Advocacy groups split on U.S. Census demographic update that adds new ethnic and racial categories

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Groups are split on the U.S. Census’ new standards for collecting data on race and ethnicity represents populations — the first change in such demographic collection since 1997. While some question the accuracy of the revision, many agree it’s a step in the right direction.

The White House’s Office of Management and Budget last week announced that the 2030 Census and other government statistical forms will ask a combined race and ethnicity question.

Forms will now include the option to check off Middle Eastern or North African (MENA), for a total of seven categories that include: American Indian or Alaska Native; Asian; Black or African American; Hispanic or Latino; Middle Eastern or North African; Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander; and White.

Thomas A. Saenz, the president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), said these changes are “long overdue” and will decrease use of the “other race” category for millions of Latine people who did not feel represented in the previous format.

“Racial ‘classifications’ of the Latino community are at best ill-informed and at worst exploitatively manipulative,” Saenz said in a statement. “This jurisprudence exemplifies how important it is that the OMB continue to work to get it right, building on and improving the positive steps taken.”

In a statement, the Census Bureau said the updates would more accurately and usefully represent the ethnic and racial diversity of the U.S. population in censuses and surveys. But some civil rights groups think the revisions fall short.

The Arab American Institute (AAI) welcomed the changes but said the new category “fails to capture the full diversity” of the community.

“AAI is deeply troubled by OMB’s narrow definition of MENA communities,” the organization said in a statement. “In a troubling move, the new standards deny the racial diversity of the Arab American community by excluding Black Arabs and defining MENA without one of its largest populations, Armenian Americans.”

AAI said the addition of the new category is a win that comes after more than four decades of the Arab American community organizing, but said more detailed data is still needed.

“The new standards will have a lasting impact on communities for generations to come, particularly Arab Americans, whose erasure in federal data collection will finally cease,” AAI executive director Maya Berry said in a statement. “However … we are concerned about the erasure of a key segment of our community and the very real possibility of continued undercounts.”

Andrea Senteno, a MALDEF regional counsel in Washington D.C., said the combined question is a necessary first step to accurately collect race and ethnicity data after “dramatic shifts” in U.S. population since the late 90s.

“However, these changes needed to be accompanied by further research, outreach, and consultation … to ensure that all populations are accurately and completely counted and reflected in federal data,” Senteno said. “The implementation of a combined question must provide ample signaling to respondents … to elicit complete and accurate responses from all Latinos, especially Afro-Latino respondents.”

Since the announcement, federal agencies have been instructed to update their surveys and administrative forms “as quickly as possible” by producing an action plan within 18 months to fully implement the changes in five years — though many programs are expected to begin much sooner, officials said.

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