Public Media for Alaska's Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Next U.S. census will have new boxes for 'Middle Eastern or North African,' 'Latino'

The Biden administration has approved proposals for the U.S. census and federal surveys to change how Latinos are asked about their race and ethnicity and to add a checkbox for "Middle Eastern or North African."
Getty Images
The Biden administration has approved proposals for the U.S. census and federal surveys to change how Latinos are asked about their race and ethnicity and to add a checkbox for "Middle Eastern or North African."

On the next U.S. census and future federal government forms, the list of checkboxes for a person's race and ethnicity is officially getting longer.

The Biden administration has approved proposals for a new response option for "Middle Eastern or North African" and a "Hispanic or Latino" box that appears under a reformatted question that asks: "What is your race and/or ethnicity?"

Going forward, participants in federal surveys will be presented with at least seven "race and/or ethnicity" categories, along with instructions that say: "Select all that apply."

After years of research and discussion by federal officials for a complicated review process that goes back to 2014, the decision was announced Thursday in a Federal Register notice, which was made available for public inspection before its official publication.

Officials at the White House's Office of Management and Budget revived these Obama-era proposals after they were shelved by the Trump administration. Supporters of these changes say they could help the racial and ethnic data used to redraw maps of voting districts, enforce civil rights protections and guide policymaking and research better reflect people's identities today.

"These revisions will enhance our ability to compare information and data across federal agencies, and also to understand how well federal programs serve a diverse America," Karin Orvis, U.S. chief statistician within OMB, said in a blog post.

Most people living in the U.S. are not expected to see the changes on the census until forms for the next once-a-decade head count of the country's residents are distributed in 2030.

But a sea change is coming as federal agencies — plus many state and local governments and private institutions participating in federal programs — figure out how to update their forms and databases in order to meet the U.S. government's new statistical standards.

Federal agencies that release data about race and ethnicity are required to each turn in a public action plan to OMB by late September 2025 and get all of their surveys and statistics in line with the new requirements by late March 2029.

The "White" definition has changed, and "Latino" is now a "race and/or ethnicity"

OMB's decision to change its statistical standards on race and ethnicity for the first time in more than a quarter-century also marks a major shift in the U.S. government's definition of "White," which no longer includes people who identify with Middle Eastern or North African groups such as Egyptian, Iranian, Iraqi, Israeli, Jordanian, Kurdish, Lebanese, Moroccan, Palestinian, Syrian and Yemeni.

That move sets up "Middle Eastern or North African" as the first completely new racial or ethnic category to be required on federal government forms since officials first issued in 1977 standards on racial and ethnic data that the Census Bureau and other federal agencies must follow.

For more than three decades, advocates for Arab Americans and other MENA groups have campaigned for their own checkbox on the U.S. census and other government forms, and recent research suggests that many people of MENA descent do not see themselves as white, a category that the federal government previously considered to include people with "origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa."

Studies by the bureau show that the government's previous standards have also been out of step with many Latinos. Those standards required asking about a person's Hispanic or Latino identity — which the federal government considers to be an ethnicity that can be any race — before asking about their racial identity.

Combining a question about Hispanic origins with a question about race into one question, while allowing people to check as many boxes as they want, is likely to lower the share of Latinos who mark the "Some other race" category on census forms,the bureau's research from 2015 suggests.

Recent research, however, suggests it's not clear how someone who identifies as Afro Latino is likely to respond to a combined race-ethnicity question. According to the Federal Register notice, about half of participants in a recent study for OMB selected only the "Hispanic or Latino" box when presented with a combined question after previously selecting both the Latino and Black categories.

This new question format, along with the addition of a "Middle Eastern or North African" box, could also decrease the number of people who mark the "White" box.

Other changes coming to federal forms

Among the other proposals OMB has greenlit is a general requirement for federal agencies to ask for detailed responses about people's identities beyond the seven minimum racial and ethnic categories. This change, advocates say, will produce more insightful statistics about differences in health care outcomes and socioeconomic disparities within the minimum categories.

OMB has also approved removing from its standards outdated language about allowing "Negro" as a termto describe the "Black" category and "Far East" to describe a geographic region of origin for people of Asian descent, which, according to the U.S. government's revised definition, now includes individuals "with origins in any of the original peoples of Central or East Asia, Southeast Asia, or South Asia."

The federal government's new definitions of the seven minimum racial and ethnic categories list the six largest groups, based on 2020 census results, that the government considers to be part of that category. For example, its definition of "Black or African American" now reads: "Individuals with origins in any of the Black racial groups of Africa, including, for example, African American, Jamaican, Haitian, Nigerian, Ethiopian, and Somali."

For the standards' official description for "American Indian or Alaska Native," OMB is removing a phrase about maintaining "tribal affiliation or community attachment." The revised definition says: "Individuals with origins in any of the original peoples of North, Central, and South America, including, for example, Navajo Nation, Blackfeet Tribe of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation of Montana, Native Village of Barrow Inupiat Traditional Government, Nome Eskimo Community, Aztec, and Maya."

OMB decided not to move forward with calls to require agencies to gather data to better understand the descendants of enslaved people originally from Africa, which included suggestions to use "American Descendants of Slavery" or "American Freedman" to describe the group. OMB said in the Federal Register notice that "further research is needed," adding that there was opposition to this proposal from civil rights groups and others because of concerns over "the difficulty of verifying that identification is accurate, the usefulness or necessity of the data, the exclusion of other groups of historically enslaved people, and the creation of confusion that could make the Black or African American community harder to count."

A changing conversation about race and ethnicity

OMB says it plans to create a standing committee to formally review these standards at least once a decade going forward. Among the key questions OMB says the committee may review is how to encourage people to select multiple categories when appropriate so that there are complete and accurate estimates about groups such as Afro Latinos.

While the revised standards go into many minute details about how surveys and data tables should be presented, there are many unanswered questions.

It's not clear, for example, how the federal government will consider people who identify as MENA when monitoring and enforcing civil rights. OMB's previous guidance, which was rescinded Thursday, used the earlier "White" definition, which included people with roots in the Middle East or North Africa and was not categorized as a "minority race" that would face "disparate impact or discriminatory patterns." The new standards offer no new guidance about which specific groups the government considers to be a "minority race."

Still, changes to how the government asks about people's identities could also reset the national conversation about race and ethnicity.

Some critics of using one question to ask about both a person's race and ethnicity, including researchers behind a campaign called "Latino Is Not A Race," have raised concerns about blurring the distinctions between the two concepts.

In response to OMB's decision, the AfroLatino Coalition called for the Census Bureau to do more research about how these changes will affect how Afro Latinos report their identities, including those in Puerto Rico.

"By listing Latino ethnicity as co-equal with racial categories, Latinos are inaccurately portrayed as a population without racial differences despite all the research showing how Black Latinos are treated differently from other Latinos," the coalition said in a statement. "Separating ethnicity from race is essential for making visible the actual and intersectional racial disparities that exist within a racially diverse ethnic group like Latinos in access to important public goods such as access to education, employment, housing, medical services, etc. Without it, systemic racism, especially when discussing Latino populations, is rendered invisible."

The introduction of a "Middle Eastern or North African" category may reopen unresolved questions and tensions over the fact that the Middle East and North Africa are regions with no universally agreed-upon borders and with transnational groups.

OMB received public feedback in support of including Armenian, Somali and Sudanese among MENA groups, but it said in its Federal Register notice that the Census Bureau's research has found that most people who identify with those groups did not select a MENA checkbox when presented with one. "Additional research is needed on these groups to monitor their preferred identification," OMB added in the notice. Many advocates of a MENA category, including the Arab American Institute, have criticized the bureau's previous researchfor not specifically testing "Middle Eastern or North African" as an ethnic category whose members can be of any race.

Maya Berry, the Arab American Institute's executive director, says after decades of campaigning for a MENA checkbox on federal forms, OMB's announcement made Thursday "a pretty significant and big day."

"The fact that Arab-Americans have been rendered invisible and other populations from MENA have been rendered invisible without that checkbox has really been harmful to communities," Berry says.

But at the same time, Berry says she is concerned that the example groups representing the MENA category in OMB's new definition for "Middle Eastern or North African" do not represent the full racial and geographic diversity of MENA communities in the U.S., including those from Black diaspora communities. That, in turn, could discourage some people with roots in the Middle East or North Africa from selecting the MENA box, Berry worries.

"I didn't want to go from being rendered invisible to being undercounted," she adds.

How OMB decided which groups have to be represented in the checkboxes under the racial and ethnic categories on forms has also drawn criticism from Meeta Anand, senior director of the census and data equity program at The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

"We are concerned that the Office of Management and Budget has already specified the required detailed categories prior to engaging in the due diligence, research, and testing as to what would elicit inclusive and accurate responses for those who identify with more than one racial or ethnic category," Anand said in a statement.

More work is needed, says Arturo Vargas, a longtime census watcher, who is the CEO of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund.

"There is going to be a significant need for a public education effort going forward by the Census Bureau and all federal agencies that collect data on race and ethnicity so that all respondents to surveys understand what is being asked," Vargas adds. "The Census Bureau needs to continue testing to see how people are interpreting this question so that the question can be improved over the short term, so that we have the best ideal question possible when we get to the 2030 decennial."

OMB announced the last major changes to its standards in 1997, when it approved allowing survey participants to report more than one race and splitting the "Asian or Pacific Islander" category into "Asian" and "Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander," which OMB has now shortened by removing the word "Other."

Edited by Benjamin Swasey

Copyright 2024 NPR

Hansi Lo Wang
Hansi Lo Wang (he/him) is a national correspondent for NPR reporting on the people, power and money behind the U.S. census.