Peters Urges OMB to Include Middle East-North Africa Category in Federal Standards for Gathering Data on Race and Ethnicity

Category Would Help Federal Government Better Address Issues Facing Arab American Communities

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Gary Peters (D-MI), Chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, is requesting information from the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) about their review of federal standards on collecting data on race and ethnicity and urged OMB to include a separate category for people of Middle Eastern or North African (MENA) descent. Current guidance for federal data collection, which must be used by all government agencies including the U.S. Census Bureau, was last updated by OMB in 1997 and does not contain a separate category for MENA populations. In a letter to OMB Director Shalanda Young, Peters highlighted that a distinct classification for MENA communities in federal data collection standards would help accurately count this population and identify the specific issues they face. It would also ensure the government appropriately allocates resources to address challenges faced by Arab American communities in Michigan and across the nation. 

“OMB sets the government-wide standards for maintaining, collecting, and presenting federal data on race and ethnicity. It is essential that these standards represent the nation’s diversity and allow agencies to fully serve every community. OMB’s most recent guidance, from 1997, does not include a separate category for the MENA population,” wrote Senator Peters. “Research has shown that this limits the data available on unique challenges faced by the Arab American population, such as healthcare needs and disparities. Adding a MENA category would provide more accurate data and allow the federal government to better serve this population.”

“We applaud Senator Gary Peters for his leadership of the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs advocating for Middle East and North African American (MENA) communities. It is critical that the Office of Management and Budget set federal standards for data on race and ethnicity that permit for an accurate accounting of our national diversity,” said Maha Freij, the CEO of ACCESS. “For too long, outdated federal standards have imposed limits on statisticians, advocates, and communities alike. In this letter, Senator Peters requests vital information regarding the OMB’s effort to correct this historical and systemic exclusion. We urge the OMB to provide this information and prioritize establishment of a standalone ‘Middle Eastern or North African’ category.”

Peters, who sent the letter during Arab American Heritage Month, has repeatedly pressed for more accurate federal data related to the MENA population. Since being sworn in as a Senator in 2014, he has asked nominees for OMB and the U.S. Census Bureau about their plans to include a separate category for the MENA community in government-wide data standards, including in the U.S. Census. Michigan is home to the one of the largest Arab American communities in the country. Peters will continue leading efforts to ensure MENA populations are accurately represented in federal data collection processes so the government can more effectively distribute resources to tackle unique challenges faced by this community.

The text of the letter is copied below and available here.

Dear Director Young:    

I write to request information about the Office of Management and Budget’s (OMB) review of the federal standards for race and ethnicity data, and urge you to prioritize the inclusion of a category for people of Middle Eastern or North African (MENA) descent.

OMB sets the government-wide standards for maintaining, collecting, and presenting federal data on race and ethnicity. It is essential that these standards represent the nation’s diversity and allow agencies to fully serve every community. OMB’s most recent guidance, from 1997, does not include a separate category for the MENA population. Research has shown that this limits the data available on unique challenges faced by the Arab American population, such as healthcare needs and disparities. Adding a MENA category would provide more accurate data and allow the federal government to better serve this population.

These OMB standards are particularly important for the Census Bureau (Bureau) to ensure high-quality nationwide data. The Bureau has conducted extensive research showing that a MENA category would result in more accurate data for this population. A 2017 Census Bureau report concluded “it is optimal to use a dedicated ‘Middle Eastern or North African’ response category” but the Bureau is bound by OMB’s standards.

In July 2021, an OMB spokesperson stated OMB is “continuing to review the prior technical recommendations and public comment” on revising the race and ethnicity standards, but OMB has not provided further information or a timeline. In 2016, OMB sought comment on updating the race and ethnicity standards and adding the MENA category, after an Interagency Working Group identified priority areas for improving the standards. However, OMB did not revise the standards by its stated 2017 deadline, in time for revisions to the 2020 Census.

During your confirmation process, when I asked you about revising OMB’s standards to provide for inclusion of the MENA community, you stated, “If confirmed, I will commit to continued work to help ensuring the objectivity and integrity of OMB’s Statistical Policy Directives and in this case to accurately capture the diversity of the American people.” When I asked Census Bureau Director Robert Santos during his confirmation process whether he would explore the addition of a MENA category with OMB, he stated, “I would work with OMB and the Chief Statistician of the U.S. to explore the addition of a MENA race and ethnicity category. I would also work to ensure the Census Bureau can collect high-quality data for people of Middle Eastern or North African heritage through proper research and testing.”

Given these commitments and the importance of ensuring accurate data to serve the American people, I request OMB provide information on the following topics through a briefing no later than May 31, 2022:

  1. The current status of OMB’s review regarding the standards for federal data on race and ethnicity, including the consideration of the MENA category;
  2. OMB’s processes and timelines that pertain to changes in OMB data standards, including a timeline for when OMB will make any additional decisions on updating statistical policies and data standards on race and ethnicity;
  3. OMB’s past or planned collaboration with other federal agencies including the Census Bureau in its review of the race and ethnicity standards; and
  4. OMB’s collaboration and communication with diverse community stakeholders in this process.

Thank you for your consideration.

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