US Government Rethinking Race, Ethnicity Classifications

    17 March 2023

    The United States is considering updating racial and ethnic categories recognized in the country for the first time since 1997. The government's Office of Management and Budget (OMB) plans to decide on the new categories next year. It is holding three meetings open to the public this week to discuss the issue.

    Supporters of the proposed changes say the new categories will help the government get more exact information about the country's population.

    The changes would create a new category for people of Middle Eastern and North African ancestry, also known by the acronym MENA. They are now classified as white but say they have been undercounted. Another change would combine questions about race and ethnicity into one.

    Nyhiem Way, of Athens, Ga., poses for a portrait on Thursday, March 9, 2023, in Athens. Changes to how people are identified on surveys and censuses based on race and ethnicity have been proposed by the federal government. (AP Photo/Alex Slitz)
    Nyhiem Way, of Athens, Ga., poses for a portrait on Thursday, March 9, 2023, in Athens. Changes to how people are identified on surveys and censuses based on race and ethnicity have been proposed by the federal government. (AP Photo/Alex Slitz)

    With the changes, the government would try to get more detailed answers by asking about country of origin.

    Besides helping to give a picture of the U.S. population, the categories are used to enforce civil rights, voting rights and employment discrimination laws.

    The U.S. Census Bureau studies the population. It carries out a count every 10 years and collects other information about the country's people. The study includes questions about race and ethnicity and must follow OMB definitions of such.

    Currently, it includes five categories of race. They include White, Black or African American, American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, and Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander.

    The most recent Census study was in 2020. The Census Bureau website states that the categories "generally reflect a social definition of race recognized in this country." And the agency notes that "People may choose to report more than one race to indicate their racial mixture."

    Public comments

    The OMB has collected more than 4,300 comments about the possible changes.

    Shalini Parekh wrote that she wants a way for South Asian people to identify themselves differently than East Asians from places like China or Japan. She said that when these groups are put into only one category, it is harder to identify issues that relate to one group but not another.

    Nyhiem Way said he is tired of people mixing the terms African American and Black. He and others want to distinguish descendants of enslaved people from black immigrants from Africa who were not enslaved.

    Mixing "African American" with "Black" has "blurred what it means to be an African American in this country," he said.

    Way works for a pharmaceutical company in Athens, Georgia, and spoke about the issue in a telephone interview.

    However, some people disagree with expanding categories and classifications. They say that could weaken the idea of a single American identity and increase separation between groups.

    "By creating and deepening sub-national identities, the government further contributes to the decline of one national American identity," wrote Mike Gonzalez, an expert at The Heritage Foundation, a research and education group based in Washington, D.C. He commented on the OMB web page seeking public opinions on the proposed changes.

    Byron Haskins is a retired government worker from Lansing, Michigan. He suggests the U.S. stop using racial and ethnic identifications. Haskins says the practice supports the continuation of "deeply rooted unjust" social systems and ideas.

    Instead, he said people should be able to identify themselves as they wish.

    "You need to search for the truth and not just stay with the old categories because someone decided, ‘That is what we decided,'" Haskins said.

    But Houda Meroueh thinks that having more categories could be helpful. She described herself as a 73-year-old Arab American woman.

    "When I go to the doctor's office, I do not feel they have the information necessary to understand my medical history or my culture," she said. "For all these reasons I want to be counted as who I am. Not as white."

    I'm Andrew Smith.

    Mike Schneider reported this story for The Associated Press. Andrew Smith adapted the story for Learning English.


    Words in This Story

    category -n. a classification or grouping with members that share certain characteristics

    distinguish -v. to see or understand the difference between two or more things

    blur -v. to make something appear unclear

    interview -n. a discussion where one person asks another person questions, usually for an official purpose

    contribute -v. to add to

    decline -n. the weakening or diminishing of something