Since 1790, we have relied on the decennial census for information about the population of America — we use it for a plethora of things. The census not only tells us how many people are in each state, which determines Congressional representation, but it also provides information to determine economic decisions such as taxes. Because of the importance of the census, it is even more concerning that the racial categories listed have not been updated to reflect America’s population nor its supposed value in equality.
The first census only had three racial categories — free white people, other free people and enslaved people. It wasn’t until 1960 when people could identify themselves racially on the census, and 2000 was the first year where one could choose more than one racial category. Even more recently, the 2020 census includes a record nineteen racial categories — including “some other race” — and an option for people to elaborate on whatever categories they pick. This should be applauded, as it seemingly shows America’s progression into a more inclusive and representative future. Unfortunately, there is a sliver of good old-fashioned white supremacy still present in the data collection, and it threatens to nullify any progress that the U.S. claims it has made — the category “white.”
The Office of Management and Budget requires that the census at least capture data for five racial categories — “White, Black or African American, American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, and Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander,” in addition to “Some Other Race.” This is how we as a society have come to think of race — distinct groups of those with similar origins and similar phenotypes. The census defines all five of these racial categories — white people, however, are defined as “having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa.”
First and foremost, I want to preface these arguments by saying that I am not white — there’s a line you don’t read very often. However, from media to history to the very lived experiences detailed by those from the Middle East and North Africa, it may be safe to say that neither are Middle Easterners and North Africans categorized as white in American society. This grossly inaccurate grouping ignores the self-identification and lived experiences of those from the Middle East and North Africa. The hate crimes following 9/11 did not attack white people — Sikhs and Arab Muslims were “othered” and treated as threats to Americans, despite being American.
What is even more apparent is that it skews data. The census is used for research — several colleges, research institutions and non-profit organizations use census data to evaluate public policy, sociology, health and economics alike. As race has been proven to be a fundamental cause of health disparity, income inequality and socioeconomic inequities, this skewed data has a domino effect. If people are misrepresented on the census, they will be misrepresented in the research, and thus, the policies will not solve anything.
It must also be noted why Middle Easterners and North Africans are thought of as white by the U.S. census. Historically, where “civilization” actually existed — that is, reputable culture, religions and inventions — has been racialized. Africa and the pre-colonized Americas were thought uncivilized, justifying several atrocities against them. The same, however, was not thought of for North Africa or the Middle East — both had written history, similar religions to that of ancient Greece or Judaism, respectively, and in many cases, they rivaled and “advanced” Europe. Of course, this is not to say that Africans and cultures in the pre-colonized Americas did not heavily contribute to modern-day society in terms of culture, but they weren’t given credit to push an agenda of racial inferiority.
So, apart from just being wildly inaccurate, the census’s categorization of those from the Middle East and North Africa as white is not some ignorant mistake. It works for an outdated and offensive system of thought — the idea that these regions’ peoples must belong to the white category because they have historically matched Europe in terms of culture, contribution and in many cases, skin color. Though many who originate in these two regions would not agree that they are white, it works with the American narrative of primitive black and brown people and advanced white societies.
Just recently, there were attempts to have some ethnic and national groups gain more clear and accurate representation on the 2020 census, but it was stalled by the previous presidential administration. We can never truly move forward as a nation if our laws, regulations and decrees do not change. It is not a matter of semantics — it is a matter of being recognized as a citizen in the way in which you identify and the way in which you are treated. The fact that the census even has to collect racial categorization because of the disparities linked between race and other facets of society is unfortunate to say the least. But the literal least that the country could do, is to make sure that every citizen is represented accurately and without historical stratification.
Shaleah Tolliver is the Senior Associate Opinion Editor who writes on Identity and Culture for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Cavalier Daily. Columns represent the views of the authors alone.