By Gregg Orton, Karthick Ramakrishnan, and Akil Vohra

Rendering a community invisible is worse than being ignored. But that is what the federal government has done for decades when it comes to many communities of color, including Middle Eastern and North African communities, and various ethnic groups under the broad umbrella of racial categories such as Asian, Black, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander (NHPI).

Now, the federal government is on the cusp of revising its standards, pushing all federal agencies to collect data at the level of ethnicity in addition to race. Past experience indicates, however, that successful implementation of these standards will require more than just a rule change in the federal government. It will require stronger coordination across agencies, increased accountability mechanisms for progress within each agency, and regular input from experts in industry, community and research institutions. Timely progress along these dimensions, in turn, will require executive action from the Biden administration, as well as support from Congress through legislation or budget authorization.

Context on race and ethnicity data collection

The federal government collects data on race and ethnicity for a variety of purposes, including for redistricting and to help government agencies and the private sector better understand and serve their constituents and clients. These data are collected through survey forms — such as demographic surveys administered by the U.S. Census Bureau — and other types of user intake forms, such as when people sign up for Medicare. 

The last time the federal government revised its race and ethnicity standards across all federal data collections was in 1997, nearly 30 years ago, when it allowed for people to choose more than one race and created separate racial categories for “Asian” and for “Native Hawaiians and Other Pacific Islander.” Both of these were important advancements, reflecting the realities of race as an evolving concept in the United States.

At the same time, the 1997 standards did not go far enough. In particular, it did not push federal statistical agencies to provide more detailed breakdowns of the Asian, NHPI, and other racial categories. Currently, the federal government does not require agencies to collect information on Asian subgroups such as Chinese, Asian Indian, Vietnamese, and Hmong, or for NHPI subgroups such as Samoan, Tongan, and Native Hawaiian. This “lumping approach” prevents federal agencies, as well as the private sector that depends on federal data collections, from better serving community members and understanding their particular needs.

Take, for example, educational attainment. Current data collections administered by the U.S. Department of Education, various state and local education agencies, and private educational institutions lump together all Asian Americans. And yet, the data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS) reveals that there are huge differences in educational attainment across Asian groups. For example, even though 56% of Asian Americans have a bachelor’s degree or higher, the same is true for only 14% of Burmese Americans, 15% of Hmong and Laotian Americans, and 17% of Cambodian Americans (see AAPI Data’s Community Data Hub for more details).

The federal government is currently considering revising its race and ethnicity standards, known as the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Special Policy Directive 15 (SPD-15). The government invited public comment in 2023 on some of its initial thinking and plans for revisions of the OMB race and ethnicity standards, and major changes include bringing Hispanic/Latino into a combined race and ethnicity category, and adding Middle Eastern and North African as a minimum reporting category. Importantly, the federal government also proposes recommending agencies to provide more detailed ethnicity categories like Korean (for those who select Asian), Haitian (for those who select Black), Navajo Nation (for those who select American Indian), and Samoan (for those who select Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander). These are important changes to rules that hold the promise of better serving our communities.

Promises made, and promises kept

In order to make sure that these rule changes get implemented in a timely and efficient manner, we cannot rely on promises alone. We need to institutionalize these changes through prompt and effective legislation, budgeting, and policy implementation.

The National Coalition of Asian Pacific Americans (NCAPA) — a coalition of 41 national organizations that serve and advocate for Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities — sent a letter to the Biden administration in January 2024 outlining key steps to ensure successful implementation of the proposed new standards for race and ethnicity data collections. This letter was based on more than three years of work consulting with community and academic research experts, and engaging with federal government agencies and Congressional staff.

The letter provides a roadmap for successful implementation that both the executive and legislative branches should consider for adoption — through a combination of executive action, legislation, and budgeting. Key implementation dimensions include the following:

  1. Monitoring progress across all federal agencies and getting as quickly as possible to 100% compliance on the collection of ethnicity data for all communities of color;
  2. Ensuring that federal agencies provide a formal and regular role for community input and expertise, including expertise from industry and scientific researchers in their ongoing work on data equity;
  3. Provide greater transparency with clear and public timelines, progress reports, and deliverables moving forward after the federal government announces any new plan or program connected with race and ethnicity data collection;
  4. Making federal data more accessible to the public that takes into consideration issues of disability, limited English proficiency, and publishing data in various formats such as dynamic tables and infographics that follow industry best practices.
  5. Providing necessary funding to support technical assistance and staff support to ensure successful implementation along the lines noted above.

While the Biden Administration has made progress on data equity, including creating the Equitable Data Working Group (EDWG) to ensure that equity is a critical pillar on how the government should work, the EDWG was temporary and lasted only two years. While much of the implementation work is now proceeding under a subcommittee of the National Science and Technology Council, the deliberations are wholly internal to federal agencies with no ongoing public input from scientists, researchers, and other experts from industry and community. The Biden administration also has not been clear on the kinds of investments the federal government will need in order to ensure successful implementation of its data equity recommendations, including on any new standards for race and ethnicity and having community and industry input continually inform the process.

Creating an Office of Data Equity or its equivalent

We request that the White House thoughtfully consider long-term success in its work by addressing the five components above. We further suggest that it create an Office of Data Equity, to make permanent the current and future work necessary to ensure equity for all communities. We believe that Congress should act to appropriately support this proposed office, or other vehicle, to ensure efforts to date and in the future are not only sustained but thrive.

We further suggest that [the White House] create an Office of Data Equity, to make permanent the current and future work necessary to ensure equity for all communities.

The proposed Office of Data Equity (ODE) is not a novel concept, and was in fact recommended by a bipartisan group of academics and researchers at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (The National Academies). We agree with The National Academies’ findings that interagency coordination on data equity should be made permanent, and that an Office of Data Equity would support cross-agency coordination and collaboration, as well as accountability.

Key components of an Office of Data Equity would include:

  • Sufficient Congressional funding to support at a minimum of three full-time staff
  • Two co-chairs from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) who would be responsible for the successful implementation of its revised race and ethnicity standards
  • Creation of an inter-agency working group of all federal agencies and departments to provide regular progress updates on achieving data equity
  • A 21-member Presidential Advisory Commission on Data Equity committee to ensure community involvement in the success of ODE

The scope of an Office of Data Equity would be to:

  • Ensure that ODE sets a clear timeline with benchmarks for the implementation of revised race and ethnicity standards, including “data use and access” outlined in page 3 of NCAPA’s letter to the President
  • Ensure that federal agencies create and follow an equity-based approach to data interpretation, analysis, policy formulation and incorporation into federal programs and grants
  • Create a centralized federal website in order to make more prominent and accessible federal statistical datasets that provide data in accordance with “Minimum” as well as “Detailed Category” groups as specified in OMB’s initial proposals on race and ethnicity standards published in January 2023
  • Ensure that community voice, wisdom and experiences are an intertwined part of the equity agenda moving forward

In lieu of establishing an Office of Data Equity, we call upon the Biden administration to clearly articulate how it will ensure the successful and timely implementation of its race and ethnicity standards across all federal agencies along the five dimensions articulated above. Importantly, the Biden administration and Congress need to pay attention to the following dimensions that are critical to successful implementation: staffing, roles and responsibilities within each agency and across agencies, budget, regular community input, public timelines, progress reports, and key performance indicators for successful implementation.

We also call on Congress to pass supportive legislation that ensures timely and successful implementation of revised standards on race and ethnicity across all federal agencies. The five implementation dimensions noted above, plus additional proposals as contained in the NCAPA letter on data equity, could form the basis of such legislation. Federal progress on data disaggregation also plays a critical role in the work of state governments, as detailed in a comprehensive report and call to action by The Leadership Conference Education Fund called Disaggregation Nation.

Over 40 community organizations, including coalitions such as NCAPA, have signed onto the Power In Numbers campaign, pushing state and federal policymakers to ensure that AANHPI communities are recognized and prioritized. Accurate data, community consultation, timely insights, and community-friendly tools are key priorities for the campaign. Congress would do well to pass a Power In Numbers Act that effectively serves the needs of all Americans, including all communities of color.

Gregg Orton is executive director of the National Coalition of Asian Pacific Americans; Karthick Ramakrishnan is a professor of public policy and executive director of AAPI Data; Akil Vohra is director of policy at AAPI Data, and formerly worked at the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.