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How The U.S. Defines Race And Ethnicity May Change Under Trump

The Trump administration is considering possible changes to how the U.S. government collects information about race and ethnicity.
Chelsea Beck
The Trump administration is considering possible changes to how the U.S. government collects information about race and ethnicity.

Updated Dec. 6

Some major changes may be coming to how the U.S. government collects data about the country's racial and ethnic makeup.

The Trump administration has been considering proposals to ask about race and ethnicity in a radical new way on the 2020 Census and other surveys that follow standards set by the White House.

Introduced when President Obama was still in office, the proposed changes could result in a fundamental shift in how the government counts the Latino population.

Another proposal would create a new checkbox on the census form for people with roots in the Middle East or North Africa, or MENA, which would be the first ethnic or racial category to be added in decades.

The White House's Office of Management and Budget was expected to release a decision on these proposals by Dec. 1, its self-imposed deadline. It's unclear now when an announcement may come out and how that timing may affect the Census Bureau's upcoming report to Congress on the final wording of the 2020 census questions. That report is due by the end of March 2018.

Any changes to the federal standards for race and ethnicity data could have far-reaching consequences on legislative redistricting, affirmative action, and the enforcement of the Voting Rights Act, Fair Housing Act and other anti-discrimination laws.

"Even though the standards may seem like this arcane, wonky subject matter, they actually affect all of us," says Ann Morning, a sociologist at New York University, who adds that the federal government's racial and ethnic categories are often adopted by other institutions. "We see them when we apply to schools. We see them when we go to the doctor's office. We see them all over the place."

Is "Hispanic or Latino" a race or an ethnicity?

Race and ethnicity are messy — too messy, perhaps, to fully capture in words. But since 1977, the U.S. government has distilled terms such as "white," "black" and "Hispanic" into standardized definitions that have stayed the same since 1997, the only time federal standards for race and ethnicity data have been updated.

These standards have established a base line for federal surveys that ask people to self-report their racial and ethnic identities. While surveys can collect more detailed information, they must at least ask essentially two questions. First, are you of Hispanic or Latino origin? Then, what is your race?

"People were pretty secure in how they filled out the Hispanic question," says Tomás Jiménez, a sociologist at Stanford University who has studied how Latinos have filled out the census. "But then when they got down to the race question and there's a set of options that lay out other ethnic groups and they don't see their own, they're just more or less confused."

Those options for race on the 2010 Census form ranged from broad racial groups like "white" and "American Indian or Alaska Native" to specific ethnic groups like "Filipino" and "Samoan." Many Latinos have either left the race question blank or checked off "some other race," which was the third-largest racial group reported in census results from 2000 and 2010.

To try to capture more accurate data in 2020, the Census Bureau has recommended combining the two questions into one, with "Hispanic or Latino" as an option for both race and ethnicity on the next census.

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?

The Census Bureau has researched how combining the Hispanic origin and race questions could affect responses. Its findings suggest that a combined question could decrease the white count in 2020.

"That would fuel some of the anxieties that are behind the white supremacist movement," says Morning, who advises the Census Bureau on race and ethnicity issues and supports changing the federal standards to allow a combined question.

She adds that any change in the size of the white population resulting from a combined question could signal shifting identities among some Latinos.

"In part that's going to be a reflection of there being a lot of people out there who are saying, 'You know, we just don't feel like we're being considered white. We don't feel we're treated that way. And so we're going to look for another way to describe ourselves,' " Morning says.

The "double-edged sword" of MENA

There's another group that may break away from checking off "white" on the 2020 Census if the White House approves a separate proposal.

Since the early 1990s, Helen Samhan, a co-founder of the Arab American Institute, has been campaigning for a new category for people of Middle Eastern or North African descent.

"It was really based on concerns that we had about our invisibility," she says. "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."

It is also, she adds, a case of bad timing to finally have a shot at seeing a checkbox for "MENA" on the next census just months after President Trump issued travel bans against MENA countries such as Iran, Libya, Syria and Yemen.

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.

Still, she supports adding "MENA" as a new ethnic category to the federal standards for race and ethnicity.

"We know that the data collection is still important for our integration into American society and civic participation," she says.

But creating a new checkbox does not necessarily mean anyone will fill it out.

"People could be reluctant to self-identify because of fears of government retaliation or fears that the data collected would be used for nefarious purposes," says Shayan Modarres, an attorney for the National Iranian American Council. "I think we leave it up to individuals in the community to decide what's best for them."

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Hansi Lo Wang (he/him) is a national correspondent for NPR reporting on the people, power and money behind the U.S. census.
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