The Problem With How the Census Classifies White People

“Like people of Middle Eastern and North African origins, millions of other Americans have been funneled into one side of our country’s enduring binary of whiteness or the other. According to today’s census forms, Greeks, Irish, Italians, Slavs (who were systematically excluded for a century), and Jews—who are still the target of white-supremacist violence—are indistinct from people with Mayflower backgrounds.

Being an unspecified “white” person has allowed many of us to blend in, when the most unifying thing we might do in this era of identity-driven polarization is acknowledge all the ways we are different.

Today’s nationalist identity politics are grounded in the grievances of people who think of themselves as white, who fear that established norms are being undone and find it difficult to see themselves in the faces of newer immigrant arrivals. Their insecurity has inspired a new wave of nativism and racial politics in the run-up to the “majority minority” milestone in 2044, when the Census Bureau projects that the share of non-Hispanic white Americans will dip below 50 percent. [..]

Once a decade since 1970, the bureau’s demographers and economists make the conscious decision to measure America’s diversity first according to whether someone self-identifies as “Hispanic or Latino” and then whether they are “Black or African American,” “White,” “American Indian or Alaska Native,” “Asian,” “Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander,” or “some other race.”

If these current questions about ethnicity were replaced by a required “select all that apply” question that asked Americans to report the various national, religious, and tribal origins of their ancestors, it would allow us to contextualize race in all the diversity the census’s blunt categories defy. This would not only generate more detailed and measurable data; it would also prompt Americans to reflect on their heritage. [..]

Census categories took their modern form after World War II, an era in which the U.S. government began formalizing its system of racial classification to address civil-rights violations. During this period, intense lobbying of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission by different parties produced newly recognized categories for people of Asian origins and “American Indians.” Many lighter-skinned ethnic and religious minorities were classified as “white” on employment forms, despite their persistent socioeconomic struggles or exclusion. [..]

The current boundaries ignore the disparate experiences and identities of people of “Asian or Pacific Islander,” backgrounds whose origins stretch from islands in the Western Pacific to the Indian subcontinent. (The Census of 1970 actually classified South Asians as “white.”) They lump Spaniards together with Bolivian mestizos, and recent sub-Saharan arrivals with other Black Americans whose families have been here for centuries. [..]

Why does it take discrimination—or violence—to formally recognize the importance and relevance of people’s national origin and religion? If these are a common basis for discrimination, then they have clearly reached a level of public salience that makes them worthy of full public accounting.

As consequential as census labels are for the way Americans perceive their country, they may be more consequential for the way Americans see themselves. The census could be a reminder of our own complicated stories at a moment when the population share of the foreign-born approaches a historic peak and the boundaries of whiteness can hardly stretch any further. It could reinforce the unquantifiable diversity of American identity rather than its conformity to categories perceived to be mutually exclusive.”

Full article, J Best, The Atlantic, 2023.5.24