The Biden administration revises race and ethnicity categories for the census. Here's what that means.

U.S. Census pamphlets
Carlo Allegri/Reuters

The Office of Management and Budget announced Thursday that the U.S. government would revise how it categorizes race and ethnicity, adding the category of “Middle Eastern or North African” to forms such as the U.S. Census in order to better reflect an increasingly diverse population.

The changes, the first to be implemented in 27 years, also include the creation of a single category “Hispanic or Latino,” that also allows people the option of selecting from a list of subcategories.

“These revisions will enhance our ability to compare information and data across federal agencies, and also to understand how well federal programs serve a diverse America,” U.S. Chief Statistician Karin Orvis said in a statement.

What are the changes?

The revisions cap a two-year review-and-revision process across multiple agencies. People filling out federal surveys like the census will now have seven updated race and/or ethnicity categories to choose from, with an option to pick more than one category. The new categories are as follows:

  • American Indian or Alaska Native

  • Asian

  • Black or African American

  • Hispanic or Latino

  • Middle Eastern or North African

  • Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander

  • White

Previously, people from the Middle East and North Africa were grouped into the “White” category, which had been defined as “a person having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa.”

Before the creation of the single “Hispanic or Latino” category, respondents were asked to choose whether they identified as “Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin.” They were then given the option to clarify whether they were “Mexican, Mexican American, Chicano,” “Puerto Rican,” “Cuban,” or “another Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin,” including “Salvadoran, Dominican, Columbian, Guatemalan, Spaniard, Ecuadorian, etc.” Under the new categories, respondents who check “Hispanic or Latino” are offered the following subcategories: Mexican, Puerto Rican, Salvadoran, Cuban, Dominican and Guatemalan. They are also provided a space to write in another subcategory.

Federal agencies will now have 18 months to come up with an action plan as to how to bring themselves into compliance, and another five years to implement those plans, OMB said.


Census questionnaire
An earlier version of a census questionnaire. (Getty Images)

Census forms and surveys rely on how people self-identify to determine statistics on race and ethnicity, but sometimes the two categories overlap.

However, research showed the two-question structure confused some Hispanic and Latino respondents who did not identify with the subcategories listed.

For example, results from the 2020 census suggest it’s not clear how a person who identifies as Afro-Latino would answer a combined race-ethnicity question.

Almost 44% of those identified in 2020 as Hispanic, for instance, picked “some other race” rather than the subcategories offered on the form or did not respond at all.

For those who identified as Latino, 35.5% then checked “some other race” when given the option to self-identify a subcategory.

Mixed feelings

The Afro-Latino Coalition, a group that addresses racial disparities, wrote a letter to the OMB saying that the new combined race and ethnicity approach “erases how Black/AfroLatinos experience anti-Black racism at the same time that they experience discrimination based on their ethnic background.”

“The OMB definition for Black as persons with African ancestry must make clear that those from Latin American national origins are also included,” the group said in the letter.

Those who campaigned for the addition of the Middle Eastern or North African category, however, praised the new changes.

Anna Eskamani, whose parents are from Iran, told the Associated Press, "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.”