Non-White groups have struggled with census. Biden’s plan could help.

Washington Post photo by Sarah L. Voisin
The Census Bureau unveils its comprehensive national advertising and outreach campaign for the census in D.C. on Jan. 14, 2020.

On every census survey – or medical form or job application – Tala Faraj says she has no choice but to identify as something she’s not: White.

Faraj, 23, is Iraqi American, but Middle Eastern is usually not an option when she’s asked for her race and ethnicity.

“It is this feeling like I don’t really belong. Like there’s no space for me here and I just have to conform to whatever this country is telling me that I am,” said Faraj, who lives in Chicago. “It makes me feel sad.”

For years, the Census Bureau has counted people of Middle Eastern and North African descent (also known as MENA) as White, obscuring their numbers and rendering them largely invisible, advocates say.

Last week, the Biden administration submitted a preliminary proposal to better account for the country’s MENA and Latino populations in the census. The Middle Eastern and North African population would be recognized as a distinct ethnic identity for the first time. And Latinos would be able to identify as such without having to also identify as a separate race, such as Black or White.

The proposal could change how race and ethnicity are measured across the country, from statewide and local records on police violence to health disparity data. This type of demographic data also informs decisions on redistricting and the distribution of government assistance.

According to the 2020 Census, the United States is 59 percent White, nearly 19 percent Hispanic, 13 percent Black and 6 percent Asian.

The proposed changes for the 2030 census could further reduce the White population count and reflect the country’s increasingly diverse makeup.

“Federal race and ethnicity standards are inherently complex because they seek to capture dynamic and fluid sociopolitical constructs,” the Office of Management and Budget said in the proposal released Friday. In the years since census standards were last revised, “there have been large societal, political, economic, and demographic shifts in the United States.”

The public can offer written comments on the proposal until April 12. The administration said in a statement that it aims to finish the revisions by the summer of 2024. “The recommendations are preliminary – not final,” the statement said.

“I can’t stress enough how much it will change everything,” said Maya Berry, executive director of the Arab American Institute, which has been advocating for Middle Eastern and North African people to have their own ethnic category on the census for more than four decades.

“We need data in our communities to be able to defend them, to be able to provide services for them, and the census is the source of all that,” she said. “If you’re rendered invisible in census data there’s going to be real consequences to people’s lives.”

Arab Americans have been targeted by political leaders during moments of political tension – for example, after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. But without fair representation in the census, which is often used to design community programs and determine federal funding, they don’t receive adequate government help, Berry said.

Latinos have also struggled with their portrayal in the census survey.

On the 2020 Census, they faced a choice many found confusing. After selecting Hispanic or Latino as their ethnicity, they were asked to select a race: White, Black, American Indian, a handful of different Asian nationalities or “some other race.”

The number of Latinos marking “some other race” skyrocketed between 2010 to 2020, a phenomenon experts have attributed to many Latinos not seeing themselves as Black or White or any other race.

“For a lot of people if you identify as Latino, it comes to feel like a racial identity,” said Lynda Lopez, a master’s student at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who identifies as Mexican American.

After checking the Latino box for the first question on the 2020 Census, Lopez selected “some other race” on the second – her go-to answer for most forms.

“I experience the world through being Latino and through having Mexican parents, so for me it’s a very clear racial identity,” Lopez said.

Under the Biden proposal, people who identify as Latino could also check a second or third race or ethnicity box, such as Black (which is common among Afro-Latinos) or White. And Latinos would also have the opportunity to offer more details about their ethnic origin, including whether they’re Puerto Rican, Cuban or Mexican American. Multiracial people can also check more than one race box.

The current version of the census “really kind of hampers our ability to talk about the continuing racialized discrimination that Latinos face in this country, because we’re sort of denied that ability to be able to articulate that in the data,” said Julie Dowling, a professor of Latin American and Latino studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

The recent efforts to rewrite the census survey mirror a nation adapting to a demographic makeup that looks much different than when it was founded, said Rogelio Sáenz, a demographer and professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

It “reflects in a broader context the extent to which this country has long seen race relations in terms of Black, White, period,” Sáenz said. But the Biden administration’s proposal is a recognition of a “greater degree of diversity” in the country.

Which races are included in the census, and how, has changed over time.

In the 1930 Census, “Mexican” was listed as a racial category until some complained it could be used to single them out for deportation. “Mulatto” and other terms now recognized as racist were also once included, while in 2010 there was still a category for “Negro.”

The proposed changes to the census are exciting, said Faraj, who has already begun contemplating the ways it would trickle into her every life. Figuring out which box to check would no longer be something she has to worry about, she said.

“It makes me optimistic for the future that people just know their place and have their community and don’t have to figure out what box they’ll be put in because they just have a box for them,” said Faraj.