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Monday, June 5, 2023
June 5, 2023

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Washington leaders say U.S. should change its race, ethnicity categories


The first time Roxana Norouzi was confronted with a box to check her race was while taking state tests in junior high.

Norouzi is Iranian American, which means that under federal guidelines, she’s often forced to check the “white” category, though that’s not how she identifies.

“It was like an experience of erasure to not be counted as something other than a white American,” said Norouzi, now executive director at OneAmerica, a Washington state nonprofit supporting refugee and immigrant communities.

The federal government is now considering updating its standards for collecting and presenting data on race and ethnicity for the first time since 1997. The White House is set to announce new classifications by summer 2024, with an interagency federal working group hosting virtual town halls this week to gather input on the proposed changes.

Organizers at Washington nonprofits serving immigrant communities say they support the proposed changes, noting they’ve been advocating for many of the revisions for years.

“We believe data is power and if we’re not counting our people, our community loses a lot of power,” Norouzi said. “If people are invisible, whole communities are invisibilized, we can’t get funding, we can’t direct policy.”

Some conservatives question the need to update the standards, arguing the creation of more categories sows further division in the country, weakening a shared national identity.

But proponents say an overhaul is long overdue.

Researchers and community advocates say current federal standards for collecting data on race and ethnicity fail to capture the nuance of identity, leading to a consistent undercounting of communities of color and a masking of disparities experienced by marginalized groups.

Among the suggested changes are a new category for people of Middle Eastern and North African, or MENA, descent who are currently classified as white.

The federal government is also considering merging the questions on race and ethnic origin into a single question to make it less confusing for Hispanic and Latino people. In test experiments during the 2010 census, the U.S. Census Bureau found people were to a combined question on race and Hispanic origin.

Organizers with the Washington Community Alliance, which led a 2020 Census outreach campaign to ensure communities of color were counted, found some Latino respondents pushed back on the existing questions regarding race.

“This was something that repeatedly came up, where people would say they don’t really identify with the term Hispanic” or identify as white, said Washington Community Alliance executive director Kamau Chege.

Also included in the proposed recommendations is removing the words “Negro” and “Far East” from federal government forms, which are widely considered offensive and outdated, as well as striking “other” from the “Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander” category. The terms “majority” and “minority” would also be discontinued, which some say fail to reflect the country’s changing demographics and could be construed as exclusionary.

A question about race has always existed in some form on the census, and has continued to evolve over the years, said University of Washington sociology professor Sara Curran, director of UW’s Center for Studies in Demography & Ecology.

“These categories change as communities form and identify themselves and become differentially meaningful over time, and we need to keep up with that,” Curran said.

A growing number of census respondents have selected the “some other race” category over the last 30 years, which is driving the current push to update standards, Curran said. The 2020 census results show that category surpassed African Americans as the country’s second-largest racial group.

“In order to be a good government, you have to know who you’re governing,” Curran said, “and that means you have to have a good system of collecting data about them.”

The federal government last overhauled its race and ethnicity data standards in 1997, acknowledging at the time that the categories represent a sociopolitical construct, rather than being biologically or genetically based. Census respondents could select more than one race for the first time in 2020.

The proposed changes to the federal guidelines would apply to all federal agencies collecting demographic data, including the National Center for Health Statistics, the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

That’s crucial to better understanding — and ultimately addressing — disparities and discrimination experienced by immigrant communities and people of color in housing, in school, in the criminal justice system and in the workforce, said Katie Walker, spokesperson with the Washington state chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

With federal data, it’s not clear “how many Middle Eastern people are struggling in education, or if we’re at a disadvantage when it comes to asking for help from the government,” said Rep. Darya Farivar, D-Seattle, who was the first Middle Eastern woman elected to the state Legislature.

The White House Office of Management and Budget will host two more virtual town hall events, one on Friday and one on Saturday, where participants can join via WebEx and Verizon to share feedback. The office is also hosting a consultation Thursday with tribal leaders.

People can submit written comments on the proposed changes to the office online by April 12.