This project has been in the works for at least a few years and now the White House is joining the effort to add a Middle Eastern race/ethnicity to government forms:
Under current law, people from the Middle East are considered white, the legacy of century-old court rulings in which Syrian Americans argued that they should not be considered Asian — because that designation would deny them citizenship under the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. But scholars and community leaders say more and more people with their roots in the Middle East find themselves caught between white, black and Asian classifications that don’t fully reflect their identities…
On Friday, the White House Office of Management and Budget advanced the proposal with a notice in the Federal Register, seeking comments on whether to add Middle Eastern and North African as a separate racial or ethnic category, which groups would be included, and what it should be called.
Under the proposal, the new Middle East and North African designation — or MENA, as it’s called by population scholars — is broader in concept than Arab (an ethnicity) or Muslim (a religion). It would include anyone from a region of the world stretching from Morocco to Iran, and including Syrian and Coptic Christians, Israeli Jews and other religious minorities.
But the Census Bureau, which has been quietly studying the issue for two years, also has gotten caught up in debates about some groups — such as Turkish, Sudanese and Somali Americans — who aren’t included in that category. Those are issues the White House is trying to resolve before adding the box on 2020 census forms.
This is a good reminder of how social science categories can develop: through a lot of effort. There are social changes to account for here: how groups understand themselves changes over time. In this particular context, immigrating to the United States and facing particular challenges and opportunities leads to groups that wouldn’t necessarily group themselves together to now desire such a thing. Does the Middle East as Americans often understand it line up with how the region is understood elsewhere (let alone in that part of the world)? There are politics involved: who gets to define such groups? How is the data used? There are measurement issues: who would count in such a category? What are the boundaries? Is it a racial category or ethnicity? How many racial/ethnic categories are needed to understand the world?
All that said, the category of white – typically based on skin color – is very broad and often not very useful considering the social changes in the United States in the last few decades.