The US is changing the way it categorizes people by race and ethnicity.  This is the first revision in 27 years
The US is changing the way it categorizes people by race and ethnicity.  This is the first revision in 27 years

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) – For the first time in 27 yearsthe US government is changing how it categorizes people by race and ethnicity, an effort that federal officials believe will more accurately count residents who identify as Hispanic and of Middle Eastern and North African descent.

The revisions to the minimum race and ethnicity categories announced Thursday by the Office of Management and Budget are the latest effort to label and define people in the United States. This evolving process often reflects changes in social attitudes and immigration, as well as the desire for people in an increasingly diverse society to see themselves in the numbers produced by the federal government.

“You can’t underestimate the emotional impact this has on people,” said Meeta Anand, senior director of census and data equity at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “This is how we perceive ourselves as a society. … You see a desire for people to want to self-identify and be reflected in the data so they can tell their own stories.”

Under the revisions, race and ethnicity questions that were previously asked separately on forms will be combined into one question. This would allow respondents to select multiple categories at once, such as “Black,” “American Indian,” and “Hispanic.” Research shows that a large number of Hispanics are unsure how to answer the race question when this question is asked separately because they understand race and ethnicity as similar and often choose “some other race” or do not answer the question.

A Middle Eastern and North African category will be added to the available choices for race and ethnicity questions. People originating from places like Lebanon, Iran, Egypt and Syria were encouraged to identify as white, but will now have the option to identify in the new group. Results of the 2020 Census, where respondents were asked to state their origins, suggest that 3.5 million inhabitants identify as Middle Eastern and North African.

“It feels good to be seen,” said Florida state Rep. Anna Escamani, an Orlando Democrat whose parents are from Iran. “Growing up, my family checked the ‘white’ box because we didn’t know which other box reflected our family. Having that kind of representation feels meaningful.”

The changes also strike from the federal forms of the words “Negro” and “Far Eastern,” now widely considered pejorative, as well as the terms “majority” and “minority” because they do not reflect the nation’s complex racial and ethnic diversity, some say employees. The revisions also encourage the collection of detailed race and ethnicity data beyond minimum standards, such as “Haitian” or “Jamaican” for someone who tags “Black.”

The changes to the standards were forged over two years by a group of federal statisticians and bureaucrats who prefer to stay above the political fray. But the revisions have long-term implications for legislative redistricting, civil rights laws, health statistics, and possibly even politics, as the number of people categorized as white is reduced.

Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, recently hinted of arguments made by people who claim that Democrats encourage illegal immigration to weaken the power of white people. As president, Trump unsuccessfully tried to disqualify people who were in the United States illegally from being included in the 2020 census.

The momentum to change the racial and ethnic categories grew during the Obama administration in the mid-2010s, but stalled after Trump became president in 2017. revived after Democratic President Joe Biden takes office in 2021.

The changes will be reflected in data collection, once-a-decade census forms, surveys and questionnaires released by the federal government, as well as state governments and the private sector, as businesses, universities and other groups generally follow Washington’s lead. Federal agencies have 18 months to submit a plan for how they will implement the changes.

The first federal race and ethnicity standards were created in 1977 to provide consistent data across agencies and come up with numbers that could help enforce civil rights laws. They were last updated in 1997, when five minimal racial categories were outlined—American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Black or African American, Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander, and White; respondents could select more than one race. Minimal ethnic categories were grouped separately as non-Hispanic, Hispanic, or Hispanic.

The interagency group that worked on the latest revisions noted that the categories are sociopolitical constructs and race and ethnicity are not defined biologically or genetically.

The racial and ethnic categories used by the US government reflect their times.

In 1820, the category “Free people of color” was added to the decennial census to reflect the increase in free black people. In 1850, the term “mulatto” was added to the census to cover people of mixed heritage. American Indians were not specifically enumerated in the census until 1860. After years of immigration from China, “Chinese” were included in the 1870 census. There was no formal question of Hispanic ancestry until the 1980 census.

Not everyone agrees with the latest revisions.

Some Afro-Hispanics believe that combining the question on race and ethnicity will reduce their numbers and representation in the data, although previous US Census Bureau research found no significant differences between Afro-Hispanics’ responses when the questions were set separately or together.

Mozel Ortiz, for example, is of mixed Afro-Puerto Rican descent. She thinks the changes could eliminate that identity, although people may choose more than one answer once questions about race and ethnicity are combined.

“My entire ancestry, that of my black Puerto Rican grandmother and all other non-white Hispanic peoples, will be erased,” Ortiz wrote to the interagency group.

William Chalmers, in a letter to the group, worried that combining issues of race and ethnicity would conflate the two definitions.

“Just as gender and sexual orientation are treated as different markers, so too should ‘race’ and ‘culture’ be treated,” Chalmers said.


Follow Mike Schneider on X, formerly known as Twitter: @MikeSchneiderAP

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