Adding MENA to Illinois forms

An Illinois bill will make the state the first in the country to recognize MENA groups on forms:

Photo by Alex Green on

Illinois is on its way to becoming the first state to recognize Arab Americans when collecting public data.

This month, H.B. 3768 passed both houses of the General Assembly and is on its way to Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s desk. When signed into law, Arab Americans and minority groups from the Middle East will be recognized separately in state data.

Pritzker tweeted his support upon the bill’s passage in the House on May 18: “History made! With HB 3768 passage, our MENA or Middle Eastern and North African communities will now have their own category on state forms and surveys.”…

Illinois has one of the largest populations of Arab Americans in the nation. But on most registration forms, Arab American is not an option when selecting ethnicity, something groups such as Arab American Family Services, advocates and community leaders have sought to change for years.

It will be interesting to see if this helps move along the conversation at the national level where the MENA category was not added to the recent Census. I assume if enough states did this, it would then be easier to add it at the federal level to make sure there is data from all parts of the country.

Push continues to add Middle Eastern race/ethnicity to Census

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.