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New 'Latino' and 'Middle Eastern or North African' checkboxes proposed for U.S. forms

New proposals by the Biden administration would change how the U.S. census and federal surveys ask Latinos about their race and ethnicity and add a checkbox for "Middle Eastern or North African" to those forms.
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New proposals by the Biden administration would change how the U.S. census and federal surveys ask Latinos about their race and ethnicity and add a checkbox for "Middle Eastern or North African" to those forms.

Updated April 7, 2023 at 11:06 AM ET

The Biden administration is proposing major changes to forms for the 2030 census and federal government surveys that would transform how Latinos and people of Middle Eastern or North African descent are counted in statistics across the United States.

A new checkbox for "Middle Eastern or North African" and a "Hispanic or Latino" box that appears under a reformatted question asking for a person's race or ethnicity are among the early recommendations announced in a Federal Register notice, which was made available on Jan. 26 for public inspection ahead of its official publication.

If approved, the changes would address longstanding difficulties many Latinos have had in answering a question about race that does not include a response option for Hispanic or Latino, which the federal government recognizes only as an ethnicity that can be of any race.

The reforms would also mark a major achievement for advocates for Arab Americans and other MENA groups who have long campaigned for their own checkbox. While the U.S. government currently categorizes people with origins in Lebanon, Iran, Egypt and other countries in the MENA region as white, many people of MENA descent do not identify as white people. In addition to a new box on forms, the proposal would change the government's definition of "White" to no longer include people with MENA origins.

Research by the Census Bureau suggests both the addition of a "Middle Eastern or North African" box and a combined question about race and ethnicity could decrease the number of people who identify as white for the national head count.

The recommendations come from a group of career civil servants who have been reviewing how to make data produced by the U.S. government better reflect the country's diversity. The last update to the standards on racial and ethnic data that the Census Bureau and other federal agencies must follow, in addition to any related federal laws, took place in 1997.

"It's important to remember that the recommendations are preliminary—not final—and they do not represent the positions of OMB or the agencies participating on the Working Group," stressed Karin Orvis — U.S. chief statistician within the White House Office of Management and Budget, which sets statistical standards for the federal government — in a blog post.

Biden officials revived this multiyear review effort, which began in 2014, after it was stalled by former President Donald Trump's administration. That delay blocked the bureau from carrying out long-awaited changes to the 2020 census form that the agency's research found were likely to improve the accuracy of the racial and ethnic data used to redraw voting districts and enforce civil rights protections, as well as guide policymaking and research.

Other preliminary recommendations by the working group of civil servants include requiring more federal agencies to ask for detailed responses about people's identities, such as "Chinese," "German," "Jamaican," "Lebanese," "Mexican" or "Samoan."

Another proposal would remove outdated language from the government's current racial and ethnic data policy, including "Negro" as a term to describe the "Black" category and "Far East" to describe a geographic region of origin for people of Asian descent. The terms "majority" and "minority" would also no longer be used, echoing a move the Census Bureau announced in 2021 to better describe the country's changing demographics.

The working group is also asking for suggestions about how federal surveys can gather data on the descendants of enslaved people originally from Africa, including feedback on whether "American Descendants of Slavery," "American Freedman" or another term would best describe this group.

Any revisions to the federal data standards are expected to spur far-reaching changes to how many state and local governments and private institutions generate their racial and ethnic data.

The Office of Management and Budget is expected to make a final decision on the working group's proposals by summer 2024.

Until then, OMB is asking for members of the public to weigh in with their feedback, which the working group says will be factored into their final recommendations. On April 7, OMB announced that the original deadline for public comments has been extended by 15 days to April 27.

"It took decades to get here"

The rollout of these preliminary proposals was met with relief from many census watchers who had expected a similar set of recommendations to be enacted ahead of the 2020 count before Trump officials halted the review process.

"These proposals will help ensure federal data accurately reflects the diversity of our nation — and I urge OMB to adopt them quickly following the public comment period," Democratic Sen. Gary Peters of Michigan, who chairs the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said in a written statement.

For Maya Berry, executive director of the Arab American Institute, the working group's proposal for a "Middle Eastern or North African" checkbox was news she and other advocates have long pushed to hear.

"I'm ecstatic. It took decades to get here," Berry says. "We've always said we're not looking to a government form to give us our identity. But when there is no aspect of anyone's life that is not touched by census data and your community is rendered invisible in the data when you cannot get an accurate count about it, I think it's pretty extraordinary to understand that this initial real estate on the census form is a big deal."

Arturo Vargas, another longtime census watcher who leads the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund, says changing how the census and federal surveys ask Latinos about their race and ethnicity is "long overdue."

"I wish the Biden administration had started work on this much earlier in the administration," Vargas adds. "The good thing is that they're not starting from zero because what they're doing is reigniting a process that was put on hold and based on extensive research and science and consultation with communities and organizations."

In these final two years of Biden's first term, the administration has been taking steps to carry out its calls for greater data equity, not only for people of color but also for LGBTQ people. On Jan. 24, the administration released a set of guidelines for federal agencies to expand their collection of data on sexual orientation, gender identity and sex characteristics.

But time is running out to make data policy changes, Vargas warns, adding there's a "small window of opportunity right now to make these significant, needed changes before the 2030 census," as plans for the next head count are set to be finalized by mid-decade.

As part of the recently passed government spending bill, Congress has asked the Census Bureau to report to lawmakers its "plan for implementing updated race and ethnicity questions for its surveys" and whether the agency believes more testing is needed.

Edited by: Benjamin Swasey

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Hansi Lo Wang (he/him) is a national correspondent for NPR reporting on the people, power and money behind the U.S. census.