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The U.S. census sees Middle Eastern and North African people as white. Many don't

Federal government standards require the U.S. census to count people with roots in the Middle East or North Africa as white. But a new study finds many people of MENA descent do not see themselves as white, and neither do many white people.
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Federal government standards require the U.S. census to count people with roots in the Middle East or North Africa as white. But a new study finds many people of MENA descent do not see themselves as white, and neither do many white people.

There's a reality about race in the U.S. that has confounded many people of Middle Eastern or North African descent.

The federal government officially categorizes people with origins in Lebanon, Iran, Egypt and other countries in the MENA region as white.

But that racial identity has not matched the discrimination in housing, at work and through other parts of daily life that many say they have faced.

Younger people of MENA descent have "had a plethora of different experiences that made them feel that some of their experiences were actually closer to communities of color in the U.S.," says Neda Maghbouleh, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Toronto, who has conducted research on the topic.

The paradox has been hard to show through data.

But a newly released study co-authored by Maghbouleh offers suggestive evidence that a majority of people with MENA origins do not see themselves as white. Meanwhile, a substantial percentage of white people who do not identify as MENA or Latino do not perceive MENA people as white either, the study also suggests.

The findings match the lived realities of many people of MENA descent

For the paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences — which cites NPR's reporting — Maghbouleh, along with her co-authors Ariela Schachter and René D. Flores, used online surveys to conduct experiments last summer with close to 1,100 participants.

They included one group of people who identified as white and not MENA or Latino, as well as two cohorts who either identified as Middle Eastern or reported having at least one grandparent born in the Middle East or North Africa.

Presented with a "Middle Eastern or North African" category, 88% of people of MENA descent in the study (who could select one or more categories) chose that option when identifying their race, ethnicity or origin. The results also show that adding "Middle Eastern or North African" to a list of response options dramatically lowered the share of people with MENA origins self-identifying with only the "White" category.

Another part of the study asked participants to classify made-up profiles of individuals that included names, ancestors' countries of origins and other details.

Characteristics related to the Middle East or North Africa, the findings suggest, would not be categorized as white by many people of MENA descent or by white people who do not identify as MENA or Latino.

"I think that's a very powerful finding, which I think anecdotally has been felt by most Arab Americans in their daily lives," says Kristine Ajrouch, a professor of sociology at Eastern Michigan University whose research on white identity and Arab Americans is cited in the paper.

It's hard to do research about people of MENA descent in the U.S.

Like the paper's co-authors, Ajrouch notes that research is limited by the challenges in finding large numbers of people with MENA origins to participate in studies.

"This is a really big problem that kind of haunts a lot of social science research," said Maghbouleh, who adds that people of North African descent are underrepresented among the study's participants.

Maghbouleh conducted extensive interviews with younger people of MENA descent for the 2017 book The Limits of Whiteness: Iranian Americans and the Everyday Politics of Race. The new study tries to ascertain concrete numbers for some of the insights Maghbouleh gained through that book's qualitative research.

But there is still a gap.

Researchers are hamstrung by the federal standards that require the Census Bureau to include people with MENA roots in data about white people. With no separate "Middle Eastern or North African" checkbox on the U.S. census forms, there is no direct way of producing a national count of people of MENA descent in the United States.

"It makes it very difficult to identify Middle Eastern and North African individuals or those of Arab ancestry when there's been decades of conditioning and socializing to say, 'When you fill out the form, you're supposed to check white,' " says Ajrouch, who is currently trying to study how prevalent Alzheimer's disease and other dementias are among older Arab Americans.

In effect, many people of MENA descent in the U.S. are rendered invisible in official statistics that researchers rely on for health research and other key studies.

The history of whiteness and people of MENA descent is complicated

The complicated relationship many people with MENA origins have with whiteness is entangled with a naturalization system in the U.S. that, until 1952, imposed racial restrictions on which immigrants could become citizens.

First arriving in large numbers in the late 1800s, the earliest generations of immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa saw whiteness as the path towards claiming full rights in their new country.

There were several court cases where Syrian immigrants emphasized their Christianity because it was considered a European religion and, therefore, a marker of whiteness, says Sahar Aziz, a law professor at Rutgers University Law School and author of The Racial Muslim: When Racism Quashes Religious Freedom.

"They argued they were white in court because the only immigrants that could naturalize to become U.S. citizens had to be found white by law," she says.

Anti-Black racism in the media and other parts of U.S. society, Aziz adds, has helped drive many immigrants from around the world to try to "disassociate themselves from Blackness and try to associate as close to whiteness as possible."

In more recent decades, however, there's been a growing disconnect between the way the federal government officially categorizes people of MENA descent by race and many people's lived realities – a dissonance that was underlined after the Sept. 11 attacks.

"Over the past 20 years, people who are from the Middle East and North Africa have experienced a form of stereotyping that presumes that they are inherently prone to violence, that they are prone to being sympathetic to terrorism, that they are forever foreign," says Aziz, who served as a senior policy adviser for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties during former President Barack Obama's administration.

"All of these stereotypes are what people who do not have the privileges of whiteness experience," she adds.

A MENA checkbox may show up on the 2030 census

To fully understand the experiences of people of MENA descent in the U.S., Aziz and other researchers say an additional checkbox for "Middle Eastern or North African" is needed on forms for the once-a-decade head count.

To prepare for the 2020 count, Census Bureau researchers concluded that including a "Middle Eastern or North African" category on questionnaires would be "optimal" in part because it "helps MENA respondents to more accurately report their MENA identities."

But during former President Donald Trump's administration, an effort that began during the Obama years to introduce a MENA checkbox as part of a revamped census question about race and ethnicity stalled. It required approval from the White House's Office of Management and Budget, and the lack of a public decision by OMB forced the bureau to drop the plans.

In 2018, bureau officials also announced that the agency needed to conduct research and testing to address feedback from "a large segment of the Middle Eastern and North African population" who think MENA should be considered a category for an ethnicity, not a race.

Trump's travel bans targeting people from several Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East and North Africa also raised concerns among some longtime advocates for a new census checkbox about how the public could have perceived rolling one out under the previous administration.

Last year, however, the Biden administration confirmed to NPR that it has revived the review of the proposal that would allow the bureau to overhaul how the census asks about race and ethnicity. If OMB gives the green light, a "Middle Eastern or North African" checkbox could be on track to show up on updated forms for the country's largest survey, the bureau's American Community Survey, as well as the 2030 census.

"There is so much more work that needs to be done," Aziz notes. "I don't think that that empirical work can be done until the U.S. census adds a category, whether it's under a race or whether it's under ethnicity."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Hansi Lo Wang (he/him) is a national correspondent for NPR reporting on the people, power and money behind the U.S. census.