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Biden Wants Census To See 'Invisible' Groups: LGBTQ, Middle Eastern, North African

President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris are expected to revive policy proposals that could change how LGBTQ people and people with roots in the Middle East or North Africa can identify themselves for the next U.S. census.
Andrew Harnik
President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris are expected to revive policy proposals that could change how LGBTQ people and people with roots in the Middle East or North Africa can identify themselves for the next U.S. census.

As the incoming Biden administration prepares for office, the Census Bureau is already looking ahead to changes for the 2030 count.

While Biden's transition team has not announced any specific policies yet for the next once-a-decade tally of the country's residents, the president-elect's campaign has previewed what could end up on the new administration's agenda. They include ideas that gained steam during the Obama administration but stalled after President Trump took office.

Biden will direct federal agencies to "improve their collection efforts, including enhancing demographic information around race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, and disability status," Jamal Brown, the national press secretary for the Biden-Harris campaign, told NPR in a statement before the election.

Here are two specific policy proposals that could change how LGBTQ people and people with roots in the Middle East or North Africa can identify themselves for the next census and future federal surveys, and could give policymakers and researchers better insight into the U.S. population.

Census questions about sexual orientation and gender identity

One proposal by the Biden campaign would require the Census Bureau to gather voluntary information about people's sexual orientation and gender identity through its census forms and survey questionnaires — a policy that Vice President-elect Kamala Harris supported as a senator.

There are currently no reliable national-level data about how many LGBTQ people live in the U.S., and that, many public policy experts say, makes it difficult to know whether the government is fully meeting the needs of LGBTQ groups. A change on this year's census form is expected to generate the most comprehensive demographic information to date about same-sex couples who live together in the U.S., but other LGBTQ groups, including transgender and non-binary people, will be left out.

During the Obama administration, four federal agencies asked the bureau to start asking a sample of households questions about sexual orientation and gender identity on the bureau's American Community Survey. That survey, which goes out to about 1 in 38 households every year, is considered a testing ground for the decennial census, which every household has to complete.

The Census Bureau, however, stopped working on the request after the Trump administration came into office, specifically after the Justice Department — which had said it needed the data to better enforce civil rights protections for LGBTQ people — backed down from its ask.

Under federal law, the bureau cannot release any census information identifying individualsuntil 72 years after it is collected. It can, however, put out anonymized data about demographic groups at levels as specific as neighborhoods.

Some data privacy experts have flagged concerns that this data could be used against LGBTQ people.

Biden's campaign website says that the president-elect will "ensure" that federal agencies collecting data on sexual orientation and gender identity are "vigorously enforcing appropriate privacy protections."

Meanwhile, the Census Bureau has started conducting research on potential questions and response options on the Current Population Survey it carries out monthly for the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Cultural and generational differences in how people describe their sexual orientation and gender identity make the wording on forms especially key to avoiding undercounts and overestimates of LGBTQ people, a working group formed by federal agencies during the Obama administration found.

A census check box for people with Middle Eastern or North African roots

Another Biden campaign proposal is creating a new category on census forms for people of Middle Eastern or North African (MENA) descent, including Arab Americans.

A person with "origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa" is officially categorized as white in data about race and ethnicity released by the Census Bureau and other federal agencies, according to the U.S. government's current standards.

Some advocates for MENA groups in the U.S., however, have long pushed for a check box of their own on census forms.

In a report about research on collecting race and ethnicity information, Census Bureau researchers wrote that in 2010, focus group participants with Middle Eastern or North African roots "often did not know how to respond and/or felt excluded" when presented with the current census racial categories, which are set by the White House Office of Management and Budget.

Including the terms "Lebanese" and "Egyptian" as examples under the white racial category — as they were on this year's census form — was seen as "wrong or incorrect" by the focus group members.

During the Obama administration, the bureau recommended creating a separate response option for "Middle Eastern or North African" on the 2020 census form as part of a broader overhaul of the questions about race and Hispanic origin. The change would have likely produced more accurate data about people with MENA origins, while shrinking the share of people checking the "White" or "Some other race" box on the census, the bureau's testing in 2015 suggests.

Director, we need to get it right because I'm not white.

But the efforts to create a MENA category stopped in 2018 under the Trump administration. After decades of waiting for the addition, the move was bittersweet for some longtime advocates who were worried about how the rollout could have been perceived in the wake of Trump issuing travel bans that targeted people from Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East and North Africa such as Iran, Libya, Syria and Yemen.

Still, earlier this year, that decision prompted an awkward exchange between Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham, a Trump appointee who joined the bureau in 2019, and Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a Democrat from Michigan whose parents are Palestinian immigrants to the U.S.

"Dr. Dillingham, do I look white to you?" Tlaib asked in February during a House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing on the census.

"Congresswoman, I think that if you tell me what you identify with," Dillingham replied, "I think I would respect that."

Tlaib went on to describe how the decision to not move forward with a MENA category for the 2020 census will make people living in the U.S. who identify as Middle Eastern or North African "invisible" for the next 10 years when new census data are used to distribute federal funding, conduct health research and determine what kind of language assistance communities need.

"Director," Tlaib pushed back, "we need to get it right because I'm not white."

Getting a MENA category right on the census will require the bureau to work through how to represent the diversity among people with origins in regions that have no universally agreed-upon borders.

Among the suggestions the bureau has received so far are to highlight "Kurdish" as an example of a transnational group and to include "Israeli" as an example to encourage people born in Israel or with Israeli ancestry to identify with the category on the form.

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Hansi Lo Wang (he/him) is a national correspondent for NPR reporting on the people, power and money behind the U.S. census.