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New U.S. Census Category Proposed For People Of Middle Eastern, North African Descent


The U.S. Census is poised to add a new ethnic category to its 2020 survey. And it's a big one. It's for people of Middle Eastern or North African descent. In the past, if your family roots were in Egypt, say, or Iran, it wasn't clear which box you checked. As Kat Chow of NPR's Code Switch team reports, the census is heeding the calls of thousands of Americans who want to check a box that describes them.

KAT CHOW, BYLINE: On past census forms, this is how people with roots in the Middle East or North Africa answered.

WASSIM HASSAN: I consider myself an African Arab Muslim. I've always checked off African-American.

YASMEEN RAMAHI: I personally identify as a Palestinian-Jordanian-American. On the last - for former census forms, I actually identified as white or Caucasian.

DORNA MOHAGHEGH: I usually have identified as other and then written either Iranian or Iranian-American.

CHOW: That was Wassim Hassan, Yasmeen Ramahi. And that last voice you heard - that's Dorna Mohaghegh. She lives in New York City.

MOHAGHEGH: It's frustrating because it feels like my identity isn't being reflected - that I have to kind of take an extra step to advocate and say, I'm here. And this is you know where I'm from and how I feel about who I am.

CHOW: For Mohaghegh and millions of other Americans, here were the options she saw on the 2010 census. She could've checked off boxes for white, black, Hispanic or a variety of Asian ethnicities like Chinese, Samoan, Guamanian. But there was no box for Iranian-Americans. Not surprisingly, the Census Bureau has gotten complaints about this for decades. Nicholas Jones is director of the division of the Census Bureau that's looking at this category.

NICHOLAS JONES: Groups such as Middle Eastern, Arab, North African populations are saying, I'm not seeing myself on the 2010 census. And I'm interested in finding ways in which I can self-identify.

CHOW: So right now and for the rest of the month, the bureau is gathering public feedback on whether or not people will actually check these boxes. If it seems simple, it's not. Identities are so layered. Some Egyptian-Americans, for example, consider themselves white. Others identify as black or African-American. But this new census category - it's not just about giving people a chance to express their identities.

MAYA BERRY: The whole point of all of this is that it is about arriving at better data.

CHOW: That's Maya Berry. She's the executive director of the civil rights group the Arab American Institute, one of the organizations providing feedback to the census. She says just having better demographic info about people means better resources for them.

BERRY: It's things like voting protection. It's things like English-as-a-second-language programs for schools. I mean, there's just a variety of areas where this data is important and has real practical policy implications for people's lives.

CHOW: Though there's wide support for this proposed MENA category, some other civil-rights advocates are hesitant. Ibrahim Hooper is with the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

IBRAHIM HOOPER: The downside is concerns about misuse of this data and how it could be handled by the government in a time of national crisis.

CHOW: Hooper says he worries that law enforcement agencies, for example, might use the census data to target Middle Eastern or North African communities in surveillance efforts. Still, he says, there is an upside to having more data, especially if it reflects the wide diversity among people of Middle Eastern or North African origin.

And when the Census Bureau finalizes the 2020 form, the survey should do that. That's because it will give people a chance to not only check the MENA box but also indicate their specific ethnicity. So Egyptian-Americans and Iranian-Americans and others, for better or worse, there will soon be a place for you on the U.S. Census. Kat Chow, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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