The Census may be about to undo decades of discrimination against people from the Middle East

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The U.S. Census is moving closer to adding a new ethnic category to its 2020 survey: Middle Eastern or North African.

In a report published Tuesday, the Census Bureau featured adding a Middle Eastern or North African (MENA) racial category to its 2020 census as one of its possible recommendations for the future. In the past, people from countries like Egypt, Lebanon, Iran, and Syria would have to choose between “white” or “black” on the Census form, even though those choices were often uneasy fits. MENA immigrants have complained for decades about essentially being rendered invisible under the current categories.

The Census Bureau also plans on giving Latinx respondents their own broad racial category (similar to how “white” and “black” are currently classified).


Census data is crucial in determining how resources are distributed around the country. The data informs how the federal government apportions $400 billion that goes to states annually. It is also used by local and state governments to draw legislative and school districts, and determine voting precincts. Businesses and non-profits also frequently use Census data to make decisions, and it’s particularly useful with enforcing civil rights legislation.

“It's things like voting protection. It's things like English-as-a-second-language programs for schools,” Maya Berry, executive director of the Arab American Institute, said in an interview with NPR. “I mean, there's just a variety of areas where this data is important and has real practical policy implications for people's lives.”


While the change is a long time coming, the new political climate has raised serious questions about how the data could be misused by a government that has recently singled out MENA countries in its controversial travel ban (due to be revised via executive order this week).

Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesperson for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, told NPR that he worries that “law enforcement agencies, for example, might use the census data to target Middle Eastern or North African communities in surveillance efforts.”


With President Trump calling for a Muslim registry during his campaign, these fears are not unfounded. However, Hooper generally sees an upside in having more data “especially if it reflects the wide diversity among people of Middle Eastern or North African origin.”