The Race Question

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OMB proposal to revise its racial and ethnic categories may better reflect America’s changing demographics.

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Imagine you are filling out your U.S. Census form. A question comes along asking you to identify your race or ethnicity. You could casually check a box, or you could ponder your identity. How do you respond?

The White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is seeking comments on a proposal to revise its federal standards on race and ethnicity. The prominent issues under review are the creation of a Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) classification and the separation of the questions used to measure race and ethnicity. Creating the MENA classification would form a “new” racial group, for the purposes of federal data collection, while the bifurcation of questions to measure ethnicity would affect the “Hispanic or Latino” designation.

Aside from budget development, OMB is responsible for overseeing federal agencies’ information management, which includes data collection on race and ethnicity.

OMB’s standards are currently comprised of six racial and ethnic designations: “American Indian or Alaska Native,” “Asian,” “Black or African American,” “Hispanic or Latino,” “Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander,” and “White.” OMB posits that a revision to its standards may be warranted because the U.S. population has continued to become more racially and ethnically diverse since OMB’s last revision of these standards in 1997.

Moreover, the federal government has used racial and ethnic data for policy and legal reasons, including civil rights monitoring and enforcement covering areas such as employment, voting rights, housing and mortgage lending, and educational opportunities. Revisions to OMB’s standards may have social and economic implications in such policy areas.

For example, the “White” racial category currently includes individuals having origins in parts of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa. During OMB’s last revision of its standards in 1997, stakeholders wrestled with whether an “Arab/Middle Eastern” category should be added and whether it should be based on language, geography, or other identifying criteria.

Mike Gonzalez, a senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation, asserts that race and ethnicity are best understood by scientists and anthropologists and that OMB should abstain from synthetically conjuring up races or ethnicities.

Gonzalez argues that a potential MENA category is ambiguous because it groups together ethnically distinct groups of people such as Arabs, Persians, and Israelis. He asserts that aggregating individuals with such different cultural indicators would not meet the needs or realize the potential of different Americans.

However, OMB declares that the proposal is not seeking to make ontological or biological pronouncements about race and ethnicity; instead, the standards proposed are “social-political constructs” that should not be interpreted as being scientific or anthropological in nature.

Gonzalez also maintains that a combined racial and ethnic question would force all Latin Americans to identify only as “Hispanic,” thereby pigeonholing them into a single group despite many racial and cultural differences among them. He further argues that racial classifications, in general, divide Americans along racial and ethnic lines, obfuscating what should be a single “American” identity.

Still, the proposal has its supporters, as well. Germine Awad, Associate Professor in the Department of Educational Psychology at The University of Texas at Austin, supports adding a MENA category to OMB standards because many individuals of MENA descent feel that their current inclusion in the “White” category is not an accurate reflection of their identity.

Awad also believes there is insufficient national data to ascertain the level of discrimination that occurs against individuals of MENA descent. Including a MENA category, she reasons, would help identify MENA individuals who are victims of discrimination. Moreover, inclusion of the MENA category, Awad contends, will allow for the collection of data in areas such as educational and health disparities, hate crimes, and business loan allocation.

Currently, when federal agencies collect information about race and ethnicity from respondents, they are permitted to use either a two-question format or a combined format. The two-question format allows race and ethnicity to be collected separately, with the racial designations being “American Indian or Alaska Native,” “Asian,” “Black or African American,” “Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander,” and “White.” Meanwhile, the ethnicity designations are either “Hispanic or Latino” and “Not Hispanic or Latino.” Respondents may select one or more racial or ethnic classifications, but cannot select both the “Hispanic or Latino” and “Not Hispanic or Latino” category.

The combined format, on the other hand, links both the race and ethnicity categories by including “Hispanic or Latino,” leaving out the “Not Hispanic or Latino” option. Based on a study conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, OMB suggests that a combined question approach may better reflect how Hispanic or Latino respondents view themselves.

OMB reasons that a combined question may be preferred because nearly half of Hispanic or Latino respondents do not identify with any of the standard’s current race categories. Further, the number of people who do not identify with any of the standard’s race categories is expected to increase pursuant to the projected steady growth of the Hispanic or Latino population. OMB also states Hispanic and Latino respondents sometimes have difficulty understanding OMB’s definitions of race and ethnicity.

Individuals often use the terms “race” and “ethnicity” interchangeably; however, for federal reporting purposes, there are key differences between the two terms. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, which bases its decennial census on OMB’s race and ethnicity standards, OMB’s racial definitions reflect a “social definition of race” and include national origin or sociocultural groups. Notably, this “social definition” denotes that “Hispanic” is not a race. That is, people who identify as Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish may be of any race, including White, Black, and Native Indian.

OMB does not define ethnicity, but one scholar argues that ethnicity is more associated with cultural markers, such as language, food, and music. The proposal would nonetheless bind ethnicity and race into a single category.

Thus, a combined question approach, which would allow respondents to see all of the possible categories in a single coherent list, would make it easier for individuals who identify as Hispanic or Latino to more accurately choose their race or ethnicity, as OMB suggests.

The comment period for possible revision of these standards ended October 31.