USA: In Census, Only Some Races Count

Census photo by the US Department of Agriculture (flickr: USDAgov)

Census photo by the US Department of Agriculture (flickr: USDAgov)

It's time for citizens and residents of the United States to stand up and be counted. All households will be receiving a form from the US Census that should be filled out and mailed back to the government before April 1st. The Census is meant to provide a detailed “portrait” of the country that helps determine how tax money is spent. The form has been translated in multiple languages to ensure diversity is represented in the responses, but some citizens complain that the question on race does not offer enough answers to give an accurate picture of their cultural and ethnic background.

Changing definitions

Every ten years the Census counts the number of people living in each household, as well as their gender and race.

The question on race has adapted over time to include the ever-changing racial and ethnic makeup of the country. In 1850, for example, the only choices were “white,” “black,” and “mulatto,” while 30 years later respondents were also given the options of “Chinese” and “Indian” (presumably meaning Native American).

2000 was the first year in which respondents were allowed to check more than one racial category; resulting in data showed that nearly 7 million Americans designate themselves being of two or more races.

Take a walk through the Census form to see the different categories offered today. Although the racial options are broad, not everyone feels as though they're being counted.

Are Arabs White?

This year, there has been controversy in the Arab-American community over the question of race, because “Arab” is not included. Arabs are supposed to check “White” as their race, or can write in “Arab” or their chosen ethnicity (e.g., Syrian, Saudi), though they will still be counted as officially white. Maytha at Kabobfest believes that this is dis-empowering to Arab Americans:

Because of the extreme variance in phenotype, in “gross morphology” (as Princeton professor Kwame Anthony Appiah terms it), nation-state identifications, overlapping religious identities, and the courts and federal governments’ inconsistent racial categorizing, it is my presumption that it has been a difficult task to say what category or label appropriately describes the experience of being “Arab” in America. but as the above images demonstrate, it has done the job of disempowering minority privilege and left little or no safeguard in moments of necessary minority rights protection.

Like Maytha, other Arab-American bloggers don't feel that they fit into the available boxes. Moroccan-American Sarah Alaoui explains why “white” doesn't describe her:

Because “white” does not only embody a color. What the term “white” means in the United States today is something that transcends any skin color. White means the suburbs and white means affluence and white means picket fences. Some people may argue then, that I do fit into the white category based on my definition of the term. But white also means no questions asked ever, no extra security checks at the airport or in that same category, no mispronunciations of my last name or being told it's a “cool” name as a precursor for the question of where I'm from. Being white means being untouchable in this country.

There are campaigns, however, advocating for Arabs to write in their race on the census (I wrote about the Yalla! Count campaign on my own blog here). Helen Samhan, writing for the Arab American News, explains one choice that Arab-Americans have on the Census:

One option is to choose the “Some Other Race” category and write in your ethnic identity or national origin. This gives voice to our concern about the limits of current racial categories, but allows us to be counted for the primary reasons the census is collected: congressional apportionment, and distribution of federal funds to states and localities. Imagine the impact on the cities of Dearborn, Michigan, or Paterson, New Jersey if their sizable Arab American populations sat out the 2010 Census? Funds available for schools, roads, hospitals and other assets serving the entire community would come up short.

Are Latinos Black or White?

Arabs are not the only people concerned with the census. There is much discussion amongst the Hispanic and Latino communities over a number of issues, including race. In an article in Puerto Rican* newspaper El Nuevo Día, Keila López Alicea writes (now archived) in an article entitled “No, yo no soy negro” (“No, I am not black”) [es]:

Café con leche, color chavito, trigueño, jabao… Todos son términos usados por los puertorriqueños para describir su color de piel, unos tonos producto de mezclas entre la raza blanca y la raza negra, pero que no son ni lo uno ni lo otro y, por lo tanto, no aparecen entre las opciones que ofrece en Censo de Puerto Rico.

Café con leche,” “color chavito,” “trigueño,” “jabao” . . . these are all terms used by Puerto Ricans to describe their skin color, some of those resulting from the mixture of whites with blacks, but which are not, even one, any of the options offered by the Census of Puerto Rico.

An Argentinian blogger living in Texas and writing at Croníca de Nuestro Viaje a Houston reflects on the question of Hispanic origin, and says there is an explanation on the form that Latino is not considered a race.

y yo me pregunto, los que no son blancos, ni negros, solo “morochitos” en cual entrarían? en “Otros”?… No se, me llamo la atención esta pregunta y su correspondiente aclaración.

And I ask myself, the ones who are not White, nor Black, just morochitos in between, in which category do they fit? In “Others”?… I don't know. This question and it's corresponding clarification caught my attention.

Gay couples may be happy to learn that there's a way to mark their partnerships in the census. Zona Diversa, a Puerto Rican LGBT blog, says [es] gay rights organizations in Puerto Rico have explained that although there is no question on sexual orientation or gender identity, people can highlight common law relationships and what gender combination they are made up of.

Important to be Counted

Other segments of the community have discussed boycotting the Census in an effort to pressure the government toward immigration reform. To that point, Beverly Pratt, writing for Racism Review, argues:

As an activist-in-training, I definitely respect everyone’s right to boycott. However, I find this boycott to ultimately be more detrimental than beneficial. If we in the Latina/o community want to strengthen our voice, then we need to participate in the official “voice-collector” while continuing our struggle through other peaceful and productive means. I, for one, am looking forward to being counted as a Mexican American living within the United States, knowing full well that scholars, politicians, and activists will study my identity as it resides within the communal whole of our nation.

Iranian-Americans are also working to have their racial and ethnic identities counted. In a public service ad starring Iranian-American comic Maz Jobrani (below), the community argues that Iranians should make “explicit declaration of our Nationality ‘Iranian’ or ‘Iranian American’ under the question 9 of the Census which asks ‘What is the Person’s Race?'”

*Residents of Puerto Rico also take part in the US Census.


  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Global Voices, Jillian C. York, GV MENA, Maroc Blogs, Sirensongs and others. Sirensongs said: RT @globalvoices: USA: In Census, Only Some Races Count: Census forms are being delivered to all U.S. households this month, but som… […]

  • […] fact is, many observers are wary of the census when it comes to race.   Jillian C. York writes at the Global Voices Online blog that: This year, there has been controversy in the Arab-American community over the question […]

  • I participated in the UK census once and there were multiple categories of race. At least a dozen, as I recall. There was black of African origin, black of Caribbean origin and also numerous categories of white, including the miscellaneous sounding: “White, other”. As silly as it seems, it’s much easier to fill out a form with an accurate option for what you identify as than to try to squeeze everyone into just a few categories plus their combinations.

  • Kathy Chriqui

    It’s the content of your character that matters in the USA not the color of your skin, your national origin or your religion!!!

  • Jennifer Mc Cleary

    Race on the census is necessary! It’s not about the content of your character because honestly, White Americans (specifically White politicians, rich Whites, and White conservatives) don’t care about Hispanic or Arab American’s “content,” they just don’t want to live next door to them. That’s a fact. If we do not have an all encompassing race category, it means that many minority communities will lose precious federal funding. Further, problems within these communities will not be resolved and much needed improvements (i.e. better schools) will not come to frutition. I understand our country has made changes in terms of “equal rights” for all people, but we really have not come that far. Overt racism (lynchings, segregation, etc.) has been replaced by covert racism (e.g. sentiment on interracial marriage, gerrymandering, higher unemployment rates for Hispanics and Blacks, etc.) I’m sure we could include Arab Americans on the list of discrimination if we even knew they existed in the U.S. That fact is particularly disturbing.

    However, adding numerous different races on the census is tricky at best. I understand that the Hispanic racial blanket does not account for variations in ethnic and national origins, but as it stands, it’s the best we’ve got. Just imagine if we included every nationality on the “race” question… it would be ludicrous (let’s keep in mind that nationality is not the same as race). Also, people need to remember that Blacks and Whites also face the same racial confinements. I’d love to say I’m of Swedish, Irish, and Native American decent but I can’t do that. If national distinctions are provided to one race of people, then it needs to be provided for all racial distinctions, Whites included. However, leaving off Arab or some other racial equivalent is completely short sided, inaccurate, and racist. It’s bad enough that they have to face ignorant bigotry from their own countrymen, let alone being completely ignored by their government.

    It’s sad and very disappointing that this is the kind of impression we’re sending out to other nations who are being forced to accept democracy, a system of government that we tout to be the best in the world… but for White people only. It’s this kind of double standard that foreign politicians adopting this system need to look out for. Democracy, when in the wrong hands, can easily turn into the system we have in the States today: a system that ignores poor and/or minority communities while protecting big business and White interests. On behalf of my race, I sincerely apologize for our government’s short sidedness. One can only hope we can go forward in a better direction from here on out.

  • No matter what they do they are likely to make some people unhappy. I got an email last week from ColorOfChange encouraging African-American citizens to cross out the word “Negro” from the descriptor in the Black category.

  • Mara

    Recently, I found the 2010 Census form hanging on my door. As I began filling it out, I came across a dilemma. The U.S. government wants to know if my children are adopted or not and it wants to know what our races are. Being adopted myself, I had to put “Other” and “Don’t Know Adopted” for my race and “Other” and “Don’t Know” for my kids’ races.

    Can you imagine not knowing your ethnicity, your race? Now imagine walking into a vital records office and asking the clerk for your original birth certificate only to be told “No, you can’t have it, it’s sealed.”

    How about being presented with a “family history form” to fill out at every single doctor’s office visit and having to put “N/A Adopted” where life saving information should be?

    Imagine being asked what your nationality is and having to respond with “I don’t know”.

    It is time that the archaic practice of sealing and altering birth certificates of adopted persons stops.

    Adoption is a 5 billion dollar, unregulated industry that profits from the sale and redistribution of children. It turns children into chattel who are re-labeled and sold as “blank slates”.

    Genealogy, a modern-day fascination, cannot be enjoyed by adopted persons with sealed identities.

    Family trees are exclusive to the non-adopted persons in our society.

    If adoption is truly to return to what is best for a child, then the rights of children to their biological identities should NEVER be violated. Every single judge that finalizes an adoption and orders a child’s birth certificate to be sealed should be ashamed of him/herself.

    I challenge all readers: Ask the adopted persons that you know if their original birth certificates are sealed.

  • Jennifer Mc Cleary

    My mother-in-law is adopted and she too has faced the problem of sealed birth records. The only reason she knows that she’s Inuit is because her parents adopted her in Alaska. However, like yourself, she doesn’t know her familial medical history or possible genetic disorders that run in her birth family. It’s an interesting point you bring up and one worth further consideration. I believe adoptions today require the disclosure of this information. Sadly, in the past adoption agencies didn’t have such forethought. This is definitely something that may end up in the Supreme Court if a movement is created.

    • Mara

      Hi Jennifer…

      Yes, there is an adoptee rights movement to restore our civil rights to our original identities! Please Google: Adoptee Rights Demonstration Louisville for the latest protest information.

      Adoptions today haven’t changed that much from when I was adopted. Closed adoptions still occur. That’s why many people adopt from our of the country! Medical information is NOT a requirement to relinquish a child. Even so-called “open” adoptions aren’t enforceable and many adoptive parents shut out the biological parents shortly after receiving “their” baby.

  • Jennifer Mc Cleary

    I’ll definitely pass the web-site on to my mother-in-law. Thanks for the info! As far as adoptions go in Texas (if relinquishment or termination of rights occur, rather than a baby Moses situation), prospective parents CANNOT go forward on the adoption until a medical history affidavit is completed by the relinquished or terminated parents. I know this because I work in the court system in Texas, specifically for Child Protective Services. Outside of Texas, I cannot speak for.

    Although I don’t agree with closed adoptions, I do believe that adoptive parents do have the right to decide to shut out biological parents. Once you sign your rights away to a child, you no longer have the right to decide when and if you ever get to see them again. That is exactly the right you give up, besides the fact that it’s explicitly stated in the affidavit of relinquishment (that most people never take the time to read). As a bio parent, you cannot give up your child and then expect to control the adoption or the wishes of the adoptees; that child does become theirs, as if they were born to them and it becomes the adoptee’s right to decide what is best for the child. However, that being said, I do believe that once the “child” turns 18, they should be given an opportunity to seek out their birth parents if they wish to. In that respect, open adoptions are crucial to success in locating birth parents.

    • Mara

      To shut out a child’s biological family in an “open adoption” is a self-centered act and treats the adopted child as if he/she is OWNED by his/her adoptive parents. They may be able to legally get away with this, but it is an immoral act. The child is the one who pays the price in the end.

      The states regularly “bastardize” children by relinquishing a father’s rights after the mother signs relinquishment papers. Most of the time a father’s permission to relinquish is never given but instead the state does it for him because he is “absent” or in many cases doesn’t even know he has a child!

      Our government has it’s hands deep into the adoption industry’s cache. A multi-billion dollar industry in which Uncle Sam subsidizes and profits from the sale and redistribution of children (preferably with no known identity, but that identity will be erased upon adoption anyways.)

  • Jennifer Mc Cleary

    You may think it’s “immoral” but many times it’s for the child’s safety. I’ll still adhere to what I originally said: If you sign your rights away, YOU NO LONGER HAVE RIGHTS! You do not get to decide after that point. This is something stated EXPLICITLY in the affidavit of relinquishment. If parents want rights, then don’t sign the affidavit that takes them away, period.
    Further, father’s rights are not just terminated on a whim. Due diligence affidavits have to be completed. If the State cannot find a father, it is of no fault on the State’s part, that is the biological mother’s fault for not keeping up with a possible father or fathers. The State is not psychic after all.
    I certainly would not call the adoption “industry” a multi-billion dollar industry. I’d like to know where you get your figures… honestly, tell me where you got that figure. The State, and taxpayers, pay billions of dollars to house and take care of hundreds of thousands of children in the system that NEVER get adopted. In fact, these children tend to rot in the system because of lack of decent funds to give these kids a decent shot at life. Although babies are quick to be adopted, many adolescents and other children with mental issues or deformities, will stay in the system their whole life. Figures on how much it costs to take care of one child during their formative years is over a million dollars… per child. Just something to think about.

Join the conversation

Authors, please log in »


  • All comments are reviewed by a moderator. Do not submit your comment more than once or it may be identified as spam.
  • Please treat others with respect. Comments containing hate speech, obscenity, and personal attacks will not be approved.