For the first time in nearly three decades, the U.S. government is changing how race and ethnicity are categorized in federal data. The change was to be published in the Federal Register Friday.

“Middle Eastern or North African” is now its own category, “separate and distinct from the white category,” according to the Office of Management and Budget directive released Thursday. In addition, race and ethnicity have been collapsed into a single category. People will be allowed to pick multiple categories, such as white, American Indian and Hispanic, for example.

The Associated Press reported last year that “more than 43% of Hispanics either didn’t respond to the question asking them to select their race or selected the ‘some other race box on the 2020 census form,’” citing the U.S. Census Bureau, “lending support to arguments that the federal government should change its race and ethnicity categories.”

The existing racial/ethnicity categories were established 27 years ago as Statistical Policy Directive No. 15. The new changes became effective “for all new record keeping” with the announcement Thursday, signed by Richard L. Revesz, administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs within the Office of Management and Budget.

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The office said that race and ethnicity categories are “sociopolitical constructs and are not an attempt to define race and ethnicity biologically or genetically.” But the notice acknowledges some confusion about the difference between the two terms and said the separation may impair ability to collect data on people who are Hispanic by ethnicity but can be of any race.

Besides that, “There have been large societal, political, economic and demographic shifts in the United States, including increasing racial and ethnic diversity,” OMB wrote, “A growing number of people who identify as more than one race or ethnicity, and changing immigration and migration patterns.”

The Associated Press in a separate article called such revisions part of an “evolving process” that “often reflects changes in social attitudes and immigration as well as a wish for people in an increasingly diverse society to see themselves in the numbers produced by the federal government.”

Mix and match identity

Under the new rule, people can choose more than one racial category, reflecting the diversity that is increasingly seen in U.S. demographics. The changes were proposed by the Federal Interagency Technical Working Group on Race and Ethnicity Standards, which considered public comment among other factors. The notice said that sound research underpinned the principles governing the group’s work.

“To meet the goal of producing accurate and useful race and ethnicity data across the federal government, it is important to base (the new rule) on a solid portfolio of evidence that includes rigorous testing, input from the public on how individuals prefer to identify and input from data providers and users,” per the directive.

“You can’t underestimate the emotional impact this has on people,” Meeta Anand, senior director for Census & Data Equity at The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, told AP. “It’s how we conceive ourselves as a society. ... You are seeing a desire for people to want to self-identify and be reflected in data so they can tell their own stories.”