According to preliminary recommendations released Thursday by the Biden administration in what would be the first update to race and ethnicity standards in a quarter century, a Middle Eastern and North African category could be added to federal surveys and censuses, and changes to how Hispanics can self-identify.
The federal government’s standards have not been changed since 1997, two decades after they were established as part of an effort to collect consistent race and ethnicity data across federal agencies when handling censuses, federal surveys, and government benefit application forms.
Using the 1997 standards, questions about race and Hispanic ethnicity are asked separately. The initial proposals, made by a working group of representatives from various federal agencies convened by the Office of Management and Budget, would combine them into a single question.
Some advocates have advocated for combining the race and Hispanic origin questions, claiming that the way race is classified frequently confuses Hispanic respondents who are unsure how to respond. The Census Bureau’s tests in the 2010 census revealed that combining the questions resulted in higher response rates.
Using the 1997 standards, residents of Middle Eastern and North African countries were encouraged to identify as “white”. The new proposal would create a separate category for folks commonly referred to as “MENA” acronym. The Census Bureau recommended including the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) category on the 2020 census form, but the Trump administration rejected the idea.
According to a Federal Register notice issued by the Biden administration on Friday, research indicates that many MENA respondents see their identity as distinct from white — and stakeholders have advocated for collecting MENA data separate from the census’s “white” category for over 30 years.
Lebanon, Iran, Egypt, Syria, Morocco, and Israel are among the countries of origin that would receive a check for the MENA category, according to the notice.
“This is a really big deal,” said Maya Berry, executive director of the Arab American Institute, a civil rights organization based in Washington. “We have been working to get a checkbox to get better data about our community for decades.”
By allowing respondents on government forms to list their country of origin when answering a question about their race or ethnicity, the proposals encourage the collection of more detailed race and ethnicity information. They also recommend removing the words “Negro,” “Far East,” and “majority” and “minority” from federal government forms, claiming that they can be considered derogatory or outdated, and that the standards must be “respectful of how people refer to themselves.”
According to the Federal Register notice, the need to update the standards was motivated by increasing racial and ethnic diversity, a growing number of people who identify as more than one race or ethnicity, and changing immigration and migration patterns.
The working group stated that their proposals are preliminary and do not yet reflect the official standards of the federal government because they will be worked out with public input until mid-April. The goal is to ensure that “the standards better reflect the diversity of the American people,” according to Karin Orvis, the United States’ chief statistician, in a blog post.
“As we consider these recommendations, we want to hear directly from the American people,” Orvis said.