Respect Equality

Proposed changes to census are step in the right direction, experts say

The creation of a MENA category and changes in how Latinos can self-identify will more equitably divvy up federal resources.
FILE – This Sunday, April 5, 2020, file photo, shows an envelope containing a 2020 census letter mailed to a U.S. resident in Detroit. A U.S. Census Bureau director couldn’t be fired without cause and new questions to the census form would have to be vetted by Congress under proposed legislation which attempts to prevent in the future the type of political interference into the nation’s head count that took place during the Trump administration. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya, File)

Story at a glance

  • Earlier this year, the Biden administration announced some proposed changes to the U.S. census.

  • Those changes include the addition of a Middle Eastern and North African category and asking Latinos about their race and ethnicity in the same question.

  • The changes could shift how the federal government distributes some of its funds.

As the Biden administration mulls a series of proposed changes to race and ethnicity categories on the census and other federal surveys, many experts agree that the proposed modifications will help Americans.  

Racial categories have been included in the census since 1790, when the United States government issued the first-ever census.  

That year, there were only three racial categories an American could fall under: “Free white males or free white females,” “slaves” or “all other free persons.” 

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Since then, census questions about race and ethnicity have changed roughly every decade as the nation’s makeup changed and the politics and science around race evolved, according to the Pew Research Center.  

But if the Biden administration chooses to adopt any of the proposed changes, it will be the first time the race and ethnicity standards have been updated in more than 25 years.  

And while making changes to race and ethnicity questions on the census may be complicated, experts agree that it is necessary to respond to an ever-changing country.  

“When you’re looking at changes over time, it makes things a little bit more complicated because the questions are not exactly the same as they were before,” said Bill Frey, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “But of course, society changes and I think government statistics need to sort of deal with that.” 

Some of the proposed modifications to racial standards include creating a Middle Eastern and North African category. Under the current standards set by the Office of Management and Budget, Americans with roots in the Middle East or North Africa are considered white.

That’s despite a study published last year finding that most people of Middle Eastern or North African (MENA) origins or heritage do not identify as white. The study found that the desire to be categorized as MENA instead of white was even more pronounced among Muslims.  

The push for a MENA category, in part, stems from decades of discrimination faced by those in the MENA community, especially post 9/11 — something the creation of a new racial category on the census can help fight against, said Ellis Monk, an associate professor of sociology at Harvard University.  

“Historically, the census categories and that data collection are really tied to things like civil rights enforcement and monitoring,” Monk said.

“So, when you add a category like MENA that opens up avenues for civil rights enforcement and other ways of legally protecting people against different forms of discrimination.”  

A MENA category on the census can help health researchers better identify health disparities in certain communities, or unmet linguistic needs, among many other things.  

The Biden administration is also proposing an overhaul of how data on Hispanics is collected in the census. Since 1997, race and Hispanic ethnicity questions have been asked separately on federal surveys and the census.  

Under the proposed changes, Hispanic ethnicity and race would be combined into one question. This could have a few consequences; it could provide more details on the origins of U.S. Hispanics, and it could change the racial and ethnic profile of Latinos, according to Mark Hugo Lopez, director of race and ethnicity research at The Pew Research Center.  

“Over the years, we’ve found that people want to be able to tell you who they are, and they need to have an opportunity to do so and that means to have a flexible way of asking people about their identity,” said Lopez.   

But while the proposed changes are step in the right direction, more could be done to better capture American identities, according to advocates.  

Some Asian American civil rights and advocacy groups have been calling for expanded subcategories for different Asian ethnicities.  

There are about 20 million people in the United States that trace their roots from more than 20 countries in East Asia, Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent, according to the Pew Research Center.  

And each Asian American community has its own set of needs that could better understood if the federal government further disaggregated data on Asian Americans by country of origin.  

On the 2020 Census, Asian Americans were given six ethnicity categories to choose from: Chinese, Filipino, Asian Indian, Vietnamese, Korean or Japanese. And if someone did not feel like any of those categories capture their ethnicity, they were given the option to mark “other Asian” and print the name of their ethnicity like Pakistani, Cambodian or Hmong.  

“The needs of the community are very great,” said John C. Yang. Executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Asian American Justice Center, a civil and human rights advocacy group. 

“So, by having more disaggregated data, and mandating that the federal government had that disaggregated data, we think that will lead to better results across the board for our country, and how the system responds to the needs of the community.” 

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