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Some major changes may be coming to how the U.S. government collects data about who we are. The Trump administration is looking at proposals to ask about race and ethnicity in a radical new way on the census and in other surveys. A decision is expected by December, and that timing is raising concerns among some immigrants and communities of color. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang has our report.
HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Once a decade, the U.S. government asks us to fit our racial and ethnic identities into a box for the census.
Do you remember what box you checked?
JENNIFER BROWN: I don't feel mixed, so I always fill out white, Caucasian.
FRANKIE WYCHE: I put down Negro.
ANGELIQUE METIVIER: I identify as both black and white.
WANG: That was Jennifer Brown from the Bronx, Frankie Wyche of Brooklyn and Angelique Metivier of Meriden, Conn. Metivier says she's been checking off two boxes - both black and white - ever since the Census Bureau first allowed it back in 2000. But if she had it her way, she'd checked off even more boxes to reflect her ethnic identities.
METIVIER: What about the fact that my family is also French Canadian, Portuguese, you know? If we're going to talk about it, let's talk about the cultural and the ethnic aspects that we have instead of just color.
WANG: That's a change that may be coming with the 2020 census and other surveys that follow standards set by the White House for how federal agencies collect race and ethnicity data. Those rules say that whenever people are asked to self-report, they must be presented with two questions. First, are you of Hispanic or Latino origin? Then, what is your race?
TOMAS JIMENEZ: People were pretty secure in how they filled out the Hispanic question.
WANG: Tomas Jimenez, a sociologist at Stanford University, has studied how Latinos have filled out the census.
JIMENEZ: But when they got down to the race question and there's this set of options that lay out other ethnic groups and they don't see their own, they're just more or less confused.
WANG: Those options for a race on the last census back in 2010 ranged from broad racial groups like white and African-American to ethnic groups like Filipino and Samoan. Many Latinos checked off some other race. In fact that was the third largest racial group in 2000 and 2010. So the Census Bureau has recommended combining the two questions into one with Hispanic or Latino as an option for both race and ethnicity in 2020. But that proposal has raised a question about Hispanic people who in the past have checked off white for their race. Will they keep doing so if Hispanic is categorized as both a race and an ethnicity?
ANN MORNING: That's going to basically chip away in some sense at the official counts of the white population. And that would fuel some of the anxieties that are behind the white supremacist movement.
WANG: Ann Morning is a sociologist at New York University who advises the Census Bureau on race and ethnicity issues. She points to the bureau's research that suggests combining the Hispanic origin and race questions could lead to a smaller white count in 2020. There is another group that for the most part has identified as white on the census but may break away in 2020 if the White House approves a separate proposal.
HELEN SAMHAN: Some of us identify as white. Some of us identify as brown, black.
WANG: Helen Samhan is a co-founder of the Arab-American Institute. And since the early 1990s, she has been campaigning for a new category for people of Middle Eastern or North African descent.
SAMHAN: It was really based on concerns that we had about our invisibility. And now fast forward 25, 30 years, and it feels like there's a hypervisibility of our community. So it's really a double-edged sword.
WANG: The Census Bureau is not allowed to release any data identifying an individual. But Samhan says she's worried about what the Trump administration could do with data about specific populations for surveillance and other counterterrorism efforts. The White House is expected to announce a decision on these proposals by December 1. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News, New York.
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