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AG Nessel Writes OMB Requesting Statistical Policy Change for “Middle Eastern or North African” Residents
May 19, 2023
LANSING – Last week, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel authored a letter to the Office of Management and Budget’s Interagency Technical Working Group on Race and Ethnicity Standards of the federal government to support revisions to a policy that aggregates populations of Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) descent into the ‘white’ racial category for census and statistical purposes. Writing in her letter, the Attorney General argues the revision would “capture the distinctness of the MENA population” and increase the fullness and fairness of their participation in “a wide variety of federal, state, and local programs that address racial and ethnic disparities.” Due to their statistical classification as ‘white’ under Statistical Policy Directive 15 (SPD 15), many of these programs are unavailable to this population.
“The U.S census and other statistical assessments are powerful tools and measures in the allocation of the tremendous assets and resources of our federal government,” said Nessel. “Advocating for the proper measure and visibility of the distinct MENA community is important to securing the resources and access to equity programs that it has been denied due to its classification as ‘white’.”
The policy of classifying MENA Americans as ‘white’ has been in place for decades. The practical ramifications of this practice include a lack of data collection and research into the issues facing these communities, and a subsequent lack of understanding or consideration of the unique needs of MENA communities when it comes to “creating programs meant to advance civil rights or minimize or eliminate racial and ethnic disparities in healthcare, housing, education, and the like.” The letter further reads, “because the SPD 15 does not recognize MENA as distinct from White, the MENA community is oftentimes unable to access these programs.”
The aggregation not only fails to account for the distinct cultural, social, health, and economic needs of MENA communities uniquely apart from what otherwise consists of the ‘white’ population, but it also fails to “represent the perceptions of MENA Americans themselves, who do not view themselves as White and therefore feel invisible under the current census classification.”
“These valued residents deserve to feel seen and be seen,” said Nessel.
The Attorney General writes that the goal of the requested revision is to provide MENA individuals “access to information and resources . . . responsive to their distinctive needs and to ensure them the civil rights and racial equity to which they are entitled.” She contends that ending the current aggregation into the ‘white’ racial category may be a first step to “ensure that they enjoy equal protection and equal opportunity under the law.”
"ACCESS and NNAAC are thrilled that the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has proposed to recognize the distinct experiences of Middle Eastern and North African communities,” said Maha Freij, President and CEO of the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS). “While the largest concentration of Arab Americans resides in the state of Michigan, the current policy that combines data on Middle Eastern and North African individuals into the ‘White’ reporting category has left Arab Americans undetected and underserved by federal, state, and local governments. The OMB's proposed policy change would allow federal, state, and local governments to understand the needs, experiences, and circumstances of their MENA constituents, including the diverse community of Arab Americans across the country. Given the importance of this data, we commend the Office of Attorney General Dana Nessel for contributing their perspective to the OMB as they consider public comment on their proposed policy change."
As of 2019, over 1.2 million immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa lived in the United States, making up about 3% of the country’s 44+ million immigrants. MENA Americans constituted approximately 11% of Michigan’s population in 2016, and among all counties across the United States, Wayne County is among the four counties with the largest number of MENA immigrants.