The US government is rethinking what race and ethnicity mean

Nyhiem Way is sick of people lumping African-Americans and Blacks together. Shalini Parekh wants a way for South Asians to identify themselves differently from East Asians with roots in places like China or Japan. And Byron Haskins wants the US to throw away racial and ethnic labels altogether.

“When you define categories that are used to put people in boxes, at some point you lose their truth,” said Haskins, who describes himself as African American.

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

There is a lot to consider.

Some Black Americans want the enslavement of their ancestors to be recognized in the way they are identified. Some Jews believe that their identity should be seen as their own national category and not just a religion. The idea of ​​revising categories for ethnic and racial identities, both in the census and in the collection of demographic information between measures, has fueled editorials and think tank essays as well as thousands of written comments from individuals in what is almost a Rorschach test for how Americans define themselves.

The White House Office of Management and Budget is set to decide on new classifications next year and is hosting three virtual town halls on the issue this week.

Some conservatives question the process itself, saying the basic premise that Americans need more ethnic categories will accelerate balkanization.

“By creating and deepening subnational identities, the government is further contributing to the decline of a national American identity,” Mike Gonzalez, a senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation, wrote in his personal comment posted on OMB’s website seeking public input.

This view stands in stark contrast to those who say previous categories have overlooked nuance.

“This is certainly a unique time and opportunity to significantly improve and improve the accuracy and completeness of the data,” said Mario Beovides, director of policy and legislative affairs for the NALEO Educational Fund, during a recent forum.

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 are often undervalued.

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

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

Several black Americans, such as Way, whose ancestors were slaves, said in public comments to the OMB that they would like to identify with a category such as Free Americans, Fundamental Black Americans or American Descendants of Slavery to distinguish themselves from blacks immigrants or even white people born in Africa, as well as reflecting the history of their ancestors in the US

Way, who is president of the United Sons & Daughters of Freedmen, which describes itself as dedicated to restoring broken Reconstruction promises, also recommended replacing the word “population group” with the word “race.”

The conflation of “African-American” with “black” has “blurred what it means to be African-American in this country,” Way, who works at a pharmaceutical company in Athens, Georgia, said in a phone interview.

Haskins, a retired state employee from Lansing, Michigan, suggested eliminating racial categories such as “white” and “black” because they perpetuate “deeply ingrained unjust sociopolitical constructs.”

Instead, he said people should be able to define themselves however they want. When his sociologist daughter points out the difficulty of assembling such data into something useful for addressing housing or voting inequalities, or tailoring health or education programs to the needs of communities, he tells her: “Go crazy. That’s what you get paid for.”

“You have to look for the truth and not just stick with old accusations because someone decided, ‘This is what we decided,'” Haskins said.

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

“When these groups are evaluated together, one misses very important detail that can help differentiate issues that are specific to one group and not another,” Parekh said.

The MENA community appears to be facing 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 considered when drawing political districts, advocates said.

It comes down to something even more personal for Huda Meroue, who described herself to the Biden administration as a 73-year-old Arab-American woman.

“When I go to the doctor’s office I don’t feel like they have the necessary information to understand my medical history or my culture,” she said. “For all these reasons I want to be counted for what I am. Not like white.”

Jordan Steiner said that ethnic categories should be expanded to include not only MENA, but also other groups such as Jews who often consider themselves not only members of a religious group but also an ethnic group.

Jessica Aksoy praised the proposals to expand the categories, saying she often feels limited in which boxes to check as a person of Turkish, European and Jewish heritage.

“Recognizing our differences is an honor and a celebration of America’s rich melting pot,” Aksoy said. “The face of America is changing, and this initiative is about progress in recognizing that.” ___

Follow Mike Schneider on Twitter at @MikeSchneiderAP

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