The 2020 U.S. Census’ New Ethnic Category for Middle Easterners and North Africans

JENNIFER HELMY – A proposed new ethnic category for individuals of Middle Eastern and North African (“MENA”) descent may be added to the United States Census for the first time in forty years.[1] The White House Office of Management and Budget will make a final decision regarding the form,[2] and Congress would need to approve this proposal by 2018 in time to include the new category in the 2020 Census.[3] Currently, individuals who identify as Middle Eastern, Arab, or North African are considered white.[4] MENA individuals are restricted in choosing a white, black, or Asian classification on the Census—thus, their identities are not fully or accurately reflected.[5] This new category will allow MENA individuals to specify their national origins, such as Lebanese or Syrian, and ethnic affiliations, such as Kurdish or Coptic.[6]

There are an estimated 3.6 million Arab-Americans in the United States, but this estimate does not include other MENA ethnic groups that may raise the number to 10 million.[7] There are Arab-Americans in every state, but more than two-thirds of them live in ten states: California, Michigan, New York, Florida, Texas, New Jersey, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.[8] Nearly 82 percent of Arabs in the United States are citizens[9]—citizens whose identities are not accurately reflected by the existing Census categories.

Will the addition of a MENA category protect the MENA population or will it create more opportunities for discrimination? As a new ethnic classification, this data may be used for several political and policy purposes, including enforcing the Voting Rights Act and drawing congressional and state legislative district boundaries; establishing federal affirmative action plans; identifying employment discrimination in the private sector; monitoring housing discrimination; enforcing school desegregation; and aiding minority-owned small businesses in receiving federal grants and loans.[10] The MENA data may also be used to better understand trends in health, employment, and education.[11] Furthermore, the identity of MENA individuals is politically charged because of stereotypes, tropes, and misrepresentations that the West associates with the turbulence of the Middle East.[12] For example, when a Palestinian checks the MENA box, people may assume that she agrees with the politics supporting Palestine over Israel merely because she is Palestinian.[13]

At a time when presidential nominee Donald Trump has called for banning immigrants from Muslim-majority countries, this change will have far-reaching implications for the MENA population in the United States.[14] Will MENA individuals avoid selecting the box for fear of increased discrimination or surveillance of their communities, or will they select the box because they see the change as a progressive step towards recognizing the identity of an underrepresented minority in America? Only time will tell, but what matters is that Americans of Middle Eastern and North African descent are given the choice to select a national origin or ethnicity that accurately reflects their identity.

[1] Tara Bahrampour, A U.S. Census proposal to add category for people of Middle Eastern descent makes some uneasy, The Washington Post (Oct. 21, 2016),

[2] Bahrampour, supra note 1.

[3] Id.

[4] See id.

[5] Gregory Korte, White House wants to add new racial category for Middle Eastern people, USA Today (Oct. 2, 2016, 2:16 PM),

[6] See Bahrampour, supra note 1.

[7] See Korte, supra note 5.

[8] Demographics, Arab American Institute, (last visited Oct. 31, 2016).

[9] Id.

[10] Korte, supra note 5.

[11] Korte, supra note 5.

[12] See Khaled A. Beydoun, Boxed In: Reclassification of Arab Americans on the U.S. Census as Progress or Peril?, 47 Loy. U. Chi. L.J. 693, 751-52 (2016).

[13] See id.

[14] See Tara Bahrampour, A U.S. Census proposal to add category for people of Middle Eastern descent makes some uneasy, The Washington Post (Oct. 21, 2016),


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