RNA - After more than 30 years of lobbying, people of Middle Eastern and North African descent are finally poised to get their own classification in the U.S. Census. But at a time of rising Islamophobia and calls by presidential candidate Donald Trump to ban people from Muslim lands, some are now questioning whether the new designation could lead to profiling or otherwise put them in danger.
The proposed addition would create a race and ethnicity category called MENA for people with origins in the Middle East and North Africa. It has been championed by organizations representing Arab Americans and others with roots in the geographical swath from Iran to Morocco, who complain of being ignored in the decennial count.
The region comprises a jumble of ethnic and racial categories, including people who identify as white or black, Arab or Aryan.
Details are still being hammered out, but as currently envisioned, people would be able to check the MENA box in addition to race identifiers such as “white” or “black.” Within the new category, they would also be able to specify national origins, such as Saudi Arabian or Israeli, and ethnic affiliations such as Berber or Kurdish.
Sanaa Mehdi, 30, is originally from Morocco, but when filling out the Census form in the past, the D.C. resident has checked off “white.” “That was the closest it came,” she said, though she would have liked a more specific option. “I think it’s a good thing to be able to choose where you’re from exactly.”
But to many, counting people with roots in majority-Muslim countries feels like a double-edged sword.
“If this helps provide some hard data, it’s useful,” said Ibrahim Hooper, spokesperson for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “But unfortunately in today’s environment we have to have concerns about the possible misuse of this data. We’ve had too many problems in the post-911 era when the American government singles out Arab Americans or Muslim Americans for profiling.”
The Census Bureau has been testing different versions of a new form to see how likely respondents are to check the MENA category. A public comment period will end October 31, and a final decision on the form will be made by the Office of Management and Budget. Congress must approve the questionnaire in 2018 in advance of the 2020 Census.
“This is a big deal,” said William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution. “The last time they did anything like this was with Hispanics before the 1980 Census.”