Against Obama’s plan to add new racial category for Middle Easterners

The Obama administration is proposing to create a new category for people who identify as “Middle Eastern or North African.” These people are currently classified as “white.” This means they aren’t entitled to the preferences our government grants to non-whites in a host of areas including employment and assistance to businesses.

Commissioner Peter Kirsanow of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights opposes this latest effort to subdivide Americans. He sets forth his opposition in this letter to the Chief Statistician at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the agency that has formally proposed this new approach to “divvying us up by race.”

Kirsanow explains that the need for civil rights protections stems from the fact that African Americans faced centuries of entrenched racism that denied them a place in American society. Drastic action was needed to end discrimination against this group.

“Whatever discrimination may be faced by persons of Middle Eastern and North African descent, it is not akin to that faced by African-Americans prior to the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act,” says Kirsanow. Thus, he argues, “the only reason for requesting the creation of [a special classification for these persons] is to attempt to obtain preferential government treatment that other groups do not receive. . .”

There are several reasons why this is a bad idea. First, as Kirsanow argues, collecting racial and ethnic data encourages the maintenance of a separate ethnic identity, which ultimately does not benefit even those who maintain that identity. Call me old-fashioned, but I agree with Kirsanow that immigrants should not be encouraged to de-emphasize their identity as Americans and claim status as a group apart.

Second, as noted, it is irrational and unfair to confer benefits on people of Middle Eastern and North African origin. As Kirsanow puts it:

African-Americans had been largely shut out of mainstream American life for generations, which is why intrusive measures were necessary to ensure that they could participate in public life. That is not the case with Americans of Middle Eastern and North African descent, many of whom are recent immigrants or the children of immigrants.

They arrived in a country with nondiscrimination laws. If they experience disparate treatment, they can invoke the nondiscrimination laws.

But it would be wrong to give Syrian-Americans a “safe” congressional district and federal affirmative action preferences when Americans of Sicilian descent must simply lump it. We are rapidly approaching a situation in which all groups except whites of European descent (and in regard to education, Asian-Americans) are positively favored by the government. If every group save one is positively favored by the government, the government is necessarily discriminating against that [one] group.

Finally, the proposed approach would increase the balkanization of American society. It would promote the us-against-them mentality that increasingly plagues America. Ironically, discrimination is more likely to occur in a society where such a mentality prevails.

Kirsanow also offers trenchant observations on another seriously misguided aspect of OMB’s proposed rule — consideration of changing the Hispanic or Latino category from an ethnic to a racial one. I recommend that you read the whole thing.