April 29, 2024

The Long (Successful) Battle to Count Arab Americans

Maya Berry Executive Director, Arab American Institute

Last month, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) announced revisions to the Standards for Maintaining, Collecting, and Presenting Federal Data on Race and Ethnicity, known as Directive 15. The revisions, the first since 1997, include the historic addition of a new “Middle Eastern or North African” (MENA) minimum reporting category, the use of a combined question format to collect race and ethnicity data, and the requirement of more detailed data collection by federal agencies are welcomed steps toward the modernization of federal race and ethnicity data.

For Arab Americans, the MENA category represents the first time our community will have a full and accurate accounting on the U.S. census.

How Accurate Data Helps Arab Americans

 The 1997 Standards, in place for the last 27 years, defined people from the MENA region as exclusively racially white, rendering Arab Americans invisible in the data and erasing the racial diversity of an ethnic community. In so doing, it has fueled a dramatic undercount of Arab Americans, limiting our access to much needed government services, and our ability to protect our rights. Better data on Arab Americans derived from a new MENA ethnic category is of paramount importance to community interest.

Since the 2020 census, we’ve seen direct examples of how harmful the invisibility of Arab Americans in data can be for our communities. In Michigan, new State House districts in the Dearborn, Dearborn Heights and Detroit areas split the Arab American community in 2021, diluting the community’s vote. The Detroit Metro area has the largest concentration of Arab Americans in the country, but the redistricting effort cut them out of the legislative process by splitting the community among three districts – ensuring no single district has an Arab American majority.

Because Arab Americans were classified exclusively as White when the redistricting committee considered race and ethnicity data from the census for Voting Rights Act purposes, the community was not accounted for.  It also hindered efforts to present Arab Americans as a “community of interest,” a factor in redistricting considerations that helps keep shared economic or social interest, as well as ethnic populations, together. Without raw census data, community leaders had to rely on estimates when presenting the Arab Americans in the Dearborn area as a community of interest. Because of our invisibility in census data, our most concentrated community would not necessarily have full representation in their own state legislature.

The harm, of course, goes beyond redistricting. Census data affects the availability of educational rights, language access, health research, and community-centric grants at all levels of government. One of the most egregious examples of how our community’s invisibility in data collection has negatively impacted our community is the way information on hate crimes against Arab Americans has historically been disseminated. Each year, the FBI releases Hate Crime Statistics – a report of all bias-motivated crime each year. According to our research, in 1992, the FBI intended to publish anti-Arab hate crime data in the first edition of Hate crimes statistics, but before publication, Bias Motivation Code 31—the anti-Arab code—was removed. At the time, the FBI cited Directive 15 as the reason for removal. As a result, anti-Arab hate crime was excluded and recoded in federal statistics for decades under an aggregate category, even when many state law enforcement agencies continued to submit data on anti-Arab hate crimes during this period. It was not until 2015, when Code 31 was added back to Federal hate crime reporting, that data on hate crimes against Arab Americans became available.

Already, we’ve seen what visible inclusion in federal forms can do. Not only did the FBI Reporting Program start collecting data and publishing statistics on bias-motivated violence against Arab Americans, but the Bureau also developed training materials to ensure law enforcement personnel across the country are better equipped to report, investigate, and respond to anti-Arab hate crimes.

History of the Push for a MENA Category

 The push for a MENA category has been a decades-long endeavor for our community. Accurate counting of the Arab American population has been a central part of the Arab American Institute’s mission, beginning in the late 1980s when AAI first worked with the U.S. Census Bureau to ensure all Arab Americans were counted in the 1990 census. To that end, in 1994, AAI helped launch the Ancestry Working Group to support the Census Bureau’s efforts to decrease systemic undercounting of Arab Americans.

Because of these community-led efforts to get better data on Arab Americans, when the federal government took efforts to study and improve the accuracy of demographic data in the late 1990s, the Arab American community was ready to respond. During the 1997 review of federal standards to measure race and ethnicity in the United States, for example, OMB opened a comment period on the standards for reporting race and ethnicity, resulting in multiple comments about the need for an “Arab or Middle Eastern” category, especially as a means of tracking discrimination. Upon review, OMB concluded that demographic accuracy required further research on such a category.

The 2000 decennial census supplied further evidence that Arab Americans didn’t fully see themselves on existing forms with an increase of Arab ancestry reporting in the “some other race” category. This evidence, along with the comments from the 1997 revision and continued community advocacy, pushed the Census Bureau to explore a new category on the 2010 Alternative Questionnaire Experiment (AQE). The 2010 AQE, which tested variations of race and ethnicity data collection, included focus groups on Middle Eastern and North African respondents. Findings from the test supported the need for a distinct MENA category.

In the 1980, 1990, and 2000 decennial censuses, the census long form included a question on ancestry and ethnic origin. The long form was only administered to a portion of the U.S. population leaving an accurate count of Arab American ancestry groups dependent on the sample methodology applied to a small, unevenly distributed population. Community leaders worked overtime to make sure Arab American communities knew where and how to find the question in an effort to collect usable data from an unknown sample population. After the elimination of the long form in 2010, AAI formed the MENA Advocacy Network to formally organize communities around securing a distinct MENA ethnic reporting category.

In 2014, the Network presented their research, showing the current (and historical) undercount of communities within the category to the Interagency Working Group on Race and Ethnicity. Later that year, when the Federal Register notice announced the testing of a MENA category, the Network mobilized our community resulting in more than 13,000 favorable public comments–a record number. Unfortunately, despite favorable testing results on the Census Bureaus’ 2015 National Content Test, and a recommendation from the Census Bureau to include the MENA category on the 2020 census, the category was not added, leaving the Arab American community, and others encompassed in the category without an accurate accounting of our populations.

Undaunted, stakeholder organizations continued to push for changes to federal data collection, including a MENA category. After OMB announced a formal review of the race and ethnicity standards in 2022, an Interagency Technical Working Group was formed to aid in the process. On January 27, 2023, OMB published a Federal Register Notice seeking the public’s comments on the Working Group’s initial proposal for updating the Standards. After a successful comment period that saw more than 20,000 comments, the OMB announced the new revisions to Directive 15, which included the historic addition of a MENA minimum reporting category.

Where We Go From Here

The inclusion of a MENA category in federal data collection will not magically fix the harms of decades of undercounting. Nor will the category’s implementation happen overnight. Indeed, we will continue to advocate for our recommendations for the category to get to an accurate count that fully reflects the full racial and geographic diversity of the MENA category. Yet, the new Standards marked a historical moment for data equity, even if some tweaks are still needed.

With the new Standards, we can go into the 2030 get-out-the-count efforts with the expectation of data which, for the first time ever, can help make the case for improved protections against discrimination, tailored research for our health concerns, support for our children in schools, and the empowerment of our political voice, among the many other benefits of accurate data collection. It is a win for our community—and our democracy.


Maya Berry is Executive Director of the Arab American Institute (AAI), a non-profit, nonpartisan, national civil rights advocacy organization founded to nurture and encourage direct participation in political and civic life to mobilize a strong, educated, and empowered Arab American community. She was previously the Legislative Director for House Minority Whip David Bonior, and currently serves as the Co-Chair of the Hate Crime Task Force at the Leadership Conference for Civil and Human Rights and on the board of Public Citizen. 

Democracy and Elections, Education, Equality and Liberty, Racial Justice, Redistricting, Voting Rights