March 23, 2010 | Global Voices | Original Article

USA: In Census, Only Some Races Count

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?'”