Posted on March 13, 2023

US Government Ponders the Meaning of Race and Ethnicity

Mike Schneider, Associated Press, March 13, 2023

Nyhiem Way is weary of people conflating African American and Black. Shalini Parekh wants a way for South Asian people to identify themselves differently than East Asians with roots in places like China or Japan. And Byron Haskins wants the U.S. to toss racial and ethnic labels altogether.


Way, Parekh and Haskins’ voices are among more than 4,600 comments pending before the Biden administration as it contemplates updating the nation’s racial and ethnic categories for the first time since 1997.


Some Black Americans want their ancestors’ enslavement recognized in how they are identified. Some Jewish people believe their identity should be seen as its own ethnic category and not only a religion. The idea of revising categories for ethnic and racial identities, both in the census and in gathering demographic information between head counts, have fueled editorials and think-tank essays as well as thousands of written comments by individuals in what is almost a Rorschach test for how Americans identify themselves.

The White House’s Office of Management and Budget is set to decide on new classifications next year {snip}


The proposed changes would create a new category for people of Middle Eastern and North African descent, also known by the acronym MENA, who are now classified as white but say they have been routinely undercounted.

The process also would combine the race and ethnic origin questions into a single query, because some advocates say the current method of asking about race and separately about ethnic origin often confuses Hispanic respondents. With the revisions, the government would try to get more detailed answers on race and ethnicity by asking about country of origin.

Another proposal recommends striking from federal government forms the words “Negro” and “Far East,” now widely regarded as pejorative. The terms “majority” and “minority” would also be dropped because some officials say they fail to reflect the nation’s complex racial and ethnic diversity.

Several Black Americans, like Way, whose ancestors were enslaved, said in public comments to the OMB that they would like to be identified in a category such as American Freedmen, Foundational Black Americans or American Descendants of Slavery to distinguish themselves from Black immigrants, or even white individuals born in Africa, as well as reflecting their ancestors’ history in the U.S.


Parekh is asking the government to distinguish South Asians from East Asians.

“When these groups are assessed together, one loses a lot of important granularity that can help differentiate issues that are specific to one group and not another,” Parekh said.

The MENA community appears to be having a related problem, based on several comments to OMB. Without its own category, the group’s political power is diluted. People could benefit from cohesive representation, especially if identities were taken into account in drawing political districts, advocates said.