91.7 Ann Arbor/Detroit 104.1 Grand Rapids 91.3 Port Huron 89.7 Lansing 91.1 Flint
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Stateside Podcast: New Census checkbox for Middle Eastern and North African Michiganders

A federal new rule ends a decades-long federal practice of classifying Middle Eastern and North African people as white.
Courtesy of Arab American Institute
A federal new rule ends a decades-long federal practice of classifying Middle Eastern and North African people as white.

Michigan has a large Middle Eastern and North African population, second only to California.

That’s according to the U.S. Census, the best data available — which probably isn’t entirely accurate.

Experts say the federal count has likely missed a lot of Middle Eastern and North African people.

A new federal rule aims to fix that by adding a Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) checkbox on the next U.S. Census and other federal forms that collect data about race. Michigan lawmakers are considering making a similar change for state data collection too.

It may seem like a small thing, but that checkbox has the potential to make a huge difference.

“We know from survey methodology research that people like to check boxes or click things and not write in,” said Germine Awad, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan. “So because we don't have a MENA box, we don't have an accurate count of the MENA population.”

Data from the census is used to direct tax dollars, government services, political representation and research. Communities that are undercounted could miss out on a lot.

The new rule is also a big deal because it ends a decades-long federal practice of classifying Middle Eastern and North African people as white.

That label is not accurate to the MENA experience in the United States, Awad said. She also serves on a U.S. Census Bureau advisory committee focused on race and ethnicity.

“From a young age, I had really different experiences than my white peers,” said Awad, who is Egyptian. “I never was treated as if I was white. And so … the first time I ever had to fill out a demographic form … I just refused to check white because it wasn't accurate.”

Research by Awad and others shows immigrantsand descendants from the MENA region often see themselves as a distinct minority – and not white. This distinction is often based on discrimination they face from white communities.

But Arab and MENA people once fought to be considered white. In the early 1900s, this group was considered “yellow” (the federal designation for people from Asia) which meant they were “excluded from the privileges of citizenship.”

“And so Arab Americans, and MENA Americans, really fought to be considered white, to be able to have rights within the U.S.,” Awad said. After a few court battles, they won that right.

A few decades later, MENA people, “especially the younger generation, started to fight against this notion of whiteness,” Awad said. “Because, A) you no longer had to be white to be a citizen or to have certain rights. But more importantly, it wasn't a reflection of their identity or experience in the United States.”

Awad argues the harm of classifying MENA people as white goes beyond self-perceptions of identity.

“Disparities are actually being masked when Arab and MENA folks are in the white category,” she said. “If for some reason they see, ‘oh, this white community has higher levels of heart disease and it doesn't make any sense because it's not in line with other data,’ well, it's because this white community is really Arab-American.”

The long road behind — and ahead

Experts, like Awad, and advocates pushed for this change to federal data collection for years.

Ahead of the 2000 Census, advocates testified to the federal Office of Management and Budget on the need for a separate category.

However, various groups couldn't agree on whether the box should be labeled “Middle Eastern or North African” or “Arab.” The disagreement led federal officials to punt the issue, Awad said.

A 2021 study by Awad showed “Arab” is an inaccurate label for many Middle Eastern or North African people.

That’s because “MENA” refers to a geographic region, while “Arab” refers to a specific cultural or ancestral identity. There might be a lot of overlap between those groups, but they are not identical.

“Ancestrally, they were not considered Arab,” she said. “This is true of Chaldeans, this is true of Coptic Egyptians … and other groups within the MENA region that share similar experiences but the Arab ancestry label was not accurate.”

Efforts ramped up again ahead of the 2010 Census count: a “check it right, you ain’t white” campaign encouraged people to write-in under the “some other race” option instead of checking “white.”

“Over a million individuals from the Arab and MENA region wrote in ‘some other race,” Awad said. “And once you have over a million write-ins, the census sort of flags that as a problem.”

Awad said she began to advise the census on this issue following the 2010 count. Over the years, she said she’s had to “come to terms with” the way politics sometimes drove decision making rather than research or data.

One of Awad’s early studies was a pilot of the MENA checkbox that aimed to “to convince the U.S. census to even test it” themselves. The bureau eventually conducted that test in 2015.

“And wow, guess what?” she said. “Earth-shattering results showed that people from the MENA region, or with ancestry from the MENA region, checked off [the MENA box].”

So, the Census Bureau proposed adding the checkbox to 2020’s count. However, that proposal was stalled by officials in former President Donald Trump’s administration until it was too late.

There was still a major change in 2020: it was the first time the census grouped write-in responses from MENA ethnic groups into one count — still as a subcategory of white.

Again, because it relied on write-ins, the 2020 Census likely undercounted MENA people, Awad and other experts say. Adding the checkbox is expected to help, but other challenges remain.

The Census already struggles to accurately count minority groups that have had checkboxes for decades. For example, based on an initial review of the 2020 Census, the bureau says it likely undercounted Black and African Americans and overcounted non-Hispanic whites.

There are many challenges that lead to undercounts. For Middle Eastern and North African people, the census has some particular trust issues to overcome, Awad said.

She pointed to the census sharing “detailed information on how many people of Arab backgrounds live in certain ZIP codes” with the Department of Homeland Security after 9/11.

“I think that there's a perception that it's unsafe,” she said. “The census has gone to great lengths to try to remedy these sorts of privacy issues and to build up trust.”

It’s going to take a lot of education and outreach to get people to “check off this box we worked so hard to get,” Awad said.

[Get Stateside on your phone: subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, YouTube, or YouTube Music today.]

Stay Connected
Large sets of numbers add up to peoples’ stories. As Michigan Public’s Data Reporter, Adam Yahya Rayes seeks to sift through noisy digits to put the individuals and policies that make up our communities into perspective.
Rachel Ishikawa joined Michigan Public in 2020 as a podcast producer. She produced Kids These Days, a limited-run series that launched in the summer of 2020.