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U.S. Officials Order Better Tracking of a Political Flashpoint: America’s Diversity

The Biden administration ordered changes to a range of federal surveys on Thursday to gather more detailed information about the nation’s ethnic and racial makeup.

The changes — the first in decades to standard questions that the government asks about race and ethnicity — would produce by far the most detailed portrait of the nation’s ancestral palette ever compiled. And a new option will be available for the first time allowing respondents to identify as part of a new category, Middle Eastern or North African ancestry.

But the changes also have the potential to rankle conservatives who believe that the nation’s focus on diversity has already gone too far.

The revisions, released after 21 months of study and public comment, apply not just to the Census Bureau, but across the government, to forms as varied as the National Center for Health Statistics’ National Health Interview Survey and applications for Social Security cards. They take effect this month, but federal agencies will be allowed years to fully implement them.

Current surveys contain a separate option for people of ethnic Hispanic and Latino descent to claim that identity, followed by another question that offers multiple options for respondents to choose one or more races.

The changes consolidate those questions so that respondents may select any or all of seven racial and ethnicity categories that apply to them, including Hispanic or Latino ancestry.

Those seven choices would also include the new option allowing respondents to register Middle Eastern or North African ancestry. The Census Bureau estimates that about 3.5 million people fall into that category, all of whom are currently classified as white. But many do not see themselves that way, as an informal survey by The New York Times of about 5,300 U.S. residents with that heritage showed last month.

Even after selecting racial and ethnic identities, respondents would be able to dive deeply into their own backgrounds, choosing as many or as few sub-classifications as they liked from suggested nationalities, like German or Lebanese. People who found those insufficient would be able to write in still other nationalities or ethnicities.

American censuses have gathered personal information since the 1790s, but since 1977, surveys have specifically tracked basic race and ethnicity characteristics, originally to help enforce 1960s-era civil- and voting-rights laws. Save for one modification in 1997, the questions have remained largely unchanged until now.

Officials of the Office of Management and Budget, which oversaw the review of the current survey questions, said the changes were needed in part to make surveys more accurate. For example, respondents who separately identified themselves as Hispanic or Latino in the current surveys frequently overlooked choosing a racial identification in the questions that followed, something that may happen less often when all questions are consolidated in a single section.

The changes also are also expected to allow experts to better measure how various populations benefit from federal programs and services in areas like employment, health and education, they said.

The new questions build in part on the 2020 census, which gave white and African American respondents an option for the first time to write in additional ancestral information should they choose. To experts’ surprise, the number of respondents who were identified as having more than one race was second only to the number who identified as white.

When the Census Bureau’s Scientific Advisory Committee reviewed a draft of the latest changes in March 2023, one demographer, Rogelio Sáenz of the University of Texas at San Antonio, called the 2020 results “a wake-up call about what is going on in terms of the increasing racial and ethnic diversity of our nation’s population.”

“Our world has changed tremendously with respect to racial and ethnic matters,” he said. “And at the same time, our methodologies, our instruments have remained quite stable.”

Others say, however, that the ever-finer sorting of people into racial and ethnic silos will only further fragment a deeply split nation.

“Classification of people according to a completely arbitrary standard just creates anxiety, animosity, and division,” one of the more than 20,000 public comments on the 2023 draft proposal stated. “It divides the people, and the nation. It is time to stop it, rather than expand it even further.”

Wrote another: “The more we reinforce our self-defined divisions, the less likely we are to work together. Stop. Just stop.”

The changes hardly come at the spur of the moment. Experts have studied them since the middle of the last decade, and beyond the thousands of public comments, the Office of Management and Budget consulted 35 other federal agencies and a host of sociologists and demographers, among others, for advice.

Those who broadly support the new questions — academics, civil liberties advocates and racial and ethnic interest groups among them — say they would promote greater fairness in schools, housing, hiring and other aspects of society where census data is used.

Arab Americans, in particular, have lobbied for years to be recognized in federal surveys and have pushed hard for the adoption of the new classification for people of Middle Eastern and North African origin. Among other things, advocates say, data from the new category would help in prosecuting hate crimes and civil-rights violations against Arab Americans.

“We know that these groups experience voter suppression, discriminatory policing, inequitable access to government programs and services,” one supporter of the new category wrote in a public comment last year. “But they cannot tell the stories because these groups are considered as ‘White.’”

Critics note, however, that the proposed category for Middle Eastern and North African residents is not an ethnic or racial construct, but a geographic one that includes non-Arab nations like Israel and Iran, and ancestries like Kurdish.

“We’re creating a category for MENA” — the acronym for Middle Eastern and North African — “and making Hispanic effectively a race,” Mike Gonzalez, a senior fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said in an interview. “We’re creating categories for grievance mongering. We need less of this in America, not more.”

One indicator of the fraught politics surrounding the survey questions: The Obama administration considered a proposal in 2016 that was similar to the one approved on Thursday, only to see it die a quick death in 2017 after Donald J. Trump took the White House. Mr. Gonzalez, the author of a book on identity politics, was one of the leaders of a conservative campaign against that proposal.

Margo Anderson, a professor emerita of history at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and the author of a comprehensive history of the census, suggested in a recent paper that the Biden administration send the proposal back for more study instead of pushing for its adoption. “I worry that it’s going to be hard to make sensible statistical policy during a presidential election year,” she said in an interview.

Mr. Gonzalez said the new survey questions were likely to face opposition from any future Republican White House. “It’s a long time between now and 2030, a very long time away,” he said, referring to the date of the next decennial census. “I’m just going to leave it there.”

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