What race are the people of the Middle East and North Africa? US Govt Says White: NPR
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There is a reality about race in the US that has confused many people of Middle Eastern or North African descent.
The federal government officially classifies people with origins from Lebanon, Iran, Egypt and other countries in the MENA region as white.
But this racial identity does not correspond to the discrimination in the home, at work, and in other parts of daily life that many say they have faced.
Younger people of MENA ancestry have had “a wealth of different experiences that made them feel like some of their experiences were actually closer to communities of color in the US,” says Neda Maghbouleh, associate professor of sociology at the University of Toronto researched the topic.
The paradox has been difficult to show with data.
But a newly published study co-authored by Maghbouleh provides suggestive evidence that a majority of people with MENA origin do not see themselves as white. Meanwhile, a significant percentage of whites who don’t identify as MENA or Latino also don’t perceive MENA people as white, the study found.
The results are consistent with the reality of life for many people with MENA descent
For that in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences — citing NPR’s coverage — Maghbouleh, along with her co-authors Ariela Schachter and René D. Flores, used online surveys to conduct experiments involving nearly 1,100 participants last summer.
They included a group of people who identified as White and not MENA or Latino, and two cohorts who either identified as Middle Eastern or reported having at least one grandparent who was born in the Middle East or North Africa.
88% of people with MENA ancestry in the study (who could select one or more categories) chose this option to identify their race, ethnicity, or national origin. The results also show that adding “Middle East or North Africa” to a list of answer options dramatically reduced the proportion of people of MENA origin identifying only with the “White” category.
In another part of the study, participants were asked to classify made-up profiles of people that included names, ancestral countries of origin, and other details.
Traits associated with the Middle East or North Africa, the results found, would not be categorized as white by many people of MENA ancestry or by whites who do not identify as MENA or Latino.
“I think that’s a very powerful finding that I think was felt anecdotally by most Arab Americans in their daily lives,” says Kristine Ajrouch, professor of sociology at Eastern Michigan University whose research on white identity and Arab Americans is cited in the paper.
It is difficult to research people of MENA ancestry in the United States
Like the paper’s co-authors, Ajrouch notes that the research is limited by the challenges of finding large numbers of people of MENA origin to participate in studies.
“This is a really big problem that haunts a lot of social science research,” said Maghbouleh, who notes 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 attempts to provide concrete numbers for some of the insights Maghbouleh has uncovered through the qualitative research in this book.
But there is still a gap.
Researchers are paralyzed by federal standards that require the Census Bureau to include people with MENA roots in data about whites. Because there is no separate “Middle East or North Africa” checkbox on the U.S. census forms, there is no direct way to create a national census of people of MENA ancestry in the United States.
“It makes it very difficult to identify people from the Middle East and North Africa or people of Arab descent when there has been decades of conditioning and socialization to say, ‘If you fill out the form, you should tick white,'” says Ajrouch, who is currently trying to study how prevalent Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias are among older Arab Americans.
In fact, many people of MENA ancestry in the US are obscured in official statistics that researchers rely on for health research and other key studies.
The history of whiteness and people of MENA ancestry is complicated
The complicated relationship that many people of MENA origin have with being white is woven into a naturalization system in the US that until 1952 imposed racial restrictions on which immigrants could become citizens.
The earliest generations of immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa, first arriving in large numbers in the late 19th century, saw whiteness as the way to claim full rights in their new country.
There have been several court cases in which Syrian immigrants have emphasized their Christianity because it was seen as a European religion and therefore a mark of whiteness, says Sahar Aziz, law professor at Rutgers University Law School and author of The Racist Muslim: When Racism Takes Away From Religious Freedom.
“They argued in court that they were white because the only immigrants who could naturalize to become US citizens had to be found white by law,” she says.
Anti-Black racism in the media and other sections of US society, Aziz adds, has helped push many immigrants from around the world to try “to distance themselves from being Black and try to be as close as possible to associate with being white”.
In recent decades, however, there has been a growing disconnect between how the federal government officially categorizes people of MENA ancestry by race and the lived realities of many people — a dissonance that was underscored in the wake of the September 11 attacks .
“Over the past 20 years, people from the Middle East and North Africa have experienced a form of stereotyping that assumes that they are inherently violent, that they are prone to sympathize with terrorism, that they are alien forever.” says Aziz, who served as a senior policy adviser for the US Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Civil Rights and Liberties during the Obama administration.
“All of these stereotypes are what people experience who don’t have the privilege of being white,” she adds.
A MENA checkbox may appear in the 2030 census
To fully understand the experiences of people of MENA ancestry in the US, Aziz and other researchers say an additional checkbox for “Middle Eastern or North African” is needed on forms for the once-a-decade survey.
To prepare for the 2020 census, Census Bureau researchers concluded that including a “Middle East or North Africa” category in questionnaires would be “optimal,” in part because it “helps MENA respondents establish their MENA identity.” to be specified more precisely”.
But during the administration of former President Donald Trump, an attempt, begun during the Obama years, to introduce a MENA checkbox as part of a revised race and ethnicity census question stalled. It required the approval of the White House Office of Administration and Budget, and the lack of a public decision from the OMB forced the office to drop the plans.
Bureau officials also announced in 2018 that the agency would need to conduct research and testing to respond to feedback “from a large segment of the population of the Middle East and North Africa” who believe that MENA is a category for an ethnicity and should not be considered a breed.
Trump’s travel bans on people from several Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East and North Africa also raised concerns among some longtime proponents of a new census checkbox about how the public might have perceived the introduction of a checkbox under the previous administration.
However, last year the Biden administration confirmed to NPR that it had revived review of the proposal, which would allow the bureau to overhaul the way the census asks about race and ethnicity. If OMB gives the green light, a “Middle East or North Africa” checkbox could be on its way to appearing on updated forms for the country’s largest survey, the bureau’s American Community Survey, as well as the 2030 census.
“There is still so much to do,” Aziz notes. “I don’t think this empirical work can be done until the U.S. Census adds a category, whether it’s race or ethnicity.”