab American Communities. "By collecting data on people with roots to Middle Eastern and North African regions, federal agencies will better understand health disparities, track hate crimes, and come up with solutions to address our communities’ needs."
Having segmented data on Middle Eastern and North African populations would have been useful in the years after 9/11, when discrimination against those communities increased dramatically. But could the federal government –which has also surveilled and profiled Arab communities under the guise of national security—misuse race and ethnicity data?
According to Maya Berry, executive director of the Arab American Institute, MENA communities must fight to be counted but remain vigilant against improper uses of the data.
"We have been invisible when it comes to much-needed programs, services and research but highly visible and targeted by government initiatives that view us through a securitized lens. Both are untenable," she says. "Concerns about the misuse of data are valid based on what we know about how data has been misused historically, from the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II to the NYPD surveillance of our communities post 9/11. That is why we will continue to fight for the MENA category while remaining vigilant about how the data could be used."
The U.S. Census Bureau is also considering inclusion of a separate MENA category in the 2020 census form.
Another major change the OMB is considering is how it segments data about ethnic group or tribal affiliation. For example, should OMB provide detailed information on people who represent Navajo Nation, Mayan, Aztec, Native Village or Barrow Inupiat Traditional Government, Blackfeet Tribe, and Nome Eskimo Community? The same question applies to Asian-American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities.
Christopher Kang, national director of the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans, is in favor of disaggregating data about Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders.
"When we are viewed in the aggregate, we're seen as doing well on average and used to reinforce the false model minority myth," says Kang. "As a result, our needs are obscured and left unadressed. With disaggregated and detailed data, we can learn more about the diversity of the AAPI community, which consists of nearly 50 ethnicities, and we can better advocate for ourselves. More accurate data also will aid in dismantling the model minority myth."
The U.S. Census Bureau projects that people of color will outnumber White people by 2044, and that about one in five people will be foreign-born by 2060. The proposed changes to race data collection are holdovers from the Obama Administration. The government is seeking comments from the public to help guide its decision-making. The deadline for comments is April 30.