Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Rachel Dolezal, the U.S. Census and the Contingent Nature of Race and Ethnicity by Careen Shannon


Photo Courtesy of Rachel  Dolezal Art Blog

The recent revelation that Rachel Dolezal, the former head of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP, has been “passing” as Black for many years has prompted a lively discussion about how we view race in America. For those who don’t think race is a social construct, just take a look at how the U.S. Census Bureau has changed its questions about race over the years. From my perspective as a specialist in U.S. immigration law, this also raises questions about the befuddling ways in which we have sought to understand the race, ethnicity, geographic origin and citizenship status of the U.S. population.

I distinctly recall being flummoxed by the question about race on the 2010 census form. The options in response to the question “What is [your] race?” included the following: White; Black, African American or Negro; American Indian or Alaska Native; Asian Indian; Chinese; Filipino; Japanese; Korean; Vietnamese; Native Hawaiian; Guamanian or Chamorro; Samoan; Other Asian (for example, Hmong, Laotian, Thai, Pakistani, Cambodian, and so on); Other Pacific Islander (for example, Fijian, Tongan, and so on); or some other race.

Since when, I wondered, is Japanese a “race”? When did being Vietnamese make you a member of a distinct “race”? And who decided that “Asian Indian” and “Pakistani” are different “races”?

A separate question about “Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin” provided the following options: Mexican, Mexican-American or Chicano; Puerto Rican; Cuban; another Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin (print origin, for example, Argentinian, Colombian, Dominican, Nicaraguan, Salvadoran, Spaniard, and so on). So now I learned that while—at least according to the U.S. Census Bureau—Korean and Hmong are races, Argentinian and Dominican are not. Huh?

As it turns out, census questions about race have varied widely over the years since the first U.S. census was taken in 1790. Race has variously been defined according to skin color, geographic origin, and degrees of White, Black and Native American ancestry. In fact, as discussed in an interesting short video (“Distilled Demographics: What Is Race?”) produced by the Population Reference Bureau, the questions about race have changed in just about every census since 1790—and as recently as 1910, census takers would actually decide what race a person was, rather than allowing people to select their own race.

A quick look at former census questions on race is illuminating. In 1790, U.S. marshals were charged with listing the name of each head of household in the country, and the questions they asked consisted in their entirety of the following: the number of free white males; number of free white females; number of other free persons; and number of slaves (the latter of whom were presumed to be Black). The questions remained essentially unchanged in 1800 and 1810. The 1820 census included the first question aimed at capturing data on immigration, asking enumerators to list the “number of foreigners not naturalized” in each household. The question was modified in 1830 to seek the “number of White persons who were foreigners not naturalized.” The addition of the term “White persons” in the question was an interesting choice, given that at that time naturalization was limited to “free white person[s]” of “good character.”

It wasn’t until 1850 that a specific question about the “color” of “free inhabitants” was included in the census. The column was to be left blank if a person was White, marked with a “B” if a person was Black, and marked “M” if the person was “Mulatto.” There was a separate questionnaire for the “slave inhabitants" of each household, but slaves were listed by owner, not individually—each slave was assigned a number, not a name, and the only options for “color” were “B” and “M.” (There were also separate questions about the numbers of “uncaught escaped slaves” and “slaves freed from bondage” in the past year.) The questions about foreigners not naturalized dropped out of the census in 1850. The 1860 census collected essentially the same information as in 1850, but did so through the use of multiple questionnaires, including a separate slave questionnaire.

In 1870—the first census taken after Emancipation—the choices for “color” included “W” for White, “B” for Black, “M” for Mulatto, “C” for Chinese (which included all persons of East Asian origin) and “I” for American Indian. The 1870 census also asked for the first time whether the person’s father and mother were “of foreign birth.” In 1880, enumerators were asked to list the person’s place of birth, along with the person’s mother’s place of birth and father’s place of birth, without any specific reference to “foreign” birth.

1890 was the first year that the U.S. Census Bureau distinguished between different East Asian “races.” Census takers were asked to categorize residents as either “"White," "Black," "Mulatto," "Quadroon," "Octoroon," "Chinese," "Japanese" or "Indian." The year 1890 thus also marks the first time the federal government sought to determine various degrees of “blackness” among the U.S. population (beyond “Black” and “Mulatto”) by literally estimating the percentage of a person’s Black ancestry. Also in 1890, in addition to questions about place of birth, each individual resident was asked how long he or she had been in the United States, whether he or she was naturalized, and whether he or she had “taken naturalization papers out,”  as well as whether he or she could speak English and, if not, what language he or she spoke.

"Mulatto," "Quadroon" and "Octoroon" disappeared in the 1900 census. A new question, “What year did the person immigrate to the United States?” was added. An additional 10 questions were added for “American Indians living on reservations or in family groups off of reservations.” These questions elicited the following information: “Indian Name; Tribe of this person; Tribe of this person’s father; Tribe of this person’s mother; Fraction of person’s lineage that is white; Is this person living in polygamy? Is this person taxed? (An American Indian was considered “taxed” if he or she was detached from his or her tribe and was living in the White community and subject to general taxation, or had been allotted land by the federal government and thus acquired citizenship.) If this person has acquired American citizenship, what year? Did this person acquire citizenship by receiving an allotment of land from the federal government? Is this person’s house “movable” or “fixed?” (Enumerators were to mark “movable” if the person lived in a tent, tepee, or other temporary structure; they were to mark “fixed” if he or she lived in a permanent dwelling of any kind.)”

“Mulatto” reappeared as a racial category in 1910. The instructions defined Black and Mulatto as follows: “For census purposes, the term ‘‘black’’ (B) includes all persons who are evidently full blooded negroes, while the term ‘‘mulatto’’ (Mu) includes all other persons having some proportion or perceptible trace of negro blood.” In other words, this signaled the incorporation into the federal census of the so-called “one-drop rule”—defining as Black anyone with at least 1/32 African ancestry—which had become law in most Southern states by 1910. In addition, two new immigration-related questions were added: “Year of immigration to the United States” and “Is the person naturalized or an alien?” “Mulatto” remained on the census questionnaire in 1920, and a question asking for the “person’s mother tongue” (and the person’s mother’s and father’s mother tongue) was added.

In 1930, census enumerators were instructed not to use the “Mulatto” classification any more, but instead to record as Black (designated by the abbreviation “Neg.”) any person with both “White and Black lineage,” no matter the fraction of that lineage. Similarly, a person of mixed Black and American Indian lineage was also to be recorded as Black, “unless he was considered to be ‘predominantly’ American Indian and accepted as such within the community.”  A person with both White and American Indian lineage was to be recorded as an “Indian,” unless his American Indian lineage was very small and he was accepted as White within the community. In fact, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, “in all situations in which a person had White and some other racial lineage, he was to be reported as that other race. Persons who had minority interracial lineages were to be reported as the race of their father.” For the first and only time, “Mexican” was listed as a race, and this category was to be applied both to persons born in Mexico and to persons whose parents were born in Mexico, unless such persons fell into another racial category. “Hindu,” “Filipino” and “Korean” were also added as racial categories.

In 1940, the race question was simplified, with the options being “White,” “Black” or “All other races.” In 1950, people were asked for their “race,” in 1960 for their “race or color,” in 1970 for their “color or race” and in 1980, 1990 and 2000 for their “race.” However, the 1970 census also asked a sample of the population whether their “origin or descent” was “Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Central or South American, Other Spanish or None of These.” This marked the beginning of an attempt to determine the percentage of the U.S. population which was Latino, but the confusing ways in which questions about race and ethnic origin have been posed since 1970 has led to inaccurate results, with the race or origin questions together often totaling either less or more than 100 percent, since persons who self-identify as Latino can be of any race.

The 1970 census also included a question about what language, other than English, was spoken in the person’s home as a child, with the options being Spanish, French, German, Other or “None, only English.” The 1980 census asked, in addition to a simple question about race, whether the person was of “Spanish/Hispanic descent” (a Yes/No question) and “What is this person’s ancestry?” (with no specific options listed). In addition, a sample of respondents in both 1980 and 1990 were asked in what state or foreign country they were born. If they were born in a foreign country, they were also asked if they were a naturalized U.S. citizen; when they came to the United States “to stay”; whether they spoke a language other than English at home; and what their “ancestry” was. The 2000 census also asked whether the person was “Spanish/Hispanic/Latino.” In 2000, for the first time people were given the option to report more than one race. In response, 6.8 million people—2.4 percent of the population—reported that they were of more than one race.

The U.S. census was substantially revamped in 2010. A short-form questionnaire with just ten questions (including “What is [the person’s] race?” and “Is [the person] of “Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin?”) was sent to all households. The questions previously asked by long-form decennial census questionnaires are now asked by the annual American Community Survey (ACS) which is sent to a small percentage of the U.S. population on a rotating basis throughout the decade. This is the form I completed in 2010 that contained the detailed, and to my mind somewhat bizarre, questions about race—bizarre because race and ethnic origin were conflated in a way that further obscured what we mean when we talk about race. But maybe that’s also the point: in 2010, about nine million people checked more than one box under “race.” 

Finally, the latest definitions of “race” used by the Census Bureau are also of interest. For example, in the 2010 census, the term “White” referred to “a person having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa. It includes people who indicated their race(s) as ‘White’ or reported entries such as Irish, German, Italian, Lebanese, Arab, Moroccan, or Caucasian.” This definition may have contributed to a serious undercount of people of Arabic ethnic origin and led to a 2010 campaign (slogan: “Check it right; you ain’t white!”) encouraging Arab-Americans and Iranian-Americans to check the “other” box under “race” on the census form. Nonetheless, while the 2010 census estimated the Arab-American population at just under 2 million, the Arabic American Institute Foundation estimates the number to be closer to 3.7 million. Now some Arab-Americans are asking the Census Bureau to create a separate category for “Middle East/North Africa” ethnic origin in the next census. Even so, such a category is far from perfect, since the population of persons with origins in the Middle East and North Africa is composed of persons with ancestral ties to “22 countries, varying religious backgrounds, and complex historical, cultural, and political identities,” according to the Pew Research Center.

Without taking a position in the debate about whether Rachel Dolezal’s dishonesty about her racial background makes her transracial, post-racial, a narcissist or even a criminal, I do find it absolutely fascinating how her strange hoax has gotten us talking about race and ethnicity in a new way. I still don’t think “Filipino” or “Puerto Rican” are races, but I do think immigrant advocates and scholars can participate meaningfully in this conversation by exploring the parallels in our collective confusion about race, color, ethnic heritage, geographic origin, citizenship and immigration status.

 Careen Shannon is Of Counsel at Fragomen, Del Rey, Bernsen & Loewy, LLP and an Adjunct Professor and Director of the Immigration Law Field Clinic at Cardozo Law School in New York.


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