ORLANDO, Fla. (NEWSnet/AP) — The U.S. government is changing how it asks about — and defines — the demographics of its people by race and ethnicity.

Through this effort, the first such update in 27 years, officials believe they will have more accurate data on details such as how many people consider themselves to be Hispanic, or of Middle Eastern and North African heritage.

The announcement by the Office of Management and Budget is the latest in a series of updates to how the government asks about, labels and counts the diversity of people in the United States.

“You can’t underestimate the emotional impact this has on people,” said Meeta Anand, senior director for Census & Data Equity at The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “It’s how we conceive ourselves as a society. ... You are seeing a desire for people to want to self-identify and be reflected in data so they can tell their own stories.”

What Will Be Different

 

Under the latest revisions, questions about race and ethnicity that in recent years were asked separately on forms will be combined into a single question.

The intent is to give respondents the option to pick multiple categories that apply to themselves, such as “Black,” “American Indian” and “Hispanic.”

Research has shown that large numbers of Hispanic people aren’t sure how to answer the race question when that question is asked separately. They often pick “some other race” or do not answer the question.

A Middle Eastern / North African category also will be added to the choices available for questions about race and ethnicity. People whose ancestry is from places such as Lebanon, Iran, Egypt and Syria were previously encouraged to identify as white, but now will have the option of identifying themselves directly as Middle Eastern / North African.

This change is significant because the 2020 census, which asked respondents to elaborate on their backgrounds, suggest that 3.5 million residents might identify as Middle Eastern or North African if given the chance to check that option.

“It feels good to be seen,” said Florida state Rep. Anna Eskamani, a Democrat from Orlando whose parents are from Iran. “Growing up, my family would check the ‘white’ box because we didn’t know what other box reflected our family. Having representation like that, it feels meaningful.”

The changes also remove from federal forms the words “Negro” and “Far East,” now widely regarded as pejorative; as well as the terms “majority” and “minority,” because both descriptions fail to reflect the nation’s current racial and ethnic diversity, some officials say.

The revisions also encourage the collection of detailed race and ethnicity, such as “Haitian” or “Jamaican” for someone who checks “Black.”

The changes to the standards were negotiated for 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 who are officially considered white is likely to be reduced.

Interest for changing the race and ethnicity categories grew during the Barack Obama administration in the mid-2010s, but was halted after Donald Trump became president in 2017. Discussion was revived after Democratic President Joe Biden took office in 2021.

The changes will be reflected in data collection, forms, surveys and the once-a-decade census questionnaires put out by the federal government, as well as in state governments and the private sector because businesses, universities and other groups usually follow Washington’s lead.

Federal agencies have 18 months to submit a plan on how they will put the changes in place.

Most Recent Changes

 

The first federal standards on race and ethnicity were produced in 1977 to provide consistent data across agencies and come up with figures that could help enforce civil rights laws.

They were last updated in 1997 when five minimum race categories were delineated — American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Black or African American, Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander and white; respondents could pick more than one race. The minimum ethnic categories were grouped separately as not Hispanic or Hispanic or Latino.

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

Older Demographic Definitions

 

Racial and ethnic categories used by the U.S. government reflect their times.

In 1820, the category “Free Colored People” 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 capture people of mixed heritage. American Indians were not explicitly counted in the census until 1860. Following years of immigration from China, “Chinese” was included in the 1870 census.

There was not a formal question about Hispanic origin until the 1980 census.

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