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Biden officials may change how the U.S. defines racial and ethnic groups by 2024

The Biden administration is starting a process that could change how the U.S. census and federal surveys ask about people's racial and ethnic identities by 2024.
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The Biden administration is starting a process that could change how the U.S. census and federal surveys ask about people's racial and ethnic identities by 2024.

The Biden administration is taking steps that could change how the U.S. census and federal surveys produce racial and ethnic data that is used for redrawing voting districts, enforcing civil rights protections, policymaking and research.

The multiyear process is likely to carry out long-awaited data policy changes that will particularly affect how Latinos and people of Middle Eastern or North African descent are counted in statistics around the country.

In a blog post released Wednesday, Karin Orvis, U.S. chief statistician within the White House Office of Management and Budget, said the federal agency is starting a new formal review of the government's standards for statistics about race and ethnicity to help ensure they "better reflect the diversity of the American people."

The goal, Orvis added, is "completing the revision no later than Summer 2024," which would be months ahead of the next presidential election and in time for any changes to be incorporated into 2030 census plans.

"I understand the importance of moving quickly and with purpose. It is also important that we get this right," Orvis said in the post, noting that the process will include gathering input from federal agencies and members of the public.

A little-known part of the federal government, OMB is in charge of determining how the Census Bureau and all other agencies can ask about a person's racial and ethnic identities, as well as defining the checkboxes found on surveys.

First set in 1977, OMB's standards for racial and ethnic data were last revised in 1997 and have influenced how surveys across the U.S. generate demographic statistics.

A major overhaul was expected ahead of the 2020 census. But those efforts stalled during former President Donald Trump's administration despite years of research by the bureau suggesting that certain changes to the standards could improve the accuracy of statistics about Latinos and people with origins in the Middle East or North Africa.

Other proposals included no longer officially allowing the term "Negro" to be used to describe the "Black" category on federal surveysand taking out "Far East" from the standards as a description of a geographic region of origin for people of Asian descent.

Orvis noted that the new review will make use of past research, as well as the work of an earlier working group of career civil servants who were reviewing proposals to allow forms to ask about a person's Hispanic origins and race in a combined question and to include a checkbox for "Middle Eastern or North African."

Many Democrats in Congress have been calling for OMB to add a separate category for people of Middle Eastern or North African descent, whom the current standards classify as "White."

"Federal demographic data does not reflect the realities of MENA individuals and community-based organizations, which makes it increasingly difficult for advocates, researchers, agency officials, and policymakers to communicate, understand, and address community needs," wrote a group of Democratic members of the House Oversight and Reform Committee led by Rep. Carolyn Maloney of New York, the committee's chair, and Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan in a letter this week to the head of OMB.

The Biden administration has previously signaled that adding such a category would be a priority. Movement at OMB, however, has been slowed by the delayed confirmation of a new agency director and the hiring of a new chief statistician.

Asked by NPR why OMB decided to start a new review of its standards on racial and ethnic data instead of continuing its earlier review, OMB's press office did not answer directly and referred instead to Orvis' blog post.

Copyright 2022 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.
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