On June 1, 2023, representatives of the Assyrian Policy Institute met with the U.S. Office of Management and Budget's Interagency Technical Working Group on Race and Ethnicity Standards to discuss the White House's initial proposals for revising the federal race and ethnicity standards. The API urged the Administration to support the proposal to add a new response category for Middle Eastern and North African (MENA), separate and distinct from the "White" category to forms for the 2030 U.S. Census and for all purposes for which federal agencies collect and publish race and ethnicity data. This change would mark a major achievement for Assyrian-Americans, Arab-Americans, and other MENA communities who have long-advocated for a separate reporting category.
Currently, the federal government officially categorizes Assyrians and other people with origins in Iraq, Syria, Iran, Lebanon, and other countries in the MENA region as "White." In effect, many people of MENA descent in the U.S. are rendered invisible in official statistics, as there is no direct way of producing a national count of MENA Americans. The addition of a distinct MENA reporting category would enable Assyrian-Americans and other MENA communities to more accurately report their identities. This revision would have a profound impact on the community's political representation, improve access to necessary government services, and can be used to allocate needed resources. It would also spur far-reaching changes to how state and local governments—as well as public school districts—generate their racial and ethnic data.
Like many historically underrepresented communities, Assyrian-Americans are significantly undercounted in federal demographic and population data, and are deemed a “hard-to-count” community. This is largely due to the absence of a reporting category that captures Assyrian ancestry in the U.S. Census, leading to confusion about how to report their identities. As a result, Assyrian-Americans face barriers to many basic rights and services and are denied minority status.
The Assyrian-American community is not monolithic. While Assyrian-Americans have different identities and experiences, many in the Assyrian community do not feel that the “White” category accurately captures their identity, as they do not share the same lived experience as White people with European ancestry, do not identify as White, are not perceived as White by others, and are subject to multiple forms of discrimination in the U.S. because of their ethnicity.
When reporting their race in the 2020 U.S. Census, many Assyrians selected “Some Other Race” and wrote-in “Assyrian.” Others may have selected White based on the instructions or Asian as an option that is geographically based.
Federal data on Assyrian-Americans is obtained through ancestry data from the American Community Survey (ACS) and includes the responses “Chaldean” and “Syriac.” This approach is insufficient: The ACS estimates there are 104,381 Assyrians in the U.S. while civil society groups estimate the actual population is over 600,000. The state of Illinois alone is believed to be home to upwards of 80,000 Assyrian-Americans.
For decades, Assyrian-American civil society actors have been working to promote civic engagement among Assyrian-Americans and increase the visibility of the community in federal demographic and population surveys. For example, the Assyrian National Council of Illinois received $100,000 in state funding to promote Assyrian-American participation in the 2020 U.S. Census. The Assyrian American Association of Southern California spearheaded the formation of the Assyrian Complete Count Committee, hosting informative town halls and distributing relevant literature.
The OMB should work closely with community advocates and leaders to achieve a consensus on: (1) the nationalities and transnational groups that should be included in the definition of a MENA category; (2) effective instructions to respondents to promote reporting in this category among all persons of MENA origin, whether native or foreign born; and (3) clear explanations in educational and communication materials that MENA reflects ethnicity and that respondents may select additional race and/or ethnicity categories with which they identify.
Furthermore, we believe that disaggregated data are necessary to understand the diversity of experiences within each major category and to address and reduce disparate outcomes based on those differences. Within the primary race and ethnicity categories, even the proposed MENA category, people of different backgrounds often have vastly different experiences and outcomes in society. Identifying and understanding these differences allows policymakers and civic leaders to advance informed policies and meet needs.
The API also expressed support for revising the standards to favor the collection of race and ethnicity data through a combined question format instead of through separate questions for ethnicity and race. A combined question would have the greatest effect on response rates for members of the Hispanic or Latinx community, but it will also allow individuals of MENA origin to identify with the MENA ethnic category only or with MENA and one or more other categories, such as Hispanic/Latinx or Black. In supporting a combined question, the API is mindful of concerns that such an approach could lead to a loss of data on race, especially in the Black/African American and American Indian and Alaska Native categories and emphasized that data collection instruments should make clear that respondents can identify with and select more than one category when reporting their race and ethnicity to fully capture their identity.
"Assyrians and other communities with MENA origins have historically been overlooked in the process that decides political representation, federal funding, and medical research," said Atour Sargon, API Vice Chair. "We feel strongly that the addition of a new MENA reporting category will improve the federal government's ability to understand and address the needs of our communities. We hope to see this proposal adopted."
It is important that the categories that define our country’s racial and ethnic composition are inclusive and reflect the way individuals see themselves to the fullest extent possible. This principle becomes more important when the ethnicity in question is associated with discrimination or is singled out in public policy for heightened scrutiny.
The OMB is expected to make a final decision on the Working Group's proposals by the summer of 2024.