5 Years After Muslim Ban, Middle Eastern and North African Americans Remain Hidden | Opinion

Five years ago, President Donald Trump was sued over the Muslim ban, which prohibited immigration and travel to the United States from seven majority Muslim countries. Although it is impossible to know how many lives were thrown into disarray by the flick of President Donald Trump's pen, at least 41,000 people were denied visas based solely on their nationality. An overwhelming majority—94 percent—were people from Iran, Syria and Yemen.

President Joe Biden, like other critics of the ban, proclaimed that those affected "were the first to feel Donald Trump's assault on Black and brown people." But since a 1944 lawsuit in which a Arab Muslim man successfully argued that he was white in order to become a naturalized citizen, people from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA, which includes Iran, Syria and Yemen) have been counted as white in the U.S. As a result, and unlike other minorities, an estimated 3 million MENA Americans do not have a box to mark their identities on the Census or most surveys. And when MENA Americans are masked under the white category, the everyday group- and individual-level inequalities they face are made invisible, making clear that adding a MENA box to the U.S. Census is long overdue.

In a newly published study, we show that MENA people are not seen as white by other Americans—and don't see themselves as white, either.

First, to understand how MENAs are perceived by others, we presented MENA and non-MENA white people with randomized profiles of fictitious individuals that varied by name, religion, class, skin color and family ancestry. We then asked respondents to classify the fictitious individuals as Black, white, or MENA. We found that most respondents strongly distinguished profiles with MENA cues from non-MENA Black and white profiles.

We also found that skin color and family ancestry are two of the strongest signals that prompt someone to classify another person as MENA. The importance of skin color underscores how ordinary people "see" MENA as a distinct group with a non-white physical appearance. This may help explain why a wide range of diverse, non-MENA Americans are often mistaken for MENA in incidents of street-level violence and discrimination. The surprising influence of family ancestry also suggests that MENAs who are "white passing," or have been in the U.S. for generations, may not be perceived as white if there is evidence of family roots in the MENA region.

Next, we replicated an experiment originally undertaken by the U.S. Census to see how MENA Americans identify themselves on forms when they are—and are not—offered a separate MENA category. We found that on forms like the Census, when a MENA box is not offered, 80 percent of MENA respondents chose white (and 15 percent chose "Some Other Race").

But when a MENA box was offered, just 11 percent continued to only choose white. Instead, the vast majority—88 percent—chose "MENA." Importantly, self-identification as "Other" was reduced to zero. Offering a MENA box is likely to pull hundreds of thousands of Americans out of the "Some Other Race" box, a group that presents serious data challenges for the Census Bureau and researchers.

The U.S. Census logo appears on census
The U.S. Census logo appears on census materials. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

So, what draws MENA people away from identifying as white? We found that those most likely to choose MENA over white are the children of immigrants from the MENA region, both non-religious and Muslim MENAs, and those who perceive higher levels of discrimination against Muslims and MENA people—a phenomenon known in sociology as "reactive ethnicity." Because these characteristics also reflect what the community looks like today (younger, more Muslim and at greater risk of discrimination), we can safely assume that MENA Americans will increasingly prefer the MENA category over white in the future.

The U.S. is nearly alone in counting MENAs as white. Just north of our border, Canada recognizes MENAs as visible minorities and offers them a census box. Analyzing this data, researchers have found that MENA Canadians have some of the highest infection and hospitalization rates for COVID-19 in Toronto, Canada's most populous city. First-generation MENA immigrants also experience the largest earnings gap among all ethnic and racial groups in Canada, earning 67 cents for every dollar their non-minority counterparts earn. Unfortunately, because MENA Americans are counted as white in the U.S., it is impossible to do similar population-level analyses.

Exploratory research suggests that MENA Americans appear to be more likely to live below the poverty line, rent rather than own their homes and report worse health outcomes, including higher age-adjusted mortality risk, lower birth weights and depression. Evidence also suggests they experience significant housing discrimination in "roommate wanted" scenarios, social isolation following divisive political campaigns and civil rights violations in the wake of 9/11 and the Muslim ban.

That MENA respondents overwhelmingly prefer a MENA category in our study—and in the original experiment conducted by the Census Bureau—indicates a serious gap between their own self-understandings and their official "white" status. This gap is made more acute by the increase in state surveillance and public stigmatization of this group in recent decades. Anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric and policies—exemplified by the Muslim ban, which sharply affected MENAs—may have hastened their self-exit from the white box.

By examining the unsettled MENA category from outside—and inside—the community, our study showed why it is wrong to count this group as white in official statistics. Bringing our federal ethnic and racial categories in closer alignment with how ordinary people see race is a powerful way to overcome inequalities faced by "hidden" groups. The bottom line is clear: It is time to have a MENA box on the U.S. Census.

Neda Maghbouleh is the Canada research chair in migration, race and identity at the University of Toronto and Wall scholar at the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Research at the University of British Columbia.

René D. Flores is the Neubauer family assistant professor of sociology at the University of Chicago.

Ariela Schachter is assistant professor of sociology at Washington University in St. Louis.

Follow Neda on Twitter at @nedasoc and René at @rd_flowers.

The views expressed in this article are the writers' own.