The Problem With How the Census Classifies White People

Being an unspecified “white” person has allowed many Americans to blend in. In this era of identity-driven polarization, we should acknowledge all the ways we are different.

Illustration of a person's head made up of white dots.
Illustration by Ben Kothe / The Atlantic

The U.S. Census Bureau is considering a historic revision to the 2030 count that would recognize the distinct ethnicity of people of Middle Eastern and North African descent—primarily Arab Americans, who have been subject to post-9/11 discrimination and, until now, have been grouped into the nebulous American amalgam of “white” people.

The census should make this simple and obvious change, but it shouldn’t stop there. It should overhaul the entirety of its facile race and ethnicity reporting.

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.

But the simplistic survey questions that underpin this milestone—and the accompanying backlash—reflect the choices the bureau has made until now. 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.

Even the category “Middle Eastern or North African” veils an immense amount of diversity. It groups Iranians, Saudis, Moroccans, Turks, Israelis, and Afghans together. Dozens of other groups would surely appreciate their own checkbox too: Algerians, Bangladeshis, Brazilians, Ghanaians, Sudanese, Trinidadians.

Those who may not be able to trace their lineage to a specific country—including many African Americans—might select a regional origin or identify as “American descendants of slaves.”

Accounting for these differences would swiftly reveal the way today’s racial categories oversimplify the diversity of a nation that has long featured a majority composed of minorities and high rates of intergroup marriage. When we recognize the thousands of national, religious, and language groups that are overlaid, boundaries are harder to draw.

America’s racial and ethnic lines, which are now recorded by bureaucrats in an office building in Suitland, Maryland, were not drawn in ink at the Constitutional Convention by Washington, Madison, and Mason. The census, instead, reproduces categories that initially reflected the racial worldview of America’s British colonizers and then evolved over a convoluted history that the legal scholar David Bernstein has called “a combination of amateur anthropology and sociology, interest group lobbying, incompetence, inertia, lack of public oversight, and happenstance.”

It’s arguable that the census must account for these categories because so many Americans continue to classify themselves and others along these lines. That said, to contend that the census should reflect existing social boundaries ignores its integral role in constructing them.

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.

Nearly a decade after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned employment discrimination, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights issued a 1973 report urging the federal government to create a system to collect data on the distribution of America’s major ethnic and racial groups. The resulting categories became required for all reporting by federal agencies when the Office of Management and Budget issued the “race and ethnic standards” that remain the basis for today’s classification system.

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.

For their part, Middle Eastern and North African Americans have sought a separate category on census forms for decades. Although early generations of Middle Eastern immigrants saw whiteness as their path toward equal rights, there has been a growing disconnect between the U.S. government’s classification and people’s lived experience.

Under the Obama administration, the Census Bureau conducted studies to determine the extent to which Middle Eastern Americans distinguish themselves from white people in advance of the 2020 count. The researchers concluded that including a “Middle Eastern or North African” category on questionnaires would be “optimal” because it “helps MENA respondents to more accurately report their MENA identities.” The effort stalled during the Trump administration, despite the way the White House’s “Muslim ban” implicitly acknowledged many inside this subgroup. The Biden administration has since endorsed a checkbox for Middle Eastern ethnicity alongside the “Hispanic” checkbox.

It would be just as optimal to ensure that other Americans can report their origins too. If the census were to facilitate this, researchers, businesses, and public agencies could examine trends with much more nuance and identify inequities among people of certain national ancestries. Presently, the main time the federal government acknowledges greater detail is when a hate crime occurs.

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.