April 20, 2017
The Office of Management and Budget
To Whom It May Concern,
The following is in response to the Office of Management and Budget’s March 1, 2017 “Notice and request for comments” on the proposals that it has received from the Federal Interagency Working Group for Research on Race and Ethnicity (Working Group) for revisions to OMB's Standards for Maintaining, Collecting, and Presenting Federal Data on Race and Ethnicity. (See Federal Register, p. 12242).
The National Association of Scholars (NAS) is a group of some 2,500 scholars across the country, representing all academic disciplines. Founded thirty years ago, NAS has played an active role from its beginning in advocating for the civil rights of all Americans, and to that end opposing destructive attempts to assign individuals to arbitrary identity groups. With this in mind, NAS urges the Office of Management and Budget to reject the proposal from the Federal Interagency Working Group for Research on Race and Ethnicity.
Amending our decennial census by creating a new racial category for individuals of Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) descent and re-categorizing Hispanics as a distinct racial group is in direct conflict with the agency’s stated goal of improving the “flow of objective, credible statistics to support the decisions of individuals, households, governments, businesses, and other organizations.”
Unlike other racial demarcations, MENA is a geographic term that inappropriately combines people from dramatically dissimilar ethnic, religious, and racial groups residing in the region. Berbers from Morocco have no ethnic or linguistic connections with Kurds in Turkey and Iraq, and the cultural connections are tenuous. There is simply no single characteristic—racial religious, or cultural—that makes MENA a coherent category.
Similarly, “Hispanic” is a term of convenience that has been used by the United States for grouping people mainly on the basis of linguistic background. The grounds for transforming it into a “racial” designation are spurious. Like the term MENA, Hispanic bunches together people who have abundant and meaningful differences, and thus flattens the nuances that exist among ethnic and racial groups. It is a simplification that is both unneeded and harmful, not least because it denies the integrity of actual origins.
The Interagency Working Group’s explanation of its proposed innovations is puzzling. Why would the agency propose the use of categories with no basis in objective fact? Consider the sentiments expressed by Alex Shams, the son of Coptic Christian and Iranian immigrants and supporter of FR 12242:
“I think I've really come to realize that in the wake of the war in Iraq ... I began to see myself as Middle Eastern, and I began to identify with that because that's how I was being seen and perceived by people around me.”
Mr. Sham is but one person, but his words confirm our suspicion that the spirit in which the new category MENA was proposed is inseparable from American identity politics. A MENA designation will only legitimize political actors divisively bent on mobilizing citizens and expatriates on the basis of race. More to the point, the basis of Mr. Sham’s newfound MENA identity appears to be less about celebrating the rich Coptic and Persian cultures of which he is a descendant, and more about resentment against whites and the Western political and social order.
Ethnic Hispanics are also susceptible to this kind of race baiting. During last year’s election cycle, politicians hoping to garner Hispanic support for an amnesty-based immigration bill avoided framing a message for working class whites and instead directed their resources towards maximizing Hispanic turnout at the polls. The lines of debate were framed in such a way as to tie the issue of illegal immigration to Hispanic “identity” and is likely to remain that way as the Trump administration ramps up its deportation efforts.
We point this political calculation out in a spirit of political impartiality. The U.S. Census should not be a tool for advancing the interests of any political party, whether it is attempting to curry favor with a supposed ethnic group or running with antagonism toward any such group. The U.S. Census should be plain, objective, neutral, and in every way possible above the political fray. The changes proposed by the Federal Interagency Working Group fail this test.
As the OMB considers this rule change, it should consider whether we will be a nation of citizens striving towards a common identity or a nation of quarrels among factions that define themselves along racial lines. The National Association of Scholars works tirelessly to foster a national identity based not on race, but on the strengths of our national creed. In that spirit, we call on the OMB to reject the proposed changes to the census categories.
Peter W. Wood
National Association of Scholars