CHICAGO – On Wednesday, a bill that would ensure those who identify themselves as Middle Eastern or North African are counted in state data progressed in the Illinois House of Representatives.
The legislation, House Bill 3768, passed the State Government Administration Committee. It will go to the House floor for a vote, and then the Senate for a final vote.
If passed into law, the bill would add a category called Middle Eastern or North African (MENA) to the Uniform Racial Classification Act. Whenever a state agency is required by law to compile or report statistical data using racial or ethnic classification, the amended law says they must use MENA in addition to White, Black or African American, American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander.
The bill was introduced in February after a years-long CBS 2 investigation that revealed the devastating impact of data not being collected on this group by federal or local governments. For instance, during the height of the pandemic, Arabs were among those dying at high rates, but CBS 2 found city and state agencies did not have a separate category tracking this information like they do for other groups. Therefore, organizations struggled to obtain funding for resources.
The need for a MENA category was also underscored in a recent study from the University of Illinois Chicago. The report detailed how Arab Americans across Chicagoland experience discrimination and inequities in all areas of life. But the authors said because their experiences are not quantified, this group is not being served by organizations and government agencies.
Local governments have pointed to a lack of a MENA category in the Census when asked why they have not created their own. It would also require a new state law to change government databases and systems at the local level.
The decades-long fight for a category on the state and federal level has been spearheaded by activists, researchers and local community organizations like the Illinois based non-profit Arab American Family Services.
“[This bill] means that we exist as a community,” said Nareman Taha, the group’s co-founder. “It means endless opportunities from education to public health.”
There are 243 proponents of the bill, which include community organizations and coalitions. No one opposed it. The legislation moved on to the next step with a unanimous 9-0 vote.
Representative Abdelnasser Rashid (D-Berwyn), the first Palestinian American to serve in the Illinois House of Representatives, sponsored the bill. During Wednesday’s hearing he said counting Arab Americans in state data is critical to ensure their needs are understood and met.
“The reason this is extremely important… is it helps us get counted so we understand not just our numbers, but [our] needs, opportunities and challenges across sectors,” Rashid said.
He also said he’s spoken with Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s office as well as the state’s Department of Central Management Services on the implementation of the category if passed into law.
Rashid added the bill “has been a long time coming.”
“For several decades, the Arab community has been asking for this,” he said.
— Source: CBS Chicago. Edited for style.
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