The Decades-Long Fight for Accurate Race and Ethnicity Data


In May 1977, the U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB) adopted Directive 15, now called the Standards for Maintaining, Collecting, and Presenting Federal Data on Race and Ethnicity. The fundamental purpose behind the policy was to promote consistent, comparable, and exchangeable race and ethnicity data for federal agencies and Congress to use.

The 1977 Directive established four race categories — American Indian or Alaskan Native, Asian or Pacific Islander, Black, and White — and two ethnicities: Hispanic Origin and Not of Hispanic Origin. The Directive also established the preference for collecting race and ethnicity data separately when respondents self-reported. The categories were established as the minimum level of detail agencies should collect, especially for civil rights compliance, program administration and grants reporting, and statistical reporting where race and ethnicity are required.

Agencies could collect more detailed, or disaggregated data, as long as the additional categories could be collapsed back into the discrete categories in the Directive. For example, the 1980 Census race question did not use the term Asian or Pacific Islander (API) but instead listed a total of nine of the largest national origins in these categories, which could then be reported as API in official statistics. Lastly, the original Directive 15 prohibited data collection that allowed reporting of more than one race, requiring people of mixed race or ethnicity to pick only one option, which might prevent people from fully reflecting their self-identity.

Updating Standards: The 1997 Revisions

Fast forward to the late 1980s and 1990s, when several advocacy organizations representing multiracial Americans began lobbying for a multiracial category in the census. The Census Bureau also added representatives of the multiracial community to its decennial census advisory committee. Interest in reviewing and potentially revising Directive 15 grew following the 1990 Census.

The House subcommittee with census oversight jurisdiction held a series of four high-profile hearings in 1993. The hearing witnesses ranged from then-Rep. Newt Gingrich, who suggested that the census shouldn’t collect any data on race and ethnicity because — to paraphrase — “we are all Americans,” to James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, advocating for a new category for people of Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) origin, to calls for a new multiracial category, to civil rights groups suggesting that the categories and policy itself did not adequately reflect the growing diversity of the population — but also arguing that a multiracial category would make it difficult to monitor and enforce civil rights laws.

After these hearings, OMB established an interagency task force to conduct a thorough review of Directive 15, providing a public comment period through a Federal Register Notice and issuing new Standards for the Classification of Federal Data on Race and Ethnicity in October 1997 in advance of the 2000 Census.

In a nutshell, the significant 1997 changes to the standards included:

  • Separating the Asian or Pacific Islander category into two new categories: Asian, and Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander.
  • Changing Alaskan Native to Alaska Native in the AIAN category.
  • Changing the Hispanic ethnicity category to Hispanic or Latino.
  • And, most notably, allowing agencies to offer respondents an option to select more than one race, although specifically rejecting the addition of a new multiracial category.
    •  The updated standards, however, did not permit the selection of more than one Hispanic/Latino subgroup.

Of note, the standards did not support the addition of a MENA category, but OMB did find that “further research should be done to determine the best way to improve data on this population group.”

The revisions led to a second round of advocacy, encouraging OMB to establish guidance for bridging data collected under the old and new standards in light of the new option of selecting two or more races, which it issued a few years later.

Failed Modernization Attempts in the 2010s

To inform the 1997 revision to the race and ethnicity data standards, the Census Bureau conducted several years of research and testing. Fast forward to the 2020 Census planning cycle, which started with tests embedded in the 2010 Census, when the bureau’s research suggested that the race and ethnicity data standards were again outdated. OMB began a multi-year process last decade to improve the accuracy of race and ethnicity data through modified questions, which in turn would require revisions to the OMB standards.

That process moved along relatively smoothly with OMB working in tandem with the bureau’s testing program, issuing a Federal Register Notice for feedback on proposed updates to the standards that might have included a new MENA category and would allow a combined question for race and ethnicity respondents to check off as many of the categories they felt best reflected their identities. Advocates and data users submitted thousands of comments.

But after the 2016 presidential election, OMB abandoned the effort to revise the standards without explanation, forcing the Census Bureau to drop its plans to use a combined question with a new MENA category in the 2020 Census and ongoing American Community Survey.

Reflecting Society: Today’s Updated Standards

Bringing us to where we are now: On January 27, 2023, the OMB renewed its dedication to updating the race and ethnicity data standards by issuing a Federal Register Notice seeking public comments on “Initial Proposals for Updating OMB’s Race and Ethnicity Statistical Standards.” New OMB standards announced on March 28, 2024 address some of the criticisms of the 1997 standards, allowing for data that better reflect the country’s diversity. The changes include:

  • Adoption of a combined race and/or ethnicity question on federal surveys and censuses.
  • Addition of a new “Middle Eastern or North African” (MENA) ethnicity category; individuals with MENA origins will no longer be defined exclusively as “White,” as they can identify with any racial group.
  • Requiring, instead of simply encouraging, the collection and disaggregation of detailed race and ethnicity data by all federal agencies in most cases.
  • A format that allows Latinos to indicate more than one national origin or subgroup identification.

The push for more accurate and inclusive race and ethnicity data is long overdue and more relevant than ever, especially given how quickly our nation’s communities are becoming increasingly diverse. While there remains more work to be done to more fully reflect racial and ethnic diversity, the new OMB standards will give the federal government and civil rights organizations a more accurate picture of how civil rights compliance and other programs are being utilized across different racial and ethnic groups. When census data are able to reflect our country’s rich racial and ethnic diversity fully, we lay a stronger foundation for building an America as good as its ideals.