A Middle Eastern and North African category could be added to U.S. federal surveys and censuses, and changes could be made to how Hispanics are able to self-identify, under preliminary recommendations released Thursday by the Biden administration in what would be the first update to race and ethnicity standards in a quarter century.
The federal government’s standards haven’t been changed since 1997, two decades after they were created as part of an effort to collect consistent race and ethnicity data across federal agencies when handling censuses, federal surveys and application forms for government benefits.
Questions about race and Hispanic ethnicity are asked separately using the 1997 standards. They would be combined into a single question under the initial proposals, which were made by a working group of representatives from different federal agencies convened by the Office of Management and Budget.
Some advocates have been pushing for combining the race and Hispanic origin questions, saying the way race is categorized often confuses Hispanic respondents who are not sure how to answer. Tests by the Census Bureau in the 2010 census showed that combining the questions yielded higher response rates.
Using the 1997 standards, U.S. residents from Middle Eastern and North African countries were encouraged to identify as “white.” Under the new proposal, there would be a separate category for people often referred to by the “MENA” acronym. The Census Bureau recommended adding a MENA category to the 2020 census form, but the Trump administration dropped the idea.
According to a Federal Register notice from the Biden administration that will be published Friday, research suggests that many MENA respondents view their identity as distinct from white — and for over 30 years, stakeholders have advocated for collecting MENA information separate from the census’s “white” category.
Among the countries of origin that would get a check for the MENA category would be Lebanon, Iran, Egypt, Syria, Morocco and Israel, the notice said.
“This is a really big deal,” said Maya Berry, executive director of the Arab American Institute, a Washington-based civil rights group. “We have been working to get a checkbox to get better data about our community for decades.”
The proposals encourage the collection of more detailed race and ethnicity information by allowing respondents on government forms to list their country of origin when answering a question about their race or ethnicity. They also recommend striking from federal government forms the words “Negro,” “Far East” — and the use of the terms “majority” and “minority,” saying they can be considered pejorative or outdated, and that the standards need to be “respectful of how people refer to themselves.”
The need to update the standards was driven 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, according to the Federal Register notice.
The working group said their proposals were preliminary and that they don’t yet reflect the official standards of the federal government since they will continue to be hashed out with input from the public, which has until mid-April to submit comments. The goal is to ensure that that “the standards better reflect the diversity of the American people,” Karin Orvis, the U.S. chief statistician, said in a blog post.
“As we consider these recommendations, we want to hear directly from the American people,” Orvis said.
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