New race, ethnicity categories proposed for census, federal surveys The Biden administration is proposing that the U.S. census and federal surveys change how Latinos are asked about their race and ethnicity and add a checkbox for "Middle Eastern or North African."

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

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The Biden administration is proposing two major changes to the 2030 census. If approved, these changes could transform how Latinos and people of Middle Eastern or North African descent are counted in statistics across the U.S. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang is here to explain. Hey, Hansi.


SHAPIRO: It seems like just yesterday we were talking about the 2020 census. What are these proposed changes for 2030?

WANG: We are talking about two new checkboxes on census forms as well as other federal surveys - one for Middle Eastern or North African and another box for Hispanic or Latino. And they would appear alongside boxes for other categories, like American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Black, Pacific Islander and white. And you would still be able to check off as many boxes as you identify with, but what would be new is that all of those boxes would be under a new kind of question. If you remember the 2020 form, what that looked like, there were two separate questions about race and ethnicity. These new check boxes would be under a combined question about a person's race or ethnicity.

SHAPIRO: Explain the impact of that. What kind of a difference could it make in how Latinos and people of Middle Eastern or North African descent are counted in this country?

WANG: Well, many Latinos have had a hard time answering census and federal survey questions about their race that don't include a checkbox for Hispanic or Latino. And it's because the federal government recognizes Latino as ethnicity that can be of any race. But research by the Census Bureau shows that asking about race or ethnicity in one combined question on forms - that could help Latinos more accurately report their identities.

And as for adding a Middle Eastern or North African checkbox, that's been - there's been a decades-long campaign for a checkbox like that by advocates for Arab Americans and other MENA groups because right now, the U.S. government officially categorizes people with origins in places like Lebanon, Iran and Egypt as white. And research has shown a lot of people with MENA origins in the U.S. don't see themselves as white. I talked to Maya Berry, executive director of the Arab American Institute and one of the leading advocates for a MENA checkbox, and I asked why having a checkbox on a federal survey or census form is such a big deal.

MAYA BERRY: We will, for the first time ever, be able to get to a place of understanding where our community is, better meet its needs. And we're talking about things from, you know, basic health care needs, health research on the community, English as a second language program, where our schools go in, political representation. It's extraordinary how much the decennial census and the data collected from it impacts individual lives.

SHAPIRO: OK - so clearly a lot at stake here. Hansi, are there also broader implications that could come along with these changes?

WANG: We know these proposals are all part of potential revisions to federal data standards that have not been updated since 1997. That's more than a quarter-century ago, and the way the country thinks about the social constructs that are race and ethnicity have certainly changed since then. So any approved changes to those standards could really reset the national conversation about race.

SHAPIRO: And what are the next steps for these proposals to become reality?

WANG: Right now these are, again, just early proposals from a group of career civil servants. And the White House Office of Management and Budget is asking for feedback from members of the public to send in that feedback by mid-April, they say. And a final decision on these proposals by OMB, Office of Management and Budget, is expected by summer 2024.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Hansi Lo Wang. Thanks a lot.

WANG: You're welcome, Ari.

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