News Tip: ‘Reliability’ Concerns With New Federal Standards For Collecting Data on Race, Expert Says

Summary: The Biden administration Thursday announced new standards for collecting federal data on race and ethnicity. Comments from Duke University professor Jen’nan Read, who advised the government on the updates, are available for use in your coverage.

“Today’s announcement on federal revisions to the collection of racial and ethnic data in the US is a game changer. Everything we know about race and ethnicity — from gaps in social inequality to population sizes to geographic density and political representation — is tied to how we collect and analyses information on U.S. racial and ethnic populations,” says Jen’nan Read, professor and chair of sociology at Duke University and lead expert representing the Population Association of America and American Population Centers in advising the Census and Office of Management and Budget on these updates.

“Two major changes are noteworthy. First, race and ethnicity will be combined into one question, which has heretofore been separated into a question on Hispanic ethnicity and a separate one for race. Contrary to media reports about the list getting longer, it’s really more about how the options are displayed and how that will impact peoples’ answers to those questions.”

“Second, they have added a new MENA category separate from the white category. MENA has been classified as white dating back to the 1920s when Arabs fought to be counted as Caucasian to avoid anti-Asian exclusion laws. They’ve come full circle.”

“As a scholar, I am quite concerned about the consistency and reliability of the data, of being able to look at trends over time and trust I’m comparing the same groups, and I’m advocating for the Census to put in all measures necessary to bridge the data as they transition to a new format.”

“It will be critical for us to trust these measures, and the only way we can do so is to have data that shows some level of consistency over time. Concretely what this means is that important outcomes, like infant mortality rates and Black-white gaps in maternal health –could be impacted by these changes.”

“If we start seeing changes in health outcomes, we would want to know how much of that is due to actual changes in health and how much is a residual effect of the way we changed the measurement of race and ethnicity.”

“Whether you are a researcher, or just someone interested in the demographics of the United States, these changes are vital to our nation’s pulse. I’m paying attention to these changes because they are directly tied to taxpayer dollars and the allocation of resources.”

Jen’nan Read is Sally Dalton Robinson Professor and Chair of Sociology. She is an expert on racial and ethnic Census categories; health disparities among U.S. whites; Arab and Muslim classification and integration. Read was the lead expert representing the Population Association of America and American Population Centers in advising the Census and OMB on these updates.

For additional comment, contact Jen’nan Read at:

Media Contact:
Eric Ferreri