U.S. Government Overhauls Racial and Ethnic Categories for First Time in 27 Years to Better Reflect Diversity and Inclusion

Feature and Cover U S Government Overhauls Racial and Ethnic Categories for First Time in 27 Years to Better Reflect Diversity and Inclusion

The U.S. government is undertaking a significant overhaul in its approach to categorizing people by race and ethnicity, marking the first such change in 27 years. The effort aims to provide more accurate representation for individuals identifying as Hispanic and those of Middle Eastern and North African heritage, reflecting evolving social attitudes, immigration patterns, and the desire for inclusivity in a diverse society.

According to Meeta Anand, senior director for Census & Data Equity at The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, this shift holds immense emotional significance for individuals as it shapes societal perceptions and allows people to tell their own stories through data. The key alteration involves combining race and ethnicity questions into a single inquiry, enabling respondents to select multiple categories simultaneously, such as “Black,” “American Indian,” and “Hispanic.”

Previously, many Hispanic individuals faced difficulty in accurately responding to the race question when presented separately, often selecting “some other race” or opting out altogether due to perceived similarities between race and ethnicity. With the inclusion of a Middle Eastern and North African category, individuals from regions like Lebanon, Iran, Egypt, and Syria—who previously defaulted to identifying as white—now have the opportunity to identify within this newly recognized group. The 2020 census revealed approximately 3.5 million residents identifying as Middle Eastern and North African.

Florida state Rep. Anna Eskamani, whose parents hail from Iran, expressed her relief at the newfound representation, noting that her family previously checked the “white” box due to the absence of a more suitable option. The removal of outdated and potentially offensive terms like “Negro” and “Far East,” as well as the elimination of “majority” and “minority” labels, underscores a commitment to accurately reflecting the nation’s racial and ethnic diversity.

The revisions extend beyond mere terminology, advocating for the collection of detailed data to capture nuances within racial and ethnic groups. This disaggregation allows for a more comprehensive understanding of disparities in income, health, and other socio-economic factors, as emphasized by Allison Plyer, chief demographer of The Data Center in New Orleans.

While the process of revising these standards involved a non-partisan group of federal statisticians and bureaucrats, the implications are far-reaching, impacting legislative redistricting, civil rights laws, health statistics, and potentially even politics. The initiative gained momentum during the Obama administration but faced setbacks under the Trump presidency before being revived following President Joe Biden’s inauguration.

Implementation of these changes will be widespread, affecting federal and state government forms, surveys, and census questionnaires, as well as private sector practices which often align with governmental standards. Federal agencies have been given 18 months to develop plans for incorporating these revisions.

The historical evolution of racial and ethnic categories within the U.S. government reflects shifting societal dynamics. From the inclusion of “Free Colored People” in the 1820 census to the addition of “Chinese” in 1870 following increased immigration, these categories have evolved over time to mirror the nation’s demographic changes.

However, not all individuals are fully supportive of the latest revisions. Some Afro Latinos fear a reduction in their representation within combined race and ethnicity categories, although previous research suggests minimal differences in responses when questions are posed separately versus together. Mozelle Ortiz, of mixed Afro Puerto Rican descent, expressed concern over the potential erasure of her lineage.

Additionally, certain groups such as Armenians or Arabs from Sudan and Somalia feel overlooked in the examples provided to define Middle Eastern or North African backgrounds. Maya Berry, executive director of the Arab American Institute, while appreciative of the new category, criticized its lack of inclusivity, emphasizing the need for a more comprehensive representation of racial diversity within these communities.

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