Census bureau proposes "Latino" and "Middle Eastern/North African" as race options

This seems like the discussion might get political, and i can’t find an existing thread. So here goes.

New ‘Latino’ and ‘Middle Eastern or North African’ checkboxes proposed for U.S. forms

Good? Bad? High time?

I feel like i don’t understand the consequences of the census bureau’s racial classifications, so I’m not really qualified to opine. But i bet some of you do.

Here’s what they say they about it:

Race | American Community Survey | U.S. Census Bureau

We ask a question about a person’s race to create statistics about race and to present other estimates by race groups.

Local, state, tribal, and federal programs use these data, and they are critical factors in the basic research behind numerous policies, particularly for civil rights. Race data are used in planning and funding government programs that provide funds or services for specific groups.

These data are also used to evaluate government programs and policies to ensure that they fairly and equitably serve the needs of all racial groups and to monitor compliance with antidiscrimination laws, regulations, and policies.

The U.S. Census Bureau collects racial data in accordance with the 1997 Office of Management and Budget standards on race and ethnicity. The data on race are based on self-identification and the categories on the form generally reflect a social definition of race. The categories are not an attempt to define race biologically, anthropologically, or genetically. Respondents can mark more than one race on the form to indicate their racial mixture.

In general is sounds like a good idea, but I am more leery of another suggestion:

Other preliminary recommendations by the working group of civil servants include requiring more federal agencies to ask for detailed responses about people’s identities, such as “Chinese,” “German,” “Jamaican,” “Lebanese,” “Mexican” or “Samoan.”

This, I feel, goes too far. It is a level of detail that is unnecessary, invasive and quite frankly un-American.

I wonder what they’re going to do with Ashkenazi. Our origin’s Middle Eastern, but we spent quite a while in Europe. Instructions for at least the most recent couple of censuses said firmly that we’re supposed to say “white”.

I was wondering that, too. I’m pretty sure the “MENA” is meant to be code for “Arab”, with some wiggle room.

I mean, i know an Orthodox Jewish guy who used to say “African American”, because the Jews came from Egypt. But that’s obviously not what’s intended. And looking at my features, there’s obviously more Cossack than Semite in my gene pool. But…

I’m curious how this plays out. If it even happens.

If they go there, I’m selecting “other”.

I thought introducing oneself as, e.g Italian when their great great grandpappy came over and being loud and proud of your heritage, even if they don’t speak a lick of Italian and never been to Italy and don’t know anything about it, was peak American.

There’s certainly some mix in mine, because my mother’s side of the family pops up an occasional blue-eyed blonde; including one of her sisters. But while most people looking at me do seem to think I’m white, some people clearly don’t. I’ve been guessed by such people as nearly any version of brown, and at least once (in summer, almost certainly with a good tan on) as African American – though interestingly, almost never as Jewish. People do sometimes guess Arabic, though.

Blue eyes, extremely pale skin, and features that look like people from the Russian steppes, in my case. People often guess me as Jewish, though.

And you know this based on … ?

I can imagine that there might be socio-economic or socio-political matters that the government might want to address that could be relevant to those of Samoan origin that aren’t relevant to those of, say, Filipino or Indian origin. Right now, all these people are classified as “Asian or Pacific Islander.”

I don’t know that it’s true, but I also don’t know that it isn’t true. How do you know?

Most of the Americans I know can identify their origin to some extent that is more specific than the categories currently offered on the census forms.

Indeed, I have mentioned that I am not really all that happy about identifying myself as an “Asian or Pacific Islander,” because to me that category borders on meaningless.

The US Census has had an interesting history with respect to classifications of race and ethnicity, including at various points identifying distinctions such as “mulatto”, “quadroon”, “octoroon”, various forms of Asian (making distinctions between Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Filipino, Hindu, Vietnamese, “Asian Indian” and including Hawaiians and various Pacific Islanders before dividing them into their own category), Central/South Americans (variously broken into Mexican/Chicano, Puerto Rican, Cuban, and “Other Spanish/Hispanic/Latino”), and American Indian/Alaskan Native. The only real consistent categories are “White” (originally Free White Males and Free White Females), and from 1820 “Free Colored Persons” (now Black, African American, or Negro).

What does the Census (and Department of Commerce, as well as other departments such as Health and Human Services, Education, et cetera) do with these categories? They use them for demographic analysis, essentially as proxies for various socioeconomic and cultural cohorts. To the extent that this makes sense, it is reasonable that the categories change over time as different groups become more predominant and distinct, or get folded into a large demographic grouping. The concept of racial distinctions used to be quite palatable even though it has never really had good scientific grounding, and any kind of statistical analysis has to have some way of sorting populations into distinct cohorts even if they get pretty fuzzy at the edges.

I think it is well understood today that race is essentially a cultural construct rather than a genetic determinant that intrinsically predicting economic success or educational attainment and ethnicity is a more amorphous concept than can really be neatly divided into distinct categories, but a large amount of public policy and advocacy, including equal employment and civil rights laws are predicated on these distinctions so nobody is looking to eschew this system of categorization, nor is it really reasonable to approach policy by assuming that the population is one homogenous mass when there are clear differences in opportunities and outcomes in these categories. However, as @silenus notes, trying to break these down into finer divisions with more specificity is not really sensible or will provide greater practical insights, and frankly isn’t even practical given that there is almost inevitable “intermarriage” across ethnic lines and census categories after two or three generations (and increasingly in the first generation of immigration) as cultural strictures are relaxed.


I’m so pale I blend into drywall. I’m not sure anything except “White” actually fits, even if I am half Ashkenazi. Anyhow, my recollection from a turn with the Census (2010) was that the Census takes as an answer what the person being questioned identifies as/feels is appropriate.

Ashkenazi mutt here, with ancestors most recently from what is now Ukraine, Poland, Belarus, and Latvia (with a detour into Canada for my paternal grandmother’s family). I have been mistaken for many, many different things: Armenian, Bulgarian, Arab, Latina, just about everything but African (although I do have relatives who left Latvia and ended up in Africa), East Asian, or Scandinavian. Some years ago, I got picked for the American Community Survey, and the enumerator asked what my ethnicity was. I asked her what the choices were, and she ran down a very long list which did not include Ashkenazi. “So you’re telling me I can be American Samoan, but not Ashkenazi?”

She literally didn’t know what Ashkenazi meant, so I explained it to her. So she asked what countries my great-grandparents were from. Well, how are we defining that - what country it is now, or what country it was when they left? Or what country it was when they were born? Depending on the definition, we’re talking about anywhere from 2 to 4 different countries (actually 5, if you count my recent discovery that one great-grandfather was born in what is now Lithuania, but had migrated to Riga by the time he married my great-grandmother). So I gave her the simplest example: my Riga-born grandfather. “So you’re Latvian!” she exclaimed. Ummm, nope - Latvians are generally a very pale, blond, Scandinavian-looking people who speak Latvian and practice Christianity, while my grandfather was none of those things. (And if you look at it another way, were the people who left Latvia when my grandfather did, in 1906, Russians because they came from the Russian Empire? I can think of a few Latvians who would take exception to that idea, as would my grandfather.) By the end of our conversation, she was laughing, but I hope I got across to her the distinction between citizenship and ethnicity.

Do I think there’s potentially some value in the Census Bureau making finer distinctions about ethnicity? Maybe. Do I trust them to get it right? Probably not. And then there’s the issue of making it very difficult to track trends over time if you keep changing what you’re measuring.

I don’t really have an opinion on this. I think it is reasonable for the Census to use any respectful term that is in popular use by a substantial percentage of those so affected.

There needs to be a reasonable balance between inclusion and limiting the number of choices in a practical way.

Quite a lot of wiggle room, really - Persians, Kurds, Berbers, Copts, various minor Levantine and Iranian ethnicities, and, depending on which MENA definition you use, even Black Africans like various Sudanese groups and Somalis.

But I doubt the average person can tell an Arab from a Persian - or even an Indian, given Shohreh Aghdashloo’s filmography.

Yeah, my first draft of that post mentioned some of those, and then my list was looking unwieldy and i decided to roll it up under “wiggle room”. It should certainly include Sephardic Jews, as well as the groups you mention. My gut feeling is that most Ashkenazi Jews remain “European” (white). But i guess we’ll see what the form actually says.

Sure, don’t see why not - although one caveat is that Israel itself isn’t always included in MENA, but there are of course Mizrahim outside it.

So they ARE trying to replace us!..

Research by the Census Bureau suggests both the addition of a “Middle Eastern or North African” box and a combined question about race and ethnicity could decrease the number of people who identify as white for the national head count.

Just kidding! I think it’s probably a good idea to get more granularity here, but I’d like more clarity of how this data is going to be used. Also, the proposed sample survey in the article makes it seem like “Other”, or “decline to state” is not an option, which is problematic. It also assumes people will know their race and be able to bucket themselves into one of the provided categories. As discussed here, for example, not all Jews can identify as white, so where does this all end? Is this a slippery slope to having a ten page questionnaire to hone-in on exactly who you are?

How deep do other countries dive into this with their census? Or is this level of categorization an American thing? Does this sort of thing reinforce our divisions?

I see the constituencies (parliamentary districts) in the UK broken down by a variety of countries of origin (e.g. British Pakistani, British Nepali, British Malaysian) in news reports. I assumed that was from census data, but I’m not sure.