It might seem like we just had a Census, but the government is already gearing up for 2020 because planning a Census is serious business. It doesn’t just involve training thousands of temporary workers, printing millions of forms, and preparing to process a considerable volume of data. The Census Bureau also has to think about how it wants to structure the forms in order to get the most accurate and exacting answers from participants so as to understand the makeup of America.
This matters, not just because it provides interesting insights into who is living in the United States, but because demographic breakdowns determine things like how federal aid is distributed, how Congressional districts are apportioned, how many electoral college votes states receive, and more. If this information is incorrect, Americans might be shortchanged–and unfortunately, it’s often minorities who bear the brunt of such inequalities, as they’re the most in need of the safety net of governmental support, as well as legal protections.
One of the most important questions on the Census has to do with race, and it’s also one of the most fraught. In 2010, more people than ever were selecting “some other race” because they felt like none of the categories on offer described them. While respondents wrote in their own race, the Census didn’t necessarily respect that classification. Case in point: Arab-Americans, who identify as Arab-American, not white, yet are considered “white” for legal purposes.
The reasons for that classification are a fascinating and horrifying glimpse into US history that highlights how long the effects of racism can linger.
When people from the Middle East first began emigrating to the US, many faced considerable prejudice and discrimination, much of which was written directly into the law. As non-whites, they weren’t allowed to own property, marry white people, start businesses, or engage in other basic acts of daily living, because of state laws and regional restrictions. In response, the Syrian and Lebanese communities began fighting to be legally recognized as white in order to receive access to the same social benefits the white community had. They won, but it’s turned out to be a Pyrrhic victory for the new generation, which is proud of its heritage and doesn’t see itself as white–though there are, of course, some who feel otherwise.
As the Census begins to think about what should be on the new form and how it should be worded, it’s facing a considerable and complex discussion about race, ethnicity, and personal identity. While the Census wants to collect broad general information that will help it offer meaningful statistics, it also needs to consider the fact that the categories and descriptors it’s familiar with may no longer fit the United States as a country, or as a culture. Should the agency override personal feelings about identity in the interest of statistics? And, how accurate are those statistics if they don’t reflect the reality of the communities they’re supposed to be tracking?
One thing is certain: the Census form we see in 2020 is likely to be quite different from 2010′s, and that’s a good thing.
Photo credit: Esmar Abdul Hamid.