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Some federal laws still use terms like “Negro” and “Oriental.” A new law fixes that.

Rep. Grace Meng (D-NY) introduced a bill that makes sure Asian Americans are no longer referred to as "Oriental" in federal law.
Rep. Grace Meng (D-NY) introduced a bill that makes sure Asian Americans are no longer referred to as "Oriental" in federal law.
Bill Clark via Getty Images

The last vestiges of terms like "Negro" and "Oriental" will soon be stripped from a number of federal laws, thanks to a new bill President Barack Obama signed into law on Friday.

Rep. Grace Meng's (D-NY) bill, introduced in December, mandates a revision of laws that currently use outdated, typically offensive terms for defining racial minorities to better reflect contemporary categories.

Two laws, in particular, were in question: The section regarding the Office of Minority Impact in the law that established the Department of Energy defines a person as a minority if they are "Negro, Puerto Rican, American Indian, Eskimo, Oriental, or Aleut or is a Spanish speaking individual of Spanish descent." The Local Public Works Capital Development Act of 1976 uses similar terminology. In fact, these two are the last remaining federal laws that use the term "Oriental" to describe people, according to a statement from Meng's office.

While conducting legislative research, Meng said she noticed the terms were still being used under Title 42 of US Code, which specifically deals with public health, social welfare, and civil rights. Now those laws will be changed so that the identities of racial minority groups listed under "Negro" will be replaced with "African Americans," "Eskimo" and "Aleut" with "Alaska Natives," "Indian" as "Native American," and "Oriental" with "Asian American."

Taking racist names off the books doesn't take them out of the American landscape

This bill isn't the first of its type for Meng. In 2009, as a New York state assembly member, she co-authored a law banning the term "Oriental" from state documents.

Similar moves have been made among federal agencies. The US Census Bureau announced in 2013 that it would remove "Negro" from its forms after using the term on surveys for a century. In April, the Library of Congress banned the term "illegal aliens," stating that it would no longer be used as a bibliographical term.

But taking these derogatory names off the books doesn't necessarily take them out of the American landscape. In recent years, the federal government has also been confronting the way racism has been inscribed in America's physical environment.

Last year, Vocativ found at least 1,441 federally recognized landmarks with names that included racial slurs after cross-referencing the 2.2 million location names in the US Geological Survey's Geographic Names Information System with the Racial Slur Database. Arizona had the highest concentration of racist place names, while the Western and Southern regions led regionally.

Vocativ survey of racist place names across the country.
Vocativ survey of racist place names across the country.
Vocativ

Sometimes the federal government isn't as quick at keeping up with name changes that happen at the state level.

Last August, Alaska's Mount McKinley was officially renamed Mount Denali to honor the state's indigenous Athabascan community, following a bill introduced by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) in 2011. Although Denali, which means "the high one," had been recognized by the state of Alaska since 1975, it was only last year that the mountain was no longer recognized as the namesake of President William McKinley by the federal government.

Language, not just skin color, is integral to the way we perceive racial groups. Updating racial categories to better reflect the present is imperative. And by taking steps to rewrite our laws and replacing racist place names, the federal government is making moves to ensure people of color obtain the respect history has denied them.