Biden administration proposes revisions to race and ethnicity in U.S. Census

New checkboxes for Puerto Rican, Cuban, Colombian, Middle Eastern and North African Americans could arrive with the 2030 U.S. Census.

The 2020 U.S. Census on March 19, 2020. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

The Biden administration announced major revisions to the race and ethnicity categories in the U.S. Census on Thursday, allowing for better representation and visibility for Hispanic, Latino, Middle Eastern and North African communities. These proposed changes have garnered major support from USC students and faculty alike.

The proposal includes reformatting race and ethnicity questions to include “Middle Eastern or North African,” removing the terms “majority” and “minority,” and adding more specific categories of race to the five current ones: American Indian or Alaska Native; Asian; Black or African American; Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander; and white.

Nidya Hurado, a freshman studying international relations, remarked that her early experiences with reporting her race and ethnicity were perplexing to navigate.

“In my own personal experience, sometimes selecting a race would be hard for me, because I would identify with nothing really. I wasn’t white, I’m not Black, I am Indigenous,” Hurado said. “But the only thing close to that was Native American and I was not Native American. So it’s always hard to pick which one.”

One revision would include the selection options for Puerto Rican, Cuban and Colombian individuals who previously had to choose one of the  general “Hispanic or Latino” boxes. Hurado believes that the new format would better reflect Hispanic or Latino individuals’ distinct identities in the U.S.

“I think [the new categories] would help for further research representing us instead of having it just be broad,” Hurado said. “It’s not really going to support that demographic of people if you don’t have a specific category for them.”

Evelyn Alstuny, a professor of American Studies and Ethnicity at USC, explained in an emailed statement to Annenberg Media that activists have been pushing for more specific ethnicity options in the U.S. census for decades.

“Arab American groups, like the Arab American Institute, have been lobbying for Census recognition since the 1990s,” Alstuny said. “Without a box, we do not have access to federal funding or protection that would allow for more equitable health, education, and political representation.”

If the proposed “Middle Eastern or North African” (MENA) checkbox were approved by the Biden Administration, it would change the OMB’s definition of “white” established in 1997. The category currently encompasses anybody with origins in Europe, the Middle East or North Africa.

Eryn Burnett, a graduate student in the Masters of Healthcare Administration program, said the 1997 definition could incorrectly identify those from the MENA community as white.

“I think it’s interesting that they were previously included under ‘white’ because obviously, they’re not white. So it’s very weird to me that that was the original way that it was set up,” Burnett said. “I would support this new change, because I feel like people should be able to say exactly who they are and how they identify themselves — culturally, racially [and] ethnically,”

Alturney expands on this view, stating that the MENA community is “made invisible by checking the white box while [they] are racialized as threats to national security.”

Linda Zbinden, a doctoral student of American studies and ethnicity, also believes the proposed changes will result in tangible political and cultural progress for the MENA community.

“We face a lot of systemic, interpersonal and social violence and discrimination,” Zbinden said. “And without a census category, there’s no way to track that. There’s no way to track hate crimes after the Muslim ban or after 911. There’s no way to allocate resources to refugees or to working class or poor communities.”

Burnett said she prefers an option to self-select her racial or ethnic identity instead of the census simply expanding to more categories to choose from.,

“I know that’s not the most efficient, with the way that the programs and the systems are typically created,” Burnett said. “But, I think that would be really great.”

The lack of specific racial categories in the U.S. Census affects more than just representation in numbers. According to the U.S. Census website, census results inform how over $675 billion of government funds are distributed every year. The data from sex, ethnicity, age and race influence how government funds are distributed.

A study by the Frontiers in Public Health found that Arab Americans are a historically understudied group in the U.S., and their health needs and risks have been poorly documented due to a lack of documented data by the US census.

If the Office of Management and Budget implements these changes, people who identify as Middle Eastern, North African, Puerto Rican, Cuban and Colombian will see themselves on the next decennial census form in 2030.