Posted on May 16, 2015 in Arab American Institute


The Problem

There is no ethnic category for Arab Americans on the U.S. Census. This has led to a significant undercount of the community, creating barriers to many basic rights and services. While the Census Bureau estimates the number of Arab Americans in the United States is 1.9 million, the Arab American Institute estimates the total is actually closer to 3.7 million. Federal data on Arab Americans is obtained through ancestry data from the American Community Survey, a yearly survey that collects economic, social, demographic and housing information from a small sample of the general population. While helpful, this approach is incomplete.

The American Community Survey identifies only a portion of the Arab American population through a question on “ancestry.” Reasons for the undercount include: the placement and limitations of the ancestry question (as distinct from race and ethnicity); the effect of the sampling methodology on small, unevenly distributed ethnic groups; high levels of marriage outside of the community among third and fourth generations; and distrust or misunderstanding of government surveys among recent immigrants. 

Data from each decennial census affects how the government spends over $400 billion in federal and state funding. This money is spent on public health, transportation, education, community development, and more. Additionally, the census is mandated by the Constitution to be used in apportioning seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, and is also used to redistrict state legislatures and school district assignment areas.  

The creation of a coherent ethnic category for people from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region will have a positive impact on the treatment and services available to members of the Arab American community. The undercounting of Arab Americans has served as a barrier to representation, education, health, and employment for the community.

Language Assistance and Voting Rights

Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act protects minority language populations by ensuring the availability of foreign language ballots and translation services at polling places. The groups included are determined by the Census, excluding Arab Americans from protection under Section 203.           


Because researchers are unable to disaggregate the current data of most persons with MENA origin, it is impossible to address diseases that are ethnic-specific, such as lactose intolerance or the prevalence of diabetes among Arab Americans. Inclusion on the Census will foster greater access to health information and services for Arab Americans, as well as funding for services for the elderly and disabled.


Inclusion on census surveys will allow for more equitable allocations of grants for assisted learning services to school districts with larger populations of children with limited English proficiency, as well as funding for cultural competency training for educators working directly with Arab American communities. An accurate count of MENA populations will better show the need for English language programs and adult literacy courses.


Census data is used for monitoring and enforcing equal employment opportunities, and the new ethnic category could be used to protect Arab Americans from discrimination in hiring practices. The category will allow for the provision of additional Employment Assistance to often undercounted lower-income and newly immigrated populations through funding to private and public nonprofits.


Community Organizations representing Middle Eastern and North African American populations, led by the efforts of the Arab American Institute, have been partnering with the U.S. Census Bureau on outreach and education since the 1980s.

During the 1997 review of federal standards to measure race and ethnicity in the United States, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) concluded that further research was needed on a MENA ethnic category. Since then, stakeholders have been working closely with the Census Bureau to explore ways to better reach, enumerate, and study these growing and complex populations groups.

On the 2010 Census, at least half of the MENA population chose the “some other race” option and many reported “Middle Eastern” as an ethnicity.

In 2010, the Alternative Questionnaire Experiment (AQE), conducted by the Census Bureau tested variations on measuring race and ethnicity, and was followed by focus groups on MENA ethnic identity. All 67 focus groups recommended a separate category for those who identify as Middle Eastern, North African, or Arab.

July 2013

A letter on behalf of a broad coalition of advocates and scholars was sent to the OMB Chief Statistician, Dr. Katherine Wallman, outlining the scope of the undercount and advocating for an ethnic category to improve data collection.

March 2014

The following year, in March, AAI hosted a meeting with the Director of the U.S. Census Bureau, Dr. John Thompson, to discuss the possibility of a new ethnic category that would encompass those from the MENA region.

July 2014

AAI presented research on the creation of a MENA ethnic category to the Interagency Working Group for Research on Race and Ethnicity at a meeting hosted by the Office of Management and Budget.

October 2014

The U.S. Census Bureau announced it would begin testing in 2015 of a Middle East and North Africa category for possible inclusion on the 2020 Census. After a write-in campaign from community organizations representing groups that would be counted by the category, the Bureau stated at the Spring 2015 meeting of the National Advisory Committee that they had received a record number of positive comments in response to the Federal Register post announcing the testing of the category.

May 2015

The Census Bureau held an Expert Forum to hear input on the definition and coding of the category from community members and specialists on the region. AAI, along with numerous community organizations that make up the MENA Advocacy Network, asked the Census Bureau to consider the creation of an ethnic category that would provide the most comprehensive data capturing the multiple racial, ethnic, and national identities of Americans with Middle Eastern and North African ancestry. Shortly after the forum, the category went into the field for testing as part of the National Content Test (NCT).

October 2016

The Census Bureau released the results of the NCT in Fall 2016. Recommendations included the use of the combined question format, and the inclusion of a Middle Eastern or North African category. Overall, use of a MENA category appeared to elicit higher quality data, and the Census Bureau recommended the inclusion of a dedicated MENA category on all additional testing.

April 2017

This past spring, subgroups of the Federal Interagency Working Group (IWG) for Research on Race and Ethnicity began to review recommendations from the Census Bureau, and solicit public comment on several changes – including the inclusion and placement of a MENA category. The IWG will send its findings to the Office of Management and Budget, who will issue recommendations---including implementation dates & implementation guidance---in the Federal Register in the winter of 2017. Final question formats for the 2020 Census will submitted to Congress by March 31, 2018.

Moving Forward

A MENA ethnic category would be an important corrective measure to the severe undercount of our community. The Arab American Institute will continue to work closely on the new category to ensure an inclusive definition of MENA collected as an ethnicity on census surveys, and will monitor the testing process to confirm that any new category produces better data on our community. It is essential that we continue to voice our urgency and support for Census revisions.

- Support the addition of a new MENA ethnic category to census surveys before the 2020 Census to allow individuals to identify as being of Middle Eastern or North African descent, and offer a space to further specify their ethnic origin.

- Raise awareness of the importance of Census data to various education, health, and employment policies. The collection of data from the MENA ethnic category would allow for more effective policies.

- Support full funding for the U.S. Census Bureau, allowing for adequate testing of new data collection technology and the implementation of the 2018 Census Test and 2020 Decennial Census.

- To address legitimate concerns, emphasize the importance and effectiveness of the laws and protections in place to keep census data private. By law (Title 13, U.S. Code), the U.S. Census Bureau keeps personal information confidential. Individual responses and personally identifiable information cannot be shared with anyone, including other federal agencies or law enforcement entities. The Census Bureau also withholds statistical totals if they represent a geographic area so small that the numbers might identify someone.

Download the AAI Issue Brief:

comments powered by Disqus