Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.) pushed to remove derogatory language from federal laws. (Courtesy Photo)

What’s in a name?

Well, if you ask Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.), the names “Oriental” and “Negro” are outdated and insulting words that have no place in federal law. President Obama agreed with the two-term New York lawmaker on May 20 and signed into law H.R. 4238, which was her bill to modernize terms relating to minorities found in the Department of Energy Organization Act and the Local Public Works Capital Development and Investment Act of 1976. The legislation passed both the House and Senate by unanimous consent.

The new law strikes the derogatory and antiquated terms “Negroes, Spanish-speaking, Orientals, Indians, Eskimos, and Aleuts” and inserts “Asian American, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islanders, African American, Hispanic, Native American, or Alaska Natives” in Title 42 of the U.S. Code. Title 42 consists of federal laws that deal with public health, social welfare and civil rights.

“Many Americans may not be aware that the word ‘Oriental’ is derogatory,” Meng said. “But it is an insulting term that needed to be removed from the books.”

During House floor debate, Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said despite the growth of American society in the last century, federal law contained antiquated and inappropriate language on ethnicity.

Keeping ‘Oriental’ in federal law lends the term a legitimacy it doesn’t deserve, Royce said, calling Meng’s bill “a simple, yet important, way of demonstrating respect for our nation’s diversity.” Royce was an original cosponsor of the legislation.

In a sign that words used to describe race still matter, lawmakers are currently debating legislation to prevent the Library of Congress from removing the term ‘illegal aliens’ from subject matter headings used by researchers for cataloging and search purposes. Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee pushed through a 2017 federal spending bill on May 17 that would stop that process.

During committee debate, Rep. Tom Graves (R-Ga.) said Republicans were simply requiring the library to be consistent with U.S. Code, which describes immigrants as illegal for being in the country without proper authorization.

Democrats voted against the GOP legislation, but were unsuccessful in stopping the bill from moving forward. The measure will likely be considered by the full House at some point in June.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) said the legislation funding the Library of Congress, and other legislative branch operations such as pay for federal employees working on Capitol Hill, is typically bipartisan. However, this year, she was urging Democrats to vote against the bill.

The Library of Congress addressed the naming controversy in a March 22 statement, saying it had “concluded that the meaning of aliens is often misunderstood and should be revised to noncitizens, and that the phrase illegal aliens has become pejorative.”

That notice sparked a response from Rep. Diane Black (R-Tenn.), who introduced legislation to block the library’s change, which she called a needless accommodation to political correctness. “By trading common-sense language for sanitized political-speak, they are caving to the whims of left-wing special interests and attempting to mask the grave threat that illegal immigration poses to our economy, our national security, and our sovereignty,” Black said.