A North African man looks into a broken mirror with a serious expression on his face.
Image credit: Fares Hamouche on unsplash.com

For the first time in 27 years, the US Census is changing how it categorizes people by race and ethnicity. But will the changes more appropriately capture the country’s diverse tapestry of people? Though federal officials are making changes to develop what they believe is a more accurate count of US residents who identify as “Hispanic or Latino” as well as “Middle Eastern and North African,” some advocates argue that the new approach misses the mark.

The census, which is included in Article I of the Constitution of the United States, sends field representatives to peoples’ homes to ask questions about their households and collect demographic data. In-person data collection is supplemented with phone calls and mailed surveys. The Census Bureau also includes surveys that address specific issues such as health records, consumerism, or entrepreneurship.

Will the changes [to the census] more appropriately capture the country’s diverse tapestry of people?

According to the bureau, “[t]he results of the census help determine how hundreds of billions of dollars in federal funding, including grants and support to states, counties and communities are spent every year for the next decade. It helps communities get [their] fair share for schools, hospitals, roads, and public works.” Additionally, census data are used by health justice organizations to gather vital information on underrecognized populations.

Therefore, the racial and ethnic categories included within census data are crucial for addressing the needs of different communities. However, since race is a social construct, and therefore malleable, the US Census has approached the race question differently over time.

Though the census is inherently scientific and political, for many, it can be personal too. In an Associated Press article, Meeta Anand, senior director for census & data equity at The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said, “You can’t underestimate the emotional impact that this has on people.” Anand added, “It’s how we conceive ourselves as a society….You are seeing a desire for people to want to self-identity and be reflected in data so they can tell their own stories.”

How Racial Categories Will Appear on the Next Census

There are two important changes concerning race and ethnicity that will appear in the next US Census, which will begin in 2030. They include:

  • Combining Race and Ethnicity

Previous versions of the Census included a question on ethnicity (“Are you of Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin?”) followed by a question on race (“What is your race?”). The separate questions could be confusing for Latinx respondents, who would often affirm their Latin ethnicity, but choose “Some other race” for the question on race or simply leave it blank.

“It’s how we conceive ourselves as a society.”

The race and ethnicity questions will now be combined into a single question: “What is your race and/or ethnicity?” This change will allow people to choose multiple categories across what have traditionally been considered races and ethnicities. For instance, someone could now simultaneously choose “White,” “Black,” “Native American” and “Hispanic or Latino.” The change is meant to encourage people who identify as “Hispanic or Latino” to more appropriately answer questions regarding race.

However, this new way of understanding race and ethnicity could lead to the erasure of the Afro-Latinx population. Tanya Katerí Hernández, writing for the Hill, says that while the revised question “is not technically naming Latino as a race,” “inserting ‘Hispanic/Latino’ as a category commensurate with ‘Black’…situates blackness as foreign to Latino identity.” Hernández also points out that the definition of “Black or African American” on the census form—which will now say “Individuals with origins in any of the Black racial groups of Africa, including, for example, African American, Jamaican, Haitian, Nigerian, Ethiopian, and Somali”—further exacerbates the erasure of the Afro-Latinx community by excluding “majority Black nations in Latin America like the Dominican Republic and Cuba.” The revised questionnaire and examples to be included in the 2030 census, according to Hernández, further reinforces the concept that the “Black category is only meant for non-Latinos.”

According to NPR, recent research affirms this concern since “about half of participants in a recent study for OMB [Office of Management and Budget] selected only the ‘Hispanic or Latino’ box when presented with a combined question after previously selecting both the Latino and Black categories.”

  • The Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) Category

The latest version of the census will also add a new response category, Middle Eastern and North African, also referred to as MENA. The MENA category is designed to give visibility to a group of people who have gone largely unrecognized within US data ecosystems. Without a specific MENA category, the people descendent from these regions would often check the box for “White” or “Some other race.”

In fact, many of the groups that will now be included within the MENA category were previously defined by the US Census Bureau as White. As Florida state representative Anna Eskamani, whose family is from Iran, told the Associated Press, “It feels good to be seen.…Growing up, my family would check the ‘white’ box because we didn’t know what other box reflected our family. Having representation like that, it feels meaningful.”

Changes to the US Census…will inevitably continue to shape the health data landscape.

Some advocates have argued that while including MENA as a racial/ethnic category is a good step forward, there are more accurate groupings to consider. For instance, as an alternative to MENA, there has been a push to categorize people of these regions as Southwest Asian and North African or SWANA; SWANA is seen as preferable because it removes “Middle East” which is a colonial term and includes groups in Southwest Asia. Accordingly, SWANA incorporates people who hail from Afghanistan, Turkey, Qatar, and Yemen, whose American experience is arguably closer to MENA groups than they are to other Asians.

The MENA category has also been criticized for creating a race within groups of people that are ethnically varied, transnational, and, according to the views of some, racially diverse. The inclusion of this category, the first new racial category to be added to the census since 1977, will inherently lower the number of US residents who identify as White.

Even though the new approach to the race question could be seen as a milestone for US data collection, these changes may have lingering, unintended effects despite the Census Bureau’s intentions. Only further research on the deployment of the new question and response categories will tell if the latest modifications will result in better or worse data on US residents. However, the changes also demonstrate an encouraging commitment to enhancing representation, which is likely to eventually yield improvements.

Impacts on the Health Data Landscape

Though it’s an imperfect tool, racial and ethnic categorizations allow us to understand how differential health outcomes, the prevalence of specific diseases, environmental health impacts, and other health and social justice relevant factors vary across the US population. Therefore, changes to the US Census have spillover effects on health data collection efforts, and will inevitably continue to shape the health data landscape.

According to NPR, the changes to data collection on race and ethnicity will create a “sea change” for federal agencies, as well as state and local governments, as they work to update their forms and databases in order to meet the new statistical standards. Federal agencies are expected to develop a public action plan to address the shifts in data collection by 2025 and align their data collection processes with the updated race/ethnicity question on the US Census by late March 2029.

The Census Bureau is also considering further measures—like a standing committee that provides guidance for encouraging people to check all the boxes that apply to their background—to ensure that the bureau’s statistics are accurate and complete. As we move forward, ongoing evaluation and adjustments will be essential to ensure that all populations are seen and heard, in turn fostering a more inclusive society.