In the summer of 2022, the City Council for Anaheim, California, recognized the contributions of the city’s Arab American community by designating a portion of the downtown “Little Arabia” (San Román). This designation acknowledges a generation’s efforts to build community in the neighborhood and the many years of work from advocates to build a common cause across national identities in order to gain public visibility.

Much like the development of the “Hispanic” identity decades earlier, people from countries including Syria, Libya, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia — alongside those descendant from these countries, born in the United States — have today adopted the MENA* (Middle Eastern or North African) identity (for the construction of the “Hispanic” identity, see Mora, 2014; for the working classification of the MENA category, see Buchanan et al., 2016). The Anaheim City Council member who advanced the proposal to designate Little Arabia said the intent was to recognize “the substantive value of history, culture and place that Little Arabia has for Anaheim. For our city to say, ‘We see you, we’re going to name you and we’re going to be proud to do this’ is critical” (San Román, 2022, para. 20).

MENA advocates in Anaheim and beyond are part of a movement to change the way the U.S. government collects data on race and ethnicity — rethinking the “limits of whiteness,” to borrow the title of a work by scholar Neda Maghbouleh (2017), a study of how Iranian Americans have moved back and forth across the color line. This movement gained momentum in 2023 when the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) proposed new race and ethnicity data collection standards.

A New Race and Ethnicity Paradigm for the Public Sector

For the first time in a quarter century, the federal government recently proposed new data collection standards. On January 27, 2023, the OMB published and requested comments on its “Initial Proposals for Updating OMB’s Race and Ethnicity Statistical Standards” in the Federal Register. These standards were first established in 1977, in the wake of the civil rights movement. They have not been significantly amended since 1997 when the OMB divided the “Asian or Pacific Islander” category into two distinct groups and began permitting respondents to select more than one race category overall.

The 2020 Census asked residents first to identify their ethnicity (i.e., “Is this person of Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin?”) and then to identify their race (Marks & Rios-Vargas, 2021). The OMB’s proposed updates include combining the ethnicity and race questions into a single question and adding a category for people who identify as MENA.

What does this mean for nonprofits and other community advocates?

The OMB is slated to announce its decision on the proposed changes in summer 2024. Assuming the agency adopts the proposed changes — which seems likely — there are many protocols that nonprofits and foundations may spend the next several years ironing out (in accordance with whatever implementation timeline OMB provides).

First, entire communities will be visible in federal — and, eventually, state — data on everything from public health to policing and incarceration.

Beyond this, adding categories to federal data creates a new “protected class” of people for civil rights law enforcement.

Perhaps most importantly, the philanthropic sector will need to help steer the national conversation away from the inevitable backlash to changing race and ethnicity standards.