White House Announces Big Changes for Race and Ethnicity Data Collection

Sunita Sohrabji | Ethnic Media Services

The White House March 28 morning rolled out new standards for race and ethnicity data collection, including for the first time Middle Easterners and North Africans — MENA — as a racial category.

The changes in reclassification of several communities were rolled out by the Biden Administration’s Office of Management and Budget. The changes to Directive 15 require federal agencies to use one combined question for race and ethnicity, and encourages respondents to select multiple options on how they identify. Advocates say the granular data will help determine the allocation of federal funds, and could impact redistricting. The standards have not been changed since 1997.

The MENA community has long been miscategorized as White in data collection. Rachel Evans, one of several activists who spearheaded a petition to get federal reclassification, told Ethnic Media Services she was delighted by the news.

“Today’s announcement from the Biden administration is monumental. Everyone in the US who identifies as MENA should be visible in demographic data collection and reporting methods across all government agencies,” she said.

“The MENA community has long stood to benefit from increased access to resources designed to improve health care, education, economic development and political representation. Inclusion is impactful, significant and uplifting,” said Evans, youth program manager at Somali Family Service.

AB 2763, the California MENA Inclusion Act, introduced by California State Assembly member Bill Essayli, proposes a similar reclassification at the state level.

The Arab American Institute said it welcomed the new category, but was disappointed that Black Arabs and Armenian Americans have been excluded. AAI Executive Director Maya Berry said in a statement that the exclusion would lead to an under-count of Arab Americans, the largest segment of the MENA community. She noted that the reclassification was a result of four decades of advocacy.

The new changes include a reclassification of Asian Americans that would include individuals with origins in Central or East Asia, Southeast Asia, or South Asia. Chinese, Asian Indian, Filipino, Vietnamese, Korean, and Japanese are listed. Those of other Asian origins — such as Hmong, Thai, Pakistani and others — would write in their country of origin. This allows agencies like the Census to report a more accurate picture of the Asian American population.

The new standards also redefine Native Hawaiians or Pacific Islanders, broadening the category to include those with origins in Hawaii, Guam, Samoa, or other Pacific Islands, including, for example, Native Hawaiian, Samoan, Chamorro, Tongan, Fijian, and Marshallese.

Native Americans are now redefined as American Indian or Alaska Native. Black people are now listed as Black or African American. And Latinx people are listed as Hispanic or Latino.

Agencies that collect federal data are required to begin implementing the changes within 18 months and finalize their methods within 5 years. OMB is establishing an Interagency Committee on Race and Ethnicity Statistical Standards, convened by the Office of the U.S. Chief Statistician, that will maintain and carry out a government-wide research agenda and undertake regular reviews of Directive 15.

John C. Yang, President and Executive Director of Advancing Justice – AAJC, said: “We are pleased that OMB has listened to advocacy groups like Advancing Justice – AAJC and revised their standards to reflect those recommendations, which includes requiring data disaggregation, a combined question about race and ethnicity, and the addition of a MENA category. This is something we have been advocating for extensively for more than a decade.”

AANHPI advocates have long advocated for a disaggregation of data, with particular regards to health outcomes.

The White House Initiative on Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders said in a statement: “For too long, federal data collection and reporting practices have often failed to measure, reflect, and disaggregate the diversity of Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander experiences. And they have historically contributed to painful and enduring ‘model minority’ stereotypes while erasing the unique needs within AA and NHPI communities, which include dozens of distinct ethnic groups that speak over 100 different languages and dialects.”

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