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No Box to Check: When the Census Doesn't Reflect You

·4 mins

Egyptian, Iranian, Lebanese, Amazigh, Arab, American.

These are just a handful of ways that thousands of people who responded to a callout described themselves. The answers were as diverse as the group of individuals behind them. People with roots in the Middle East and North Africa, often abbreviated as MENA, represent a multitude of cultures, religions, and languages. And they all have different viewpoints about how they fit into the American mosaic.

Accounting for MENA identity in the United States has become particularly relevant this year. The 2024 presidential election could hinge on a handful of swing states like Michigan, where Arab American voters turned out decisively for President Biden in 2020. But Mr. Biden has faced mounting frustration from Arab Americans and others within his party for his support for Israel in the war in Gaza.

While people of MENA heritage are by no means monolithic, they do share one common experience in the United States. On official forms, most don’t see themselves represented among the check boxes for race or ethnicity. With few good options, many end up being counted as ‘white.’

A decades-old federal guideline defines ‘white’ as anyone with origins in Europe, North Africa, or the Middle East. In the 2020 census, ‘Lebanese’ and ‘Egyptian’ were offered as examples for the ‘white’ box on the race question. The other categories were ‘Black or African American,’ ‘American Indian or Alaska Native,’ ‘Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander,’ and a variety of Asian ancestries.

While a survey and follow-up interviews conducted from September 2022 through August 2023 do not represent all Middle Eastern and North African voices, a vast majority of respondents agreed that the current race categories are at odds with how they identified.

Community leaders have been advocating for Middle Eastern and North African to be included as an official category for years.

The Biden administration last year proposed removing MENA from the ‘white’ definition and adding a ‘Middle Eastern or North African’ box as part of a larger overhaul to combine the question of race and ethnicity on federal forms.

The revisions, currently under review, would give official recognition to a large and growing portion of the U.S. population. They would also ripple through the nation’s statistical universe and have numerous practical implications for the MENA population, especially around health care, education, and political representation.

Some experts worry, however, that the addition of more check boxes, along with a write-in option, might confuse respondents and make the census form too complex to generate accurate data. After all, there’s no agreed-upon set of countries or ethnicities that would fall under a Middle Eastern and North African category.

The Census Bureau recently announced that 3.5 million people listed a MENA origin in the 2020 decennial census, but the numbers included only those who first identified as white.

Most of what demographers know about the MENA population now comes from the Census Bureau’s annual American Community Survey, which asks respondents about race, ethnicity, and also their ancestry. The most recent data, from 2022, shows that nearly four million U.S. residents — just over 1 percent of the population — listed a Middle Eastern or North African ancestry.

Those figures can also be combined with other survey questions to help demographers broadly understand the MENA population in terms of size, location, and economic status, but these statistics have no legal standing. Only the categories included in the decennial census dictate how people are classified across a broad spectrum of statistical agencies.

For example, while there is robust research into the public school achievement gap between white and Black students, less is known about the performance of Middle Eastern and North African students because they are not officially tracked in federal education statistics.

When policy makers redraw political boundaries every ten years, there is often much debate over whether the new congressional districts fairly represent various minority groups. But people of MENA descent are not officially part of this conversation because they don’t exist in the data used to draw the lines.

Medical researchers can better detect elevated health risks for certain groups if they gain access to more granular race data. With so much missing information, The Times decided to conduct its own survey to learn more about those of MENA descent in the United States.

In the Times survey, respondents were asked several multiple choice questions about their racial and ethnic identity.

When asked to choose from a list of race options that did not include ‘Middle Eastern or North African,’ nearly half of the 5,300 survey respondents chose ‘another race’ and about a third picked ‘white.’ When a MENA box was added, the change was drastic — nearly 90 percent chose either MENA alone or MENA along with one other category.

Several survey respondents acknowledged the privilege that comes with the perception of appearing or presenting as ‘white.’

In our country, race is such a loaded question that I feel like I can’t truthfully say anything other than ‘white,’ as I definitely have…