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Spotlight on Heterogeneity: The Federal Standards for Racial and Ethnic Classification Summary The U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is considering whether to revise its Directive 15, “Race and Ethnic Standards for Federal Statistics and Administrative Reporting” (see Appendix B). Directive 15 specifies racial and ethnic definitions and minimum data collection and presentation (reporting) requirements for most federal purposes, both legal and administrative. Its effect is much more sweeping, however, because many state and local governments, private companies, and researchers also use the OMB categories for racial and ethnic classification. Since its promulgation in 1977, Directive 15 has come under increasing scrutiny because of logical flaws in its categorization, the rapidly changing demographic profile of the United States, and clearer understanding of racial and ethnic identity as a social construct. Particularly in recent years, data users and racial and ethnic communities—among others—have sounded calls to modify and add categories, with the most drastic call urging the elimination of the racial and ethnic classification system. This report summarizes and synthesizes the proceedings of a February 1994 workshop convened by the Committee on National Statistics. It discusses a range of options for the revision of Directive 15. The report discusses some of the substantive, methodological, and research issues relevant to those options, but it does not offer recommendations about the revision of Directive 15. THE CURRENT SYSTEM AND A CHANGING SOCIETY The Directive 15 standards have four race categories (white, black, Asian and Pacific Islander, and American Indian or Alaskan Native) and two ethnicity
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Spotlight on Heterogeneity: The Federal Standards for Racial and Ethnic Classification categories (Hispanic origin and not of Hispanic origin). It also has two permissible formats for data collection and reporting: in the one-question format, Hispanic origin is exclusive of all four race categories; in the two-question format, race and ethnicity are separate so that Hispanics can be of any race. The lack of mutually exclusive categories in the two-question format and the inconsistencies between the one- and two-question formats are serious flaws in Directive 15. Depending on the format used, quite different classifications could be made of the same people. More broadly, race and ethnicity are quite difficult to separate either conceptually or in practice. A classification system that combined race and ethnicity would, necessarily, produce a fairly complicated set of categories of each race classified by each ethnicity. The racial and ethnic composition of the United States continues to change, as it has since its colonial beginnings as a population of predominantly whites, blacks, and American Indians. The most notable change in the past 30 years has been the dramatic increase in the number of immigrants from the countries of Asia and Latin America. As the population changes, research interest in different groups changes, so that any classification system is inevitably at least somewhat dated. The United States is today a multiracial, multiethnic society, with increasing heterogeneity among the minority populations and increasing intermarriage among all groups. Some of the minority populations now want the classification system to include separate categories for them; such categories are sometimes viewed as a sign of cultural recognition. Some people of mixed backgrounds do not like a system that forces them to choose only one part of their identity. It is now widely recognized that a person’s racial and ethnic identity reflects both his or her sense of self and society’s views of race and ethnicity. In the current system, people may be classified by themselves (self-identification) or by others (observer identification), and these different approaches may result in different classifications. Self-identification has become the preferred means of classification, despite the recognition that such self-identification is ultimately a subjective choice. Furthermore, race and ethnicity are dynamic concepts: a person’s self-identification may change over time or in different circumstances, and society’s characterizations of racial and ethnic identity also change over time. A federal classification system needs both to reflect the realities of U.S. society and to serve its designated statistical and administrative purposes. Those two goals are not always compatible, and there are no easy ways to reconcile them. The desires of small groups to have separate statistical breakdowns for all government data can conflict with the need for reliable statistics; the need for continuity in categories for historical analysis runs counter to the equally laudable goal of adapting to the changing demographic composition of the U.S. population; the desire to monitor discrimination can run counter to the wish to deemphasize racial and ethnic labeling of individuals; the desire for logical consistency in categories can run counter to the goal of defining categories within the
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Spotlight on Heterogeneity: The Federal Standards for Racial and Ethnic Classification historical context that has defined such groups as American Indians, blacks, and whites by different criteria. OPTIONS FOR CHANGE In developing the workshop agenda, the Committee on National Statistics presented the four major options for change in the classification system that have been proposed to the Office of Management and Budget: eliminate the two-question format so there would be a single question with five categories; add new race and ethnicity categories to the current set of questions, for specific groups or for a multiracial identity; collect multiple responses, which would necessitate new procedures for reporting responses; and use open-ended questions, which would similarly require new procedures for reporting. For the reporting (presentation) of racial and ethnic data under the federal classification system, four major options have also been proposed: maintain the current system (even if the questions change); make minor revisions, such as reporting native Hawaiians in a “Native Peoples” or “Indigenous Peoples” category, along with American Indians and Alaskan Natives, which would require a change in the questions asked; add major categories; and eliminate racial and ethnic classification. No federal standard can satisfy all the demands that have been made on the current system nor resolve all of the conflicting goals. In considering proposals for change, decision makers should openly acknowledge the tradeoffs among competing goals. Whatever revisions are made to Directive 15, the Committee on National Statistics believes it is critically important to carry out research on racial and ethnic classification: to test current categories and to thoroughly field test any proposed revisions or new categories. Five topics seem especially important for research: alternative ways of collecting racial and ethnic data; field testing of the wording and order of questions in surveys; self-identification labels and categories; differences between self-identification and observer identification; and racial and ethnic classification of immigrants. There is a strong need for coordination among statistical and research agencies that are now doing or will do such research so that the work can have a cumulative effect. It would also be valuable to consider a procedure for regular review and updating of the federal standards for racial and ethnic data in light of the constantly changing nature of both the U.S. population and people’s perceptions of their identity.
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