Obama Administration Takes First Steps for New, Largely Muslim, Middle East-North Africa Census Category

According to the Pew Research Center, “Census data are vital to determining everything from how congressional districts are drawn, which local governments are required to provide foreign language ballots in elections, $400 billion in federal aid programs and enforcement of civil rights laws.” As Rashad al-Dabbagh of the Network of Arab-American Professionals, Democrat activist and former member of the Obama administration at the Census Bureau states bluntly, the “census numbers are critical for another reason: political power.”


By Jay O’Callaghan l May 5, 2015


Obama’s U.S. Census Bureau Director John H. Thompson testifies before Senate committee

Obama’s Census Bureau is developing a new racial/ethnic category to the 2020 Census for people from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), a largely Muslim population. U.S. Census Bureau Director John H. Thompson told a Senate committee recently that a test of the category is on schedule for this fall and that the Bureau will meet soon with Middle Eastern and North African scholars to come up with a definition.

The new MENA category, a blatant back-door religious designation, would likely be greatly expanded from the Arab-American ancestry category collected since 1980, along with other American ancestry groups. The Census Bureau estimates that there are 1.8 million Arab-Americans in the U.S. but the Arab American Institute Foundation claims there are 3.7 million with ties to 22 countries.

This well organized highly lobbied community-based effort across America to establish the MENA category by Arab-American and civil rights groups began with a letter to the Bureau last summer supporting a separate “Middle East/North Africa” ethnic category.

According to the Pew Research Center, “Census data are vital to determining everything from how congressional districts are drawn, which local governments are required to provide foreign language ballots in elections, $400 billion in federal aid programs and enforcement of civil rights laws.”  As Rashad al-Dabbagh, of the Network of Arab-American Professionals of Los Angeles, states bluntly the “census numbers are critical for another reason: political power.” Without a solid number, al-Dabbagh said, “it’s hard to convince elected leaders to take Arab-Americans’ priorities seriously — especially when they’re competing for funding with groups that do have a clear count.” According to his Linkedin page, al-Dabbagh, a California Democrat Party activist, indicates he was with the Census Bureau in the Obama administration and the Southern Vice Chair of the California Democrat Party’s Arab American Caucus.

Supporters of the new MENA category, like al-Dabbagh, state that being in the “white” category in the census prevents them from taking advantage of minority group benefits and government assistance, including programs that award contracts to minority owned businesses.

In 2012, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) petitioned the U.S. Minority Business Development Agency (MBDA), to designate the MENA community as a minority/disadvantaged community after being flooded with reports of discrimination and racial profiling.   The MBDA rejected the initial petition stating “there is insufficient evidence that this undeniable prejudice has impaired their ability to compete in the free enterprise system due to diminished capital and credit opportunities.”

Opposition to the proposal is likely to come from Republicans in Congress who believe that the census is already too expensive and loaded with unnecessary questions supported by special interest groups.  Also, Census Bureau data show that Arab-Americans are one of the highest income and well educated groups in the U.S.

The Census Bureau has in the past opposed granting minority status to Americans of MENA descent, noting that the label applies only to racial and ethnic groups with a history of exclusion in the U.S. such as American Indians, Asian-Americans, blacks and Hispanics. “Ideally, minority status should really be just for African-Americans and Native Americans, who have known historic discrimination,” former executive director of the Arab-American Institute Foundation, Helen Samhan points out. “A Pakistani-American can compete for a small-business loan because he’s from Asia, but an Iranian- or Iraqi-American can’t?” she asks. “Who decided Iraq is not western Asia?”

But under the Obama administration’s brand of divisive politics this is about to change in the coming census, and along with it, the face of American politics, forever. Muslims overwhelmingly backed Obama in both the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections.  In the future, this could have a significant impact on national elections and particularly make a difference in swing states like Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Florida and Colorado, where the Muslim population in America is growing steadily both organically and through immigration. MENA immigrants, however, are clustered more broadly across the United States.

According to Census Bureau spokeswoman, Sally Hedrick, the bureau is now meeting with members of the MENA community and is planning a couple of national survey tests in 2015 and 2016 to test out the new category. If the Census Bureau and the Executive Office of Management and Budget (OMB) give their OK, it must be sent to Congress for approval in 2017; with final questions to be put to a vote by 2018.


Jay O’Callaghan has worked extensively with issues involving the U.S. Census Bureau including serving as a professional staff member for the House Government Reform Census Subcommittee, as a senior legislative analyst for the Florida House of Representatives Redistricting Committee and for two U.S. House members. He is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.