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The Truth in Black and White:
Why the U.S. Census Should Abolish All Racial Categories

Racial Descent/Ethnicity




Pacific Islander

Native American/Indian



WHEN CONSIDERING WHAT we should use to replace our racial categories, one thing becomes apparent: replacing “white” and “black” will not be easy. There are currently five racial categories on the U.S. census, although the Census Bureau is working on disseminating those back into the various ethnic groups from which they emerged. The categories are Black, White, Asian, American Indian, and Pacific Islander. Although more numerous than Pacific Islanders, Latinos are not a race but an ethnicity, in an interesting story which will be told later.

         The first four racial categories were conceived of in 1735 by Swede Carl Linnaeus, who attempted to lend scientific credibility to the commercial practice of calling slaves blacks or Negroes by classifying all of humanity into one of four human subspecies:

    Americanus: reddish; hair black; choleric; obstinate
   Asiaticus: sallow; dark eyes; melancholy
   Africanus: black; frizzled hair; women without shame
   Europaeus: white; sanguine; acute; inventive

              Linnaeus’ credentials as a botanist were world class. He was here, however, lapsing into the field of anthropology, perhaps unknowingly. But it was in this straying from his field of expertise that the linkages between biological characteristics and behavioral traits became canon. In classical writing, the Romans often associated people’s race with their supposed behavior: “The Goths were a warlike people,” for instance. Here, Linnaeus continues that practice, linking these four biological races with social characteristics: blackness with shame, and whiteness with inventiveness, for example. This is the definition, and this was the invention, of racism. In 1795, Johann Blumenbach added “the Malay” category, which was to distinguish Linnaeus’ groups from people from the Pacific’s Polynesian Islands. 
          In 1790, the U.S. Census standardized Linnaeus’ categories as if they were actual biological realities. In America’s very first census, the two racial categories were white and slave. By using the word white, it was the first time a government had given credence to Linnaeus’ characterization of Europaeus as “white.” Rather than connect to their Scottish, English, German, Irish, or Dutch ancestry, European Americans were from the very beginning encouraged to think of themselves as “white.”

        In the 1820 census, slave was replaced by colored, and in 1850, colored was replaced by black. With that, we have two of Linnaeus’ categories on the census. In the 1860 census, Indian and Chinese were added. Although Chinese would later incorporate other Asian nations and morph into the term Asian in 1980, we have here already Linnaeus’ four races standardized before the Civil War had even begun. Blumenbach’s Malay category would be used to add Hawaiian in 1960, and a question regarding Latino identity first appeared in 1970. But Linnaeus’ four original categories remain on the census to this day.

           And perhaps that would be fine if these racial categories were only seen every ten years. But virtually every institution that uses statistical sampling and surveying utilizes the same framework to stay in line with the Census Bureau as well as the federal office that records and keeps track of America’s demographical statistics, the Office of Management and Budget. Now, doctor’s offices, surveying services, universities, and municipal offices, all use those same categories. “We use them because the Office of Management and Budget and the Census Bureau uses them,” says Dan Foy, Assistant Principal of Gallup, Inc. According to Mr. Foy, using the same metrics as the OMB and the Census Bureau is part of Gallup's weighting process, a system by which statisticians emphasize the contribution of certain sets of data over others to get a more precise analysis. Since certain racial groups tend to underreport on the surveys that Gallup distributes, the number of responses they receive does not always give them a precise accounting of the actual feeling of all the people surveyed. So they "weigh" the results of one group heavier than another. 
             But it was only the initial reporting of racial information that gave Gallup its need to weigh the racial information of residents in the first place. If people had never been asked their racial information, then groups Gallup performs surveys for would have had to base their resource allocation on other factors like age, sex, cultural heritage, or education level. But not race.

          The best solution to the black and white issue is to abandon racial categorization altogether. One transitional languaging practice might be to use the category Racial Descent rather than Race, and to use the terms African rather than Black, and European rather than White. But even those terms are messy. For instance, there have been millions of people born in South Africa since the Dutch invaded in the 1600s that did not look phenotypically “black.” And since apartheid was a rigid form of racial segregation, they remain so to this day. But Afrikaners can claim African ancestry back ten generations. Are they not also people of African descent? Even when they look like Charlize Theron? 

African American

             Classifying people as “persons of European descent” presents the same problem. Europe is big, and not all of the people in all European nations look phenotypically “white.” Natives of southern Italy look different than denizens of Sweden, historically. And because of immigration and serfdom and also because of the Roman Empire, people of European descent have been intermingling and intermarrying with Asians and Africans for over 2000 years.    
              This might seem odd to Americans, but that is because “our” people of African descent and “our” people of European descent came from a limited number of regions in African and Europe, geographically. The majority of the “white” people who settled in America were from Northwestern Europe, and so from then on that was the standard that many of them envisioned as the “true” ethnic blood of the nation. The majority of the people who were brought from Africa were brought from one coast of Africa, the western. But Africa is humongous, and people with all sorts of different phenotypical characteristics are native to that continent. So the term African American is uselessly broad. But we cannot simply use the term Nigerian-American to describe all black people because we simply do not know where we are all from. Few African Americans know how much Hausa blood they have versus Dinka. That is because slaveowners created laws outlawing reading for slaves, so they could never know about their pasts. They then instituted a sweeping program of forced religious and cultural assimilation on blacks, convincing them that their native land was primitive and savage. 

            And few white Americans (although a larger number) know how much Basque blood they have vs. Romanian, for instance. And that is largely because most phenotypically white people stopped emphasizing their ethnic identity once they realized that identifying as “white” in America brought them more social cache, more potential earnings, and greater access to the corridors of American power. 

              That is why the racial categories are so wildly misleading. They are based on color designations made from looking at certain people from certain parts of large continents hundreds of years ago. They are frustratingly misleading and wildly arbitrary. 
             Two other categories, Asians and Latinos, are their own quandary. Latinos are people who are Spanish-speaking, since Spain populated such a large part of North and South America. Spanish-speaking culture has persisted as its own phenomenon in the west, but it is a culture that spans all racial designations. Large numbers of people from South America who Americans would label as white, black, Asian, and Native American all speak Spanish in the Americas.
And when those whites, blacks, Asians, and Native Americans who speak Spanish migrate to America, they do not like being called “white” (blanco), “black” (negro), “Asian” (chino), or “Native American” (Indio). And so “Latino culture” was born, with Latino from the very beginning being labeled on the census as an ethnicity, not a race. This is due largely to the herculean efforts of enlightened U.S. House of Representative Edward Roybal and the newly formed Congressional Hispanic Caucus. In 1976, Roybal and his colleagues were aware that Linnaeus’ categories did not resonate with Spanish-speaking Americans. Only about one-quarter (24%) of Hispanic adults say they most often identify themselves by “Hispanic” or “Latino,” according to a new nationwide survey of Hispanic adults by the Pew Hispanic Center, a project of the Pew Research Center. About half (51%) say they identify themselves most often by their family’s country or place of origin—using such terms as Mexican, Cuban, Puerto Rican, Salvadoran or Dominican. And 21% say they use the term “American” most often to describe themselves. The share rises to 40% among those who were born in the U.S. Roybal and his colleagues were the first immigrant special interest group who realized that America’s racial categories ultimately had no future in a global society, and lobbied instead to be categorized as an “ethnicity.”

         The term Asian is also misleading. When we say Asian in America we usually mean East Asian, because the first ethnic group representing that group to come to America in large numbers was Chinese. The inclusion of Chinese on the census was a result of the immigration of thousands of Chinese to America in response to the 1848 discovery of gold in Sutters Mill, California. All that immigration from China in the 1850s is what got the Western leg of the transcontinental railroad built. But at that time, South Asians (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka) and Southeast Asians (Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand) were not as well represented in America as they are now. Since the 1860s, Indians and Pakistanis have established significant communities in the States, due to it being an equal-and-opposite sanctuary for Indians of both Hindu and Muslim faiths, respectively. And there is a significant Southeast Asian population in America because of the Vietnam War, unfortunately. So the term Asian was adopted in 1980, but when most Americans say Asian they usually mean East Asian because they simply have no comprehension of the breadth of Asian diversity. Put simply: the term Asian tells you absolutely nothing about a person.
          Which is part of the reason the notion of race is so passé. What are we using it for? What are we using it to tell us about? Cultural connections? What about whites raised in black neighborhoods who identify with “blackness” but never experience racism? What about blacks who are raised in white neighborhoods but never experience real poverty? If you check “white” on a form, what are you really telling people? What you look like? Or are you really just telling people what you are not? That you are not Negroid. That you are not second-class, and all your privileges should be reserved. 
        Because if that is not what you are telling people, then what other characteristic do all people who identify as “white” have in common? What else do all white people share except for the fact that they are not black?

        I will sit and let you ruminate on that one for a second. 

        In many ways, one could argue that is all the word white has ever been doing—giving a word for people to tell the world what they are not. Those interested in embodying the notion of true allyship should first consider stop identifying themselves by this divisive and misleading term.
        Which might be harder said than done. "European-American" just does not have that same pop! as “white." It does not have that same clean sheen of purity. 
        But this change might be the only change in America’s racial narrative that saves us from decades more of the scourge of America’s epidemic of racially motivated violence and terrorism.


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Photo Credits:

Profile Pic: Kate Hallock

All other photos by: Ronnda Cargile Jamison

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