Science Says Race Isn’t Real. How Long Will the U.S. Census Pretend Otherwise?

This whole business of counting Americans by race should have been junked long ago.

A question about race has been on every US Census since the first one in 1790. But not the same question. In response to shifting politics, social attitudes, interest-group pressures, and government priorities, the list of racial categories into which the American government sorts the American people has changed many times. Now it is about to change again.

The Biden administration last month announced that the five racial categories currently used by the government — American Indian, Asian, Black, Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, and White — are to be joined by two more. One is “Hispanic or Latino,” which until now has been considered an ethnic group only. The other is “Middle Eastern or North African,” which is being added as a new racial classification.

“These updated standards will help create more useful, accurate, and up-to-date federal data on race and ethnicity,” says Karin Orvis, the federal government’s chief statistician, in a blog post on the White House website. The new racial classifications, she writes, “will enhance our ability to … understand how well federal programs serve a diverse America.”

Don’t count on it.

In what sense is “Hispanic or Latino” a race? Certainly not in the sense that “White,” “Black,” and “American Indian” have long been perceived as racial. As the scholar Michael Lind observes in Salon, the government’s definition of “Hispanic” encompasses “blond, blue-eyed South Americans of German descent as well as Mexican-American mestizos and Puerto Ricans of predominantly African descent.”

Indeed, until last week, the federal government was adamant that “Hispanic or Latino” was not a racial category and that its members could therefore be of any race. Before 1980 the “Hispanic” category didn’t exist on the census at all, and proposals to designate it as a race were often opposed by Latino organizations. Today, many Hispanic advocacy groups have come around to supporting the designation. That wasn’t because of some objective scientific clarification that “Hispanic or Latino” really is a racial category unto itself. It was because of a subjective change: More than 40 percent of Hispanics no longer identify their race as white, Black, or Asian; instead they answer the racial question on the census by checking the box marked “some other race.”

In other words, the new category reflects a shift in feelings, not facts. That is a strange basis for making a major change to federal data collection.

Much the same is true of the new “Middle Eastern or North African” checkbox.

Arab-American activists and organizations lobbied for the creation of the MENA category as a proxy for Arab identity. “In a perfect world we’d have an ‘Arab’ category,” the president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee told a reporter in 2015. But the new category, writes David Bernstein, a professor at George Mason University, “will obscure more than it illuminates.” The author of “Classified,” a history of the government’s long entanglement with racial labeling, Bernstein observes that the MENA label will “include, in addition to Arab Americans, approximately 500,000 Israeli immigrants and their descendants, about 300,000 other MENA Jews, 600,000 Iranians, and 500,000 Chaldean Americans.”

In short, says Bernstein, the introduction of a new Middle Eastern/North African race checkbox will only compound the muddle of federal racial data, since “at least as many non-Arab Americans will be part of the classification as will Arab Americans.”

At the grassroots level, meanwhile, there is no consensus about race among Arabs or other Americans of Middle Eastern origin. Many instinctively identify as white; many do not.

A century ago, Arabs in America campaigned strenuously to be designated as white, in part because citizenship was available only to immigrants who were Black or white. The Middle East is in Asia, but Arab immigrants seeking to become naturalized resisted the Asian label (at the time, the government used the terms “Chinese” and “Mongolian”). The Arab American Historical Foundation recounts the fascinating case of George Shishim, a policeman in Venice, Calif., who earned the enmity of a prominent lawyer when he arrested the lawyer’s son. The lawyer fought to have the arrest invalidated on the grounds that Shishim, a Lebanese immigrant, could not be a US citizen and therefore had no authority to make an arrest. During the protracted litigation that ensued, Shishim argued: “If I am a Mongolian, then so was Jesus, because we came from the same land.”

The court ruled for Shishim and ordered that he be allowed to take the oath of allegiance as a US citizen. For decades thereafter, the government classified Arabs as members of the white race. Now it will let them pick a different racial label: “Middle Eastern and North African.” Is that an improvement? Or does it amount to making a system of racial taxonomy that has always been arbitrary, divisive, and nonsensical even more so?

The fundamental truth about the ever-shifting array of racial categories on the census is that little good has ever come of them. From the outset, Americans were sorted into groups in order to facilitate discrimination and legal restrictions. When the pseudoscience of eugenics arose in the 19th century, its racist practitioners exploited census data to lend credence to their claims. In recent decades, state legislators, Republican and Democratic alike, have made use of the census to gerrymander congressional districts so that certain racial groups are deliberately lumped together — or deliberately split apart.

This whole business of counting Americans by race should have been junked long ago. “Racial criteria are irrational, irrelevant, [and] odious to our way of life,” argued Thurgood Marshall on behalf of the NAACP in 1950. “There is no understandable factual basis for classification by race.”

That isn’t merely a moral claim. It is a hard scientific truth. Race has no biological reality. The Human Genome Project confirmed in 2003 that the genetic makeup of all human beings is 99.9 percent identical. The DNA of white people is indistinguishable from the DNA of Asian people — and of Black, Hispanic, Middle Eastern, Pacific Islander, and Native American people. Unlike sex, which is etched into our chromosomes, race and ethnicity are subjective social constructs. Racial categories are objectively meaningless. There is no gene for race, and differences in skin color, hair texture, or eye shape have no more significance than any other physical variations among human beings.

The Constitution requires that Americans be counted every decade. It says nothing about using the machinery of the census to sort people into social or cultural categories. Just as the federal government doesn’t ask for your religion or political affiliation or sexual orientation, it shouldn’t be asking you to choose a racial label. That’s hardly an outlandish suggestion: Many diverse democracies — including Australia, Denmark, France, Germany, India, Israel, and Italy — do not collect official racial or ethnic statistics. Science makes it clear that race isn’t real. How long will the census keep pretending otherwise?

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