On the first day of Congress’s recess, the Obama Administration recommended the most sweeping changes to the nation’s official racial and ethnic categories in decades. The two most significant proposals were creating a new ethno/racial group for people who originate from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and taking from those who identify as Hispanic the option to identify their race. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Notice asked for comments to be submitted within a month—the shortest window possible—for what it described as a “limited revision” of data collection practices. Far from limited, the proposals would have long-term consequences for how one-fifth of all Americans are defined demographically and would create more societal conflict over racial preferences and political gerrymandering. The American people deserve more than a month to debate such significant changes, and Congress must weigh in.
The Obama Administration’s proposal would mean that, as early as the 2020 Census, those of Middle East and North African origin, who have been classified as white for over a century, would now be reclassified as a single and unified minority group. At the same time, people of Latin American or Iberian origins would no longer be able to declare whether they are also white, black, or another race, effectively making “Hispanic” their only racial identifier. This would be the biggest change to the nation’s official demography since OMB created Hispanics in 1977 and the Census divided the country into an ethno-racial pentagon that also included White, Black, Asian and American Indian in 1980. The Clinton Administration tried to create MENA and make Hispanics “a racial designation rather than an ethnicity” but failed, settling instead for the addition of “Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander” as a sixth group in 1997, the last major change.
The new standard would affect more than 60 million people (56 million Hispanics and between five and 10 million people of MENA origin). These changes would be felt in many of the most contested areas of public life: congressional redistricting plans, affirmative action plans, minority access to mortgages, and enforcement of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act and the Fair Housing Act.
Included in the proposed MENA category would be Arab Americans whose families have been here for generations, including well-known figures such as actress Marlo Thomas, Representative Darrell Issa (R–CA), and activist Ralph Nader. Arab Americans are estimated to be majority Christian and have a higher median income than average Americans. Also included are Iranian-Americans, the bulk of whom are professionals who emigrated here around the fall of the Shah in 1979 and who have per capita average incomes estimated to be 50 percent higher than the nation. MENA excludes people who originate from Pakistan or Afghanistan.
Problems with the OMB’s Proposed Changes
The proposals would affect the country adversely in at least three ways: (1) adding one more ethnic group would further divide America along ethnic lines, (2) creating a Hispanic “race” would deepen these fractures, and (3) dangling further economic benefits, including affirmative action and new congressional districts, would help perpetuate divisions within the country because it gives people an incentive to identify themselves with minority groups.
The OMB states that “the racial and ethnic categories set forth in the standard should not be interpreted as being scientific or anthropological in nature.” Far from being a reassuring disclaimer, this raises troubling questions. Races and ethnicities are organic entities best understood by scientists and anthropologists, and bureaucrats conducting focus groups should abstain from conjuring up races or ethnicities synthetically. This proposal would group together in the MENA category peoples as distinct as Berbers, Arabs, Assyrians, Persians, and Israelis. Arabs are themselves not a race, but a linguistic group. The inclusion of Israelis as members of the new MENA minority adds still more ambiguity.
Aggregating people with such different cultural indicators makes it difficult to see how these “data” will contribute to meeting the needs of or realizing the potential of different Americans. However, the inconsistencies and illogicalities inherent in the MENA classification would not prevent marketers, corporations, professional sports leagues, the entertainment industry, or the government that created it in the first place from elevating MENA as a unified group that commands pride from its members. Official ethnic groups do not long remain mere artifacts of data collection; they are soon endowed with emotional content. Soon to follow are expectations of allegiance to the group from the individual Americans who have been pigeonholed into membership. Because loyalty is by nature a zero-sum game, the newly created attachment unavoidably subtracts from dedication to country.
One need look no further than the evolution of the “Hispanic” group from a similarly bureaucratically concocted pan-racial ethnicity to one today that has its own “heritage month,” may soon have its own Smithsonian museum and, as a result of the current proposal, may now become “a race” of its own. If history is a guide, the creation of a MENA minority will be championed by activists and pressure groups that will emerge to act as self-appointed MENA spokespeople, at the expense of rank-and-file Americans who will be the most affected. Eide Alawan, born in America 75 years ago to immigrants from Syria, told the Associated Press, “I’m not for it.… I feel I’m a Mayflower American…We’re broken down into villages and countries (where we come from)—I don’t like that.”
Intellectuals and academics across the political spectrum have long sounded the alarm about these ills. Writing around the time of the last revisions, liberal public intellectual Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., cautioned that the ethnic re-interpretation of the country “reverses the historic theory of America as one people—the theory that has thus managed to keep American society whole.”[ 14] The new underlying philosophy is that “division in ethnic communities establishes the basic structure of American society.”
Government’s involvement moreover raises the troubling questions about how politicians exploit these groups for their own ends. As Alberto Alesina et al noted in a 2003 paper on racial fractionalization:
When people persistently identify with a particular group, they form potential interest groups that can be manipulated by political leaders, who often choose to mobilize some coalition of ethnic groups (“us”) to the exclusion of others (“them”).
Roger Clegg of the Center for Equal Opportunity had this to say:
We ought to be doing what we can to move away from such racial identifications, and it is certainly a bad idea for the government to be encouraging this kind of categorization. Getting the government out of this business sends a strong, positive message that we are all Americans and that skin color and ancestry don’t matter here.
Actions for Congress
- Demand sufficient time to consider this recommendation and question the authors. The OMB Notice was issued one day after Members of Congress left town, allowing no congressional input or national debate. There is no need for such expediency in a matter of such import. In the Senate, the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs has oversight. In the House, it is the Oversight and Government Reform’s Subcommittee on Federal Workforce, US Postal Service and the Census. Other interested committees should also join a probe into this proposal.
- Demand that the government stop putting people into “silly little boxes.” Congress should hold hearings on how dividing America into groups has affected national identity, cohesion, and social solidarity. It should also probe how racial preferences, congressional redistricting, and other emoluments are used to suborn Americans to accept sub-national identities. As Roger Clegg put it, “Insisting that people embrace a racial identity is bad for civil-rights progress … Discrimination is more likely to occur in a society in which people have strong racial identities and an us-them mentality.”
The OMB states that America’s increasing ethnic diversity requires more and more group classifications. An equally practical, and much preferred, policy response would work to smooth out these differences by promoting assimilation, which was the policy approach taken for the first two centuries of the Republic. That approach succeeded in achieving what was thought by many to be impossible: It created a cohesive American population out of many and vastly different peoples.—Mike Gonzalez is a Senior Fellow in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy at The Heritage Foundation.