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Proposed US census categories on race and ethnicity leave some Jews in a confusing place

New Middle Eastern-North African category still isn’t specific enough to meet communities’ diverse needs, advocate says

The leader of an advocacy group for Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews is worried that a major change to how the United States gathers and analyzes racial and ethnic data would likely do little to address the concerns of Jewish communities that don’t fit neatly into most categories. 

The White House’s Office of Management and Budget released a document Jan. 27 outlining proposed changes to the government’s statistical standards on race and ethnicity. The changes would affect how data is collected in the census and other surveys across governmental agencies. Currently, the government includes six options: white, Black, Native American or Alaskan, Asian and Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander, as well as “other.” Under the proposed change, a new category would be created: Middle Eastern/North African (MENA). 

The category would include “all individuals who identify with one or more nationalities or ethnic groups with origins in the Middle East and North Africa,” including Israel. 

But that categorization still doesn’t meet the needs of all Jews, said Manashe Khaimov, president and CEO of the Sephardic American Mizrahi Initiative.

Khaimov, who is also an adjunct professor of Jewish studies at Queens College, part of the City University of New York, noted that even Ashkenazi Jews, who by and large identify as white on government forms, “were never identified by race” prior to coming to the United States, but were able to “pass” as white once they arrived. 

The census issue is further complicated, Khaimov said, by the fact that “Judaism is not a race. And it’s not a religion. It’s an ethnicity.”

The census does not include questions about religious affiliation but a 2021 Pew Research Center poll found that 92% of American Jews self-identified as white. 1% identified as Black non-Hispanic, 4% identified as Hispanic and the rest identified as “other.” 

Khaimov, who was not familiar with the proposed changes prior to being contacted by the Forward, said in previous censuses, he has not marked himself as being either Black or white. Instead, he wrote in Bukharian, an ethnic subgroup primarily composed of Persian Jews that also includes Jews from Afghanistan and Iran. For the 2020 census, his organization undertook a campaign to have people in the Queens community, which numbers roughly 70,000, write in their ethnicity as Bukharian.

“We felt that we’d be able to (have) a bigger and stronger voice and also to show the actual need that we have in a community,” he said.

Census data is used in calculations for distributing governmental resources. Khaimov said the Bukhari community had struggles that include drug overuse and families living under the poverty line that might not have been recognized statistically if they identified as white. 

“Because of the neighborhood they live in, and because they’re putting themselves into a specific category, now we don’t see the number of them,” he said. He added that if resources could be allocated to Black and Latino communities, there is a concern that communities that are “in between” risk being overlooked. 

Even the new MENA category, he said, “is not specific enough.”

“I’m from Central Asia, and I’m not from North Africa, nor from the Middle East. So where do I put myself?”

The proposed changes were compiled over the past year by a working group composed of staffers from more than 20 federal agencies. In a White House blog post released last week, U.S. chief statistician Karin Orvis noted that the recommendations are not final and “do not represent the positions of OMB or the agencies participating on the Working Group.”

She encouraged people with concerns to provide feedback by April 12 via scheduled town halls or by contacting the working group to set up an appointment.

A spokesperson for the White House’s Office of Management and Budget declined to comment.

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