Article Summary

Written by: Rachel Marks, Chief, Racial Statistics Branch, Population Division; Nicholas Jones, Director/Senior Advisor for Race/Ethnicity Research & Outreach, Population Division; and Karen Battle, Division Chief, Population Division

On March 28, 2024, the U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB) published the results of its review of Statistical Policy Directive No. 15 (SPD 15) and issued updated standards for maintaining, collecting and presenting race/ethnicity data across federal agencies.

Among the biggest updates: directives to use a combined race/ethnicity question; the addition of a new “Middle Eastern and North African” minimum reporting category; and a requirement to collect detailed race/ethnicity responses.

Our findings over the past decade resonate with many of the SPD 15 updates. Based on our extensive research and engagement with myriad communities, organizations, scholars, researchers and data users across the country, we know a combined race/ethnicity question with a dedicated Middle Eastern or North African response category and an emphasis on the collection of detailed identities for all communities will produce more accurate race/ethnicity data for our nation’s population.

The updates to SPD 15 were informed by robust empirical research; extensive engagement with experts, scholars, organization leaders and communities across the country; and the successful and meaningful collaboration among federal agency leaders and experts on the Interagency Technical Working Group on Race and Ethnicity Standards.

We are confident that the updated standards will improve data on race/ethnicity across U.S. Census Bureau programs, and that these new data will better represent the U.S. population’s rich racial/ethnic diversity and detailed identities.

Using a Combined Race/Ethnicity Question

The updated SPD 15 requires the use of a combined race/ethnicity question for self-response and proxy reporting. Within this approach, respondents may report one category or multiple categories to indicate their racial/ethnic identity. In the updated standards, a single response, such as Hispanic or Latino, is considered a complete response.

For the past several decades, the Some Other Race (SOR) population has increased, largely driven by the increase in the Hispanic population which could not easily report its Hispanic identity in the separate race question. From 2010 to 2020, the Some Other Race alone or in combination population (49.9 million) increased by 129%, surpassing the Black or African American population (46.9 million) as the nation’s second-largest race alone or in combination group.

This is consistent with our previous research which found that a combined race/ethnicity question resulted in significantly lower percentages of respondents reporting as SOR (as well as significantly lower percentages of missing responses) than the separate race and ethnicity questions – and higher reporting in OMB race/ethnicity categories. Notably, a combined race/ethnicity question allows Hispanic respondents to identify as Hispanic alone at higher rates than in the separate questions format.

New “Middle Eastern or North African” Category

The updated SPD 15 adds a new, dedicated “Middle Eastern or North African” (MENA) category. In the previous 1997 SPD 15, MENA respondents were defined and tabulated within the White racial category.

Extensive engagement with the Middle Eastern or North African community has shown strong support for a MENA category and the need for demographic and socioeconomic statistics about its population to inform policy decisions, health research, civil rights monitoring and enforcement, and many other needs.

Our research has found that including a MENA category in a combined race/ethnicity questions helps MENA respondents report their MENA identities more accurately. When no such category is available, MENA respondents are less likely to report as only MENA and instead report their MENA identity within the White category.

Required Collection of Detailed Race/Ethnicity Data

The updated SPD 15 now requires the collection of detailed race/ethnicity data beyond the minimum categories for most situations.

For the American Community Survey (ACS) and the past several decennial censuses, the Census Bureau has collected and tabulated detailed race/ethnicity data, providing important statistics about many of our nation’s diverse populations. Our research has shown that using a combined question with multiple detailed checkboxes increases the reporting within the OMB race/ethnicity categories. The use of detailed checkboxes also decreases item nonresponse; improves accuracy and reliability; and achieves similar or higher levels of detailed reporting as question designs without detailed checkboxes for all major groups, with the exception of the American Indian and Alaska Native (AIAN) population. For AIAN respondents, using one dedicated write-in area coupled with example groups, rather than detailed checkboxes, increases detailed reporting. The updates to the OMB standards reflect these approaches.

In the 2020 Census and beginning in the 2020 ACS, we used a mix of detailed checkboxes and write-in areas to collect detailed race and ethnicity responses. But these were not used the same way across the minimum categories. The updated SPD 15 will allow us to improve our questionnaire design to facilitate the reporting of detailed race/ethnicity responses and increase the availability of disaggregated race/ethnicity data for all communities.

Question Stem and Instructions

The updated guidance in SPD 15 to use the question stem “What is your race and/or ethnicity?” aligns with our research that found it is optimal to use the “race/ethnicity” terminology, rather than alternatives such as “race/origin” or “categories,” for a combined question.

The updated SPD 15 also suggests instructions to use to make clear that respondents may select multiple race/ethnicity groups: “Select all that apply and enter additional details in the spaces below.”  This approach aligns with our research that found the instructions “Mark all that apply” (for paper data collections) and “Select all that apply” (for Internet data collections) performed as well as or, in some instances, better than other variations.

Terminology and Definitions

The updated standards also aim to provide balance across the race/ethnicity definitions and to remove any outdated and offensive terminology (Table 1).

  • The following updates were made to the standards:
    • The phrase “who maintains tribal affiliation or community attachment” was removed from the American Indian or Alaska Native (AIAN) definition.
    • The phrase ‘‘(including Central America)’’ was changed to listing ‘‘Central America’’ co-equally with North America and South America in the AIAN definition.
    • The term “Far East” was replaced with “Central or East Asia” and the term ‘‘Indian Subcontinent’’ was replaced with ‘‘South Asia’’ in the Asian definition.
    • The term “Negro” was removed from the Black or African American definition.
    • ‘‘Cuban’’ being listed twice in the Hispanic or Latino definition was corrected.
    • The language ‘‘. . . regardless of race. The term ‘Spanish origin’ can be used in addition to ‘Hispanic or Latino’’’ was removed from the Hispanic or Latino definition.
    • The term “Other” was removed from the “Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander” category name.
  • The updated standards now require that the terminology “Multiracial and/or Multiethnic” rather than “Two or More Races” be used when presenting data for those who identify with multiple race/ethnicity minimum reporting categories.
  • The terms “majority” and “minority” are no longer permissible in tabulations except when statistically accurate and used for statistical descriptions, or when legal requirements call for use of the terms. In the past, the Census Bureau had sometimes used these terms, but more recently we began using a variety of racial/ethnic diversity measures that have clear conceptual definitions and interpretations.

Table 1. Revised Definitions for Minimum Race/Ethnicity Reporting Categories in 2024 SPD 15

Minimum Race/Ethnicity
Reporting Category
American Indian or Alaska Native Individuals with origins in any of the original peoples of North, Central, and South America, including, for example, Navajo Nation, Blackfeet Tribe of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation of Montana, Native Village of Barrow Inupiat Traditional Government, Nome Eskimo Community, Aztec, and Maya.
Asian Individuals with origins in any of the original peoples of Central or East Asia, Southeast Asia, or South Asia, including, for example, Chinese, Asian Indian, Filipino, Vietnamese, Korean, and Japanese.
Black or African American Individuals with origins in any of the Black racial groups of Africa, including, for example, African American, Jamaican, Haitian, Nigerian, Ethiopian, and Somali.
Hispanic or Latino Includes individuals of Mexican, Puerto Rican, Salvadoran, Cuban, Dominican, Guatemalan, and other Central or South American or Spanish culture or origin.
Middle Eastern or North African Individuals with origins in any of the original peoples of the Middle East or North Africa, including, for example, Lebanese, Iranian, Egyptian, Syrian, Iraqi, and Israeli.
Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander Individuals with origins in any of the original peoples of Hawaii, Guam, Samoa, or other Pacific Islands, including, for example, Native Hawaiian, Samoan, Chamorro, Tongan, Fijian, and Marshallese.
White Individuals with origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, including, for example, English, German, Irish, Italian, Polish, and Scottish.

Note: The Census Bureau also uses the category “Some Other Race” in the American Community Survey and decennial census, as mandated by the U.S. Congress. Extensive research has shown that use of a combined race/ethnicity question reduces the reporting of “Some Other Race” as respondents are able to find a category or multiple categories to report their racial/ethnic identity.
Note: Although the minimum race/ethnicity reporting categories are alphabetized in SPD 15 and the example question designs provided by the Office of Management and Budget, the Census Bureau has historically ordered the categories by population size on its questionnaires.

Tabulation Guidance

Since 2000, when respondents were first permitted to select more than one race response, the Census Bureau has published data for the race alone, race in combination, and race alone or in combination populations to frame the discussion of racial composition, and these concepts have been central to understanding our country’s changing demographics. The updated standards encourage the reporting of as much information on race/ethnicity as possible in data tabulations, and we will continue to emphasize these important approaches for data following the guidance of the updated standards.

Next Steps

Our race/ethnicity research team is thoroughly reviewing the SPD 15 updates and collaborating with colleagues across the Census Bureau as we begin to develop an action plan to implement the updated standards within the OMB’s required five-year period. We expect that updates will be made as expeditiously as possible for all our data collections that include race and ethnicity, such as the American Community Survey and the 2030 Census. Throughout this process, we will engage with stakeholders and keep them posted as we develop our implementation plans. We look forward to partnering with you as we implement the updated race/ethnicity standards to provide the most accurate, reliable and relevant data possible about our changing and diversifying nation.