U.S. Census Bureau to Test Middle Eastern or North African Category for the 2020 Census

October 20, 2014, Washington, D.C. – On October 6, 2014, the U.S. Census Bureau announced it will test a new distinct category for respondents of Middle Eastern or North African (MENA) heritage as part of its mid-decade research. The National Content and Self-Response Test will be held in the fall of 2015 with the aim of testing new strategies for the official 2020 Census.

The MENA category on the 2015 pilot test will consist of a “Middle Eastern or North African” check box, following a space below for respondents to write in their specific ethnicity in both separate and combined questions on race and ethnicities. The test lists six MENA ethnicities as examples including, Iranian, Egyptian, and Lebanese.    

The decision to test a MENA category comes after years of discussion between the Census Bureau, Census Advisory Committee members, the U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB), as well as key stakeholders and leaders within the Middle Eastern and North African communities.

Federal data on ethnicity is not derived from the question of race in the Decennial Census but rather from question of ancestry, which is collected through the annual American Community Survey (ACS). The ACS is an ongoing statistical survey sent to a small percentage of the population on a rotating basis throughout the decade. 

Like other ethnic groups, the number of Iranian Americans has historically been underrepresented in ACS data. The underrepresentation can be attributed to the lack of participation in the ACS as well as the method used by the Census Bureau to obtain such information.  Unlike the ACS, the Decennial Census reaches every household and has no margin of error.  However, it only asks ten basic questions, excluding ancestry.      

As part of its 2010 Census outreach, and reflecting the limitations of the racial and ethnic options on the census form, PAAIA helped launch the Iranians Count Census Coalition. The coalition encouraged Iranian Americans to check the “Some Other Race” box and write in Iranian or Iranian American. Similar write-in campaigns were simulated by other Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) communities. 

The record number of write-in campaigns demonstrated to the Census Bureau the importance of ancestry or ethnic identity beyond race, as well as the disconnect that many of these communities feel with the method of classification used in the Decennial Census.

In 2013, PAAIA joined a broad coalition of organizations and scholars in requesting that the Census Bureau and the OMB consider a distinct category on the race and ethnic questions for people of Middle Eastern or North African origin. The request was followed by a formal recommendation by the Census Bureau’s National Advisory Committee on Racial, Ethnic, and other Populations to test a MENA category in the 2015 National Content and Self Response Test.    

The Census Bureau and members of the MENA community hope that the new category test will show an increase in the accuracy of ethnicity reporting, as well as better reflect the self-identity of respondents.

Based on the results of the 2015 National Content Test, the Census Bureau will decide whether or not to include a MENA category in the 2020 Census.

News of the MENA category pilot test is a success for the Iranian American community, who has been trying to secure an accurate count of the Iranian American community in the U.S. Census since 2010.

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