The White House has announced a proposal that would add a new racial category to cover people from the Middle East and North Africa in a move the USA Today calls “the biggest realignment of federal racial definitions in decades.”
It doesn’t take long to see the far-reaching implications of such a move, which could appear on U.S. census forms as early as 2020 and have an impact not only on racial identity but also anti-discrimination laws.
USA Today notes:
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.
Helen Samhan of the Arab American Institute praised the president’s proposal as a “good” and “positive step.”
“What it does is it helps these communities feel less invisible,” Samhan said.
The new designation, shortened to MENA for Middle East/North African, would encompass those living in the region between Morocco and Iran and would include Syrians and religious minorities like Coptic Christians and Israeli Jews, according to the report. The Obama administration is currently seeking comments on what to call the category so that it represents those seeking this separate racial and ethnic identity. But in Pamela Geller's assessment, the president is engaged in “Islamopandering” by “securing for Muslims the perks that are available for racial minorities.”
USA Today lists some of those special perks:
- Enforcing the Voting Rights Act and drawing congressional and state legislative district boundaries;
- Establishing federal affirmative action plans and evaluating claims of employment discrimination in employment in the private sector;
- Monitoring discrimination in housing, mortgage lending, and credit;
- Enforcing school desegregation policies; and
- Helping minority-owned small businesses get federal grants and loans.
Egyptian-American Professor Germine Awad at the University of Texas at Austin is in favor of the proposal and believes this could help the nearly 4 million Arab-Americans and potentially 10 million of the MENA population in the country have “a right to their identity."
There are retribution fears in the Muslim-American community that the designation could be used against them under a Donald Trump presidency. However, as Awad said, ultimately Obama’s doing a good thing:
"I think with him being the first African-American president and being an obvious example of making the American fabric more diverse, that this could be great sign of inclusion about what it means to be an American.”