The Census Bureau’s New MENA Category and its Implications for Iranian Americans

February 12, 2015, Washington, D.C. – The U.S. Census has initiated a plan to test a new classification for persons from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region for possible inclusion in the 2020 Census. The MENA category is based on a regional classification that includes a number of Arab and North African countries as well as Iran and Israel. This classification is used by academic, business, humanitarian, international and non-governmental organizations in their reports and articles.  Below the MENA category, each respondent is given the opportunity to disclose their ethnicity or heritage as Iranian, Lebanese or Israeli, for example. 

The MENA category is part of the 2015 combined pilot test question on race and ethnicity.  Under current government guidelines for race classification, people of MENA origin are automatically designated as “White.”  However, the test question was specifically designed to allow for flexibility so that individuals can list themselves the way they want to be identified.  For example, an individual who is part African American and part Iranian can self identify themselves as  a biracial person (part white and part black) with Iranian ethnicity.    

Inclusion in the Census has been a major Iranian American issue for the past decade, and PAAIA has taken the lead in getting our community counted. This is our top priority, because an accurate count of Iranian Americans can increase:

  • Funding: Iranians may be able to receive funding for community-specific work.

  • Political Influence: Elected officials target ethnic constituencies to solicit their feedback and votes.

  • Public Service: Some local, state and national organizations are required to provide services that address the needs of a specific ethnic and minority community (i.e. Persian speaking nurses).

  • Civic Uses: Ethnic organizations depend wholly on ancestry data to identify, locate and mobilize their constituencies. Civil rights agencies also require ancestry data to monitor discrimination based on national origin.

  • Research Uses: Social scientists, journalists and other researchers rely on census and community survey data to study ethnic population groups, demographic trends, and economic and educational mobility.*

While PAAIA has advocated for the inclusion of ancestry and/or ethnic identity beyond race through the 2010 Iranians Count Census Coalition and the 2015 National Content Test on MENA category, we fully recognize that any categorization of a population, even for the sole purpose of attaining an accurate count, is difficult and contentious. For example, the proposed move has detractors in the Latino community who believe eliminating the separate question about Hispanic origin would result in a decreased number of Hispanics counted by the census despite evidence suggesting otherwise. 

As Iranian Americans, we may question the use of “ethnicity” as a marker of our identity in the United States since we consist of distinctive ethno-religious subgroups in Iran. However, the common experience of immigrant groups has provided the basis for an ethnic membership based on symbols of Iranian culture such as food, holidays, etiquette, and values. These shared cultural symbols serve as criteria for Iranian ethnic membership outside the homeland (as well as for generations born in the U.S.), regardless of how stringently they were shared back in Iran. 

While PAAIA believes that an accurate count of Iranian Americans is a top priority for our community, we fully realize that this is just the beginning of a very long conversation on how to introduce and re-introduce Iranian Americans to America as our community becomes larger and more diverse in generations to come.


Want to know the facts about the Census and the MENA Category? Click here for Frequently Asked Questions and Answers.   

*Source: Iranians Count 2010 Census Coalition

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