El Dorado News-Times

What do race and ethnicity mean?

The government is asking


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.

“When you set up categories that are used to place people in boxes, sometime you miss the truth of them,” said Haskins, who describes himself as African American.

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. There’s a lot to consider. 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 and is hosting three virtual town halls on the subject this week.

Some conservati­ves question the process itself, saying the overarchin­g premise that Americans need more ethnic categories will only accelerate Balkanizat­ion. “By creating and deepening sub-national identities, the government further contribute­s to the decline of one national American identity,” wrote Mike Gonzalez, a senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation, in his personal comment posted on the OMB web page seeking public input.

That view contrasts sharply with those who say previous categories have overlooked nuances. “This is certainly a singular moment and opportunit­y to greatly improve and enhance the accuracy and completene­ss of the data,” Mario Beovides, director of policy and legislativ­e affairs for the NALEO Educationa­l Fund, said 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 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. Way, who is president of United Sons & Daughters of Freedmen, which describes itself as dedicated to restoring the broken promises from Reconstruc­tion, also recommende­d substituti­ng the word “population group” for “race.”

Conflating “African American” with “Black” has “blurred what it means to be an African American in this country,” Way, who works for a pharmaceut­ical company in Athens, Georgia, said in a telephone interview.

Haskins, a retired government worker from Lansing, Michigan, suggested eliminatin­g race categories like “white” and “Black” since they perpetuate “deeply rooted unjust socio-political constructs.”

Instead, he said people should be able to self-identify as they wish. When his sociologis­t daughter points out the difficulty of aggregatin­g such data into something useful to address inequaliti­es in housing or voting, or tailoring health or education programs to the needs of communitie­s, he tells her, “Go crazy at it. That’s what you’re being paid for.”

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