• 1963: African-American Muslim minister and civil rights activist Malcolm X deconstructing the term 'negro' during a sermon in Harlem. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
Congress removes the last uses of 'Negro' and 'Oriental' from federal statutes.
Tess Owen

The Atlantic
23 May 2016 - 1:13 PM  UPDATED 23 May 2016 - 1:13 PM

Congress unanimously passed a bill Monday to remove the last pockets of archaic racial terminology such as “Oriental” or “Negro” from federal law, replacing them instead with more modern terms.

The law targeted two anti-discrimination subsections of the US Code that used outdated language to describe racial groups. In one section of the Department of Energy Organization Act, “a Negro, Puerto Rican, American Indian, Eskimo, Oriental, or Aleut or is a Spanish speaking individual of Spanish descent” will be replaced with “Asian American, Native Hawaiian, a Pacific Islander, African American, Hispanic, Puerto Rican, Native American, or an Alaska Native.”

Another section of the bill erases “Negroes, Spanish-speaking, Orientals, Indians, Eskimos, and Aleuts” from a 1976 public-works act and adds “Asian American, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islanders, African American, Hispanic, Native American, or Alaska Natives” in its place.

Representative Grace Meng, a Democrat from New York who proposed the changes, also previously led a successful initiative to ban the word “Oriental” in government documents in the Empire State.

“The term 'Oriental' has no place in federal law and at long last this insulting and outdated term will be gone for good,” Meng said in a statement Tuesday after the Senate approved the bill.

"No longer will any law of the United States refer to Asian Americans in such an offensive way, and I applaud and thank President Obama for signing my bill to get rid of this antiquated term."

Thanks to the new law, references to the term “Oriental” will be replaced with “Asian American” and the word “Negro” will be changed to “African American.”

Congress’ changes reflect how America’s mercurial taxonomy of race and ethnicity can entrench itself through the law, surviving long after culture and society have changed around it. Other parts of the government also undertake similar revisions from time to time.

The US Census Bureau frequently tinkers with its racial categories on the census forms, often by adding, subtracting, dividing, or renaming entire groups:

According to the census graphic, the 1790 survey offered just three racial options for a household: "free white females and males," "slaves" and "all other free persons." By 1850, the available categories were "black; mulatto" or "white." Native Americans do not show up on the form until 1860 — as "Indians" — the same year "Chinese" first appears. People whose ancestry traces to India don't have an option until 1920, when "Hindu," a religious identity and not an ethnic one, appeared for the first and only time.

There are no Latino or Hispanic options on the questionnaire until 1930, when "Mexican" appears. But that option went away after that survey, and all Latino/Hispanic choices completely disappear from the form for the next several decades. They don't show up again until 1970.

In one of its more prominent changes, the bureau announced in 2013 it would no longer use the word “Negro” on its forms after almost a century of use.

This article first appeared on theatlantic.com.