The Office of Management and Budget was formed in 1970 to help “serve the President of the United States in implementing his vision across the Executive Branch,” according to their official mission statement. While the OMB’s most significant responsibility is to guide the President’s annual budget proposal, the OMB also creates guidelines for collecting data on the racial and ethnic makeup of the population. Most government programs that actively collect such data — including the Department of Health, Department of Justice, and Department of Housing and Urban Development — use categories as defined by the OMB in their data collectionWhile it makes sense for there to be a universal system for collecting data on race and ethnicity, the OMB’s current methodology may cause more problems than it solves.
The OMB offers five categories of race: American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Black or African American, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, and White. These limited choices hardly seem to be enough to cover the various racial identities of American citizens without conflating and/or oversimplifying people’s backgrounds. Indeed, many of the groupings do seem overly general. For example, people who consider themselves Middle Eastern are instructed to check the box marked “white,” and the OMB does not differentiate between East Asians, South Asians, and Sub-continental Asians. Moreover, not all agencies specifically permit people to select more than one race. By trying to streamline the numerous racial and ethnic backgrounds Americans self-identify as into five umbrella terms, the OMB effectively denies the individuality and uniqueness of countless people and cultures. For instance, in classifying, say, people of Indian origin with people of Japanese origin under the racial category of “Asian,” the OMB suggests a uniformity between the two entirely different racial and cultural backgrounds. It also neglects the precise numbers of both groups, so if one is underrepresented but the other is well represented in some respect — economic, healthiness, etc. — it might erroneously appear as if everything balances out. All in all, not the recipe for conscientious or effective data collection.
In addition to the over-simplification of racial definitions, the OMB’s standards can also be flat-out confusing for those filling out forms that use the guidelines. Since the OMB considers Hispanic/Latino a separate ethnic category rather than a racial one, those individuals who racially identify as Hispanic or Latino are often unsure which race to select on forms. The US Census, which employs a much more in-depth system of categorizing race and ethnicity (more on that later), has received complaints about a similar issue. Tellingly, on the 2010 Census, only 63 percent of Hispanic- or Latino-identifying individuals chose any of the offered racial categories, compared to 94 percent of the general population. The issue extends to citizens of other identities as well, especially those of multiracial backgrounds. The lack of accurate and flexible options can force people into picking one category they don’t feel fully encompasses their background. As biracial college student Kyle Jensen put it in his piece for The Seattle Globalist, “I cannot pick just one race to identify with without throwing out half of my family.”
On top of all this, the OMB’s current standards simply aren’t all that helpful in collecting data. It would be far more useful if each federal agency were to tailor racial and ethnic categorization with the purposes of the agency in mind. For example, much research has been done on disparities in health between different racial and ethnic groups; if the Department of Health had a more specific questionnaire, they’d be more able to zero in on which demographics need different levels and/or forms of treatment, and why. Likewise, the Department of Justice has been undertaking an examination of racial profiling by American law enforcement; more precise data would make it easier to determine exactly which groups are being targeted the most. As of now, only a very general picture is provided in terms of racial data to these agencies. When the system fails at its one major goal (in this case, helping collect data), it’s time to start looking at alternatives.
The shortcomings of the OMB’s race and ethnicity guidelines have already prompted a few federal agencies to make their own additions to their data collection. In 2007 the Department of Education announced its own rules for collecting data on race and ethnicity, improving the OMB’s requirements by allowing participants to select more than one race option, strongly emphasizing the importance of self-identification, and granting individual educational institutions the autonomy to add further distinctions and categories as they see necessary. Many colleges use these modified standards as their basis for affirmative action, so the changes are important. However, while the Department of Education’s fixes do matter, many of the same problems as with the OMB still crop up: the over-generalization of racial categories still remains (though less so for institutions that add more specific categories, as the update encouraged), as does the definition of “Hispanic or Latino” as an ethnic category rather than a racial one.
One option for further improvements is to base data collection less around race and more around ancestral national origin. Instead of categories for race, forms would simply provide a space – and ideally multiple spaces – to list the countries or regions one considered themselves to be descendant from. This would increase the level of detail massively, and practically eliminate the possibility of the erasure and/or over-simplification of anybody’s identity. However, it would require more work from the agencies and institutions using the data, as each response would need to be recorded manually given the open-ended nature of the question. Perhaps in recognition of this, the US Census implements halfway version of this strategy. Though it kept the OMB-standard question of ethnicity in tact (i.e. asking whether the participant is Hisapnic/Latino or not), the Census includes much more than the five race categories set forth by the OMB standards. Specifically, the form expands the options for those who previously fell under the Asian and Hawaiian/Pacific Islander classifications, including separate boxes for “Asian Indian,” “Chinese,” “Filipino,” “Japanese,” “Korean,” “Vietnamese,” “Native Hawaiian,” “Guamanian or Chamorro,” and “Samoan.” The Census also allows for multiple categories to be selected, and has options for “Other Asian,” “Other Pacific Islander,” and “Some other race” with space for a write-in response. Furthermore, a space is provided for those who check “American Indian or Alaska Native” to indicate the tribe to which they belong. Not all is fixed, as there still lacks more in-depth choices for the “Black or African-American” and “White” racial categories as established by the OMB, as the Census does break these categories down into sub-groups. Yet it’s a positive sign of progress. The OMB should take note.
The Census’ major adaptation from the OMB’s imprecise race definitions is a step in the right direction, but more must be done in order to collect accurate data while still respecting the racial and ethnic backgrounds of American citizens. The OMB’s guidelines as they stand allow for and even encourage the formation of fictitious unities between various racial and ethnic identities, and fail to provide proper opportunity for self-identification and distinction. The injustice of this erasure should not be overlooked or undervalued, especially during a time when people are becoming more and more conscientious about race and its role in American society and politics. Marginalization should be scrupulously avoided, especially when the federal government can do so with little cost. It would be relatively inexpensive for the OMB to adopt much more specific standards for such data collection, possibly by following the Census’ example and expanding upon it. Otherwise, yet another form of systemic inadequacy in dealing with race and ethnicity will continue, and more and more individuals will feel slighted by the federal government.