Why the Government’s Decision to Update How it Classifies People Matters

Why the Government’s Decision to Update How it Classifies People Matters

image via wusf.org

For the first time in 27 years, the U.S. government is updating its classification system for its citizens.  The next time the U.S. census is administered in 2030, respondents will have many more options to choose from when they select their race and ethnicity.  While this may seem unconnected to education, it’s not.

Under the current system, there are five race categories: American Indian or Alaskan Native, Asian, Black or African American, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, and White.  There are also two ethnic categories: Hispanic/Latino or Not Hispanic/Latino.  Respondents can choose more than one classification, but it still leaves some groups with less-than-perfect options that obscure their cultural background and ethnicity. The most often cited is that Middle Eastern and North African groups have long been encouraged to identify as White on current federal forms.  This system has been in place since 1997.

The new system creates a Middle Eastern/North African category and allows people to expand on the other categories. For example, a person identifying as Asian can go on to select a specific group such as Japanese,  Vietnamese, or Filipino.  A person identifying as Black can go on to select Haitian or Puerto Rican.  This is important for several reasons. Treating these broad groups as homogenous ignores wide disparities in income and other factors like health outcomes and access to services.  This is true of all groups: some sub-groups are desperately poor, others are economically successful; some have access to many services while others do not.  The situation and needs of a Black person who is a native of the US and one who has emigrated from a war-torn African country can be widely different.  Hispanic/Latino as a group is anything but homogenous: populations may descend from vastly different geographical areas such as the Caribbean, South America and  Mexico, each with a host of different cultures and ethnicities. Making it possible to identify as Black and Puerto Rican gives far more accurate data for the government and its agencies to work with.*

image via NPR

The government has given its various agencies 18 months to come up with a plan to implement these expanded categories and decide how it will use them.  There are a host of legal and socio-economic reasons for this change that I’m not going to cover here. Instead, what I think is important for public education is this:  eventually — maybe not for some years, but eventually — these categories will eventually make their way to the state level and then ultimately to individual school districts as states require them to report out data for these more specific groups.**  While I can see how this additional reporting might be burdensome initially, it will allow districts to disaggregate data more precisely, which in turn enables more specifically targeted assistance and intervention.  Districts will be able to look at achievement data and see not just that economically disadvantaged kids are lagging behind their peers but that economically disadvantaged kids from Mexico, or the Congo, or Honduras are really struggling and need additional resources and support.  This kind of pinpoint identification, correctly applied, could be really beneficial for those kids if resources are intentionally and correctly applied.  That is and should be the overarching goal for education — improved learning for everyone.

A pain in the rear? Maybe.  But potentially a good one in the long run if we don’t lose sight of the ultimate goal.


*On a side note, the change also requires removing “Negro” as a term to describe the “persons in the Black category and “Far East” to describe a geographic region of origin for people of Asian descent. The terms “majority” and “minority” would also no longer be used as in many places groups classified as minorities are, in fact, the majority of the population (lookin’ at you, Texas).  I was not aware that the first two terms were still in use on federal forms in the Year of Our Lord 2024.

**In case you were thinking that states already have pretty specific categories, they do not.  Because CMSi works in states across the US, I can confirm that race and ethnicity reporting requirements and categories vary from state to state. Many states use all the US government categories currently in place, but many states do not require that level of specificity in their reporting. I can only think of one district that asked for survey categories that incorporated some of the new classifications such as Middle Eastern/North African.

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