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Answer This: What Should the Census' New Racial Categories Be?

Liz Dwyer

Sure, race is a social construct, but every decade we check a box on the U.S. Census indicating who/what we are. But is Hispanic really an ethnicity? Are Arabs, Turks, and Kurds white? Are folks from Ghana "negro?" Over at the New York Times Kenneth Prewitt says we need to chuck the census' current race and ethnicity categories in favor a more nuanced approach to racial identity. So, what should the new categories/questions on the form be?

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  • Cyril B. Saulny

    America and Americans need to stop it! America is a country of immigrants. DNA has, and is proving that we are all more alike than we are different. So, all of America, and all Americans, should catch up with their African self!

    • Cimon Alexander

      We are also more alike with chimpanzees than we are different (99% similar DNA!). However, small changes in the genetic code can have large differences in phenotype. As you can tell, you are quite different from a Chimpanzee!

    • Priscilla Villa

      Well said. If you haven't seen the human family tree on national geographic, I highly recommend. It is available on Netflix :)

  • Alessandra Rizzotti

    It's so hard to say. I feel like so many people are of mixed ethnicities and races now. It's almost like we should just have ethnicities on the Census? I dunno. If anything, we should have the option to mark multiple races too. If we do drop the race question on the census, we may not be able to target really important issues about who goes to certain schools for example, and how we can integrate more races into them. What I do know is we need way more than the five races that are currently on there. Let's add them all?

    • Cimon Alexander

      One way would be to let genetic similarity guide our racial categories instead of arbitrary cultural groupings. For example, "hispanic" refers to people who are descended from Spaniards living in south america, and it also refers to people descended from native American tribes. In South America, they acknowledge this difference but here they are both "hispanic" even though they are as far apart genetically as any non-African groups (due to founder effects, the quantitative majority of human genetic variation is found in Africa)

      • Cassie Bishop

        I agree with you Cimon, and I appreciate your objective response to my previous comments, (albeit rather flippant)!
        In making those comments, I had clearly neglected to recognize some basic genetic variables in the equation.
        Instead, my response was rooted in a skepticism I've had for many years that the notion we all fall under one category or another, or that such a vast majority of folks identify with (or simply acquiesce to) specific classifications, (which have continued to shift in relation to the powers that be)...
        So I must ask, Can one's racial identity be verified by science, or merely by how they have been conditioned to see themselves? On one hand, as you pointed out, there are clear differences in the DNA/gentic make up in correlation to the region of the world he is from). But that shouldn't necessarily support the validity of doesn't Many, many people consider themselves to be members of a 'race' that had not been determined by clear distinctions in their DNA, but physical resemblance, regardless of how slight it may be. The variables at play here aren't all objective truths. Instead, folks who haven't given it any critical thought, neglect to consider the social and political subgroups that our ever changing social/political environs & the leaders thereof have declared to be the truth. So I was drawing more on how outdated the notion that someone,can legitimately claim they are genetically 'Black, 'White, 'Indian', (but not Pakistani?), Native American, Middle Eastern, Asian ', etc. in this day and age? (especially in more heterogeneous or diverse regions of the world). Or maybe it's rooted in my own experience as a woman who has been mistaken as "Italian, Spanish, Jewish, Latina and/or Native American" when heritage.. when my family tree goes directly back to Ireland & England, (and, most likely, Native American, Spanish and perhaps a little Moroccan)!
        Anyway, you might appreciate this article; it kinda captures a few of of the ideas I've so gracefully tried to capture!
        Thanks for reading through all of this Cimon (and/or others)!

        • Cimon Alexander

          I'll follow up at length later, but I encourage you to read Andrew Sullivan's response to Ta-Nehisi:

          Though both authors come solidly from the egalitarian end of the ideological spectrum, Andrew's view is more informed by genetic science.

          Locally, most racial groupings do correspond to a biological/genetic reality. For example, "black" Americans share similar genetic heritage from a certain part of Africa, combines with an average of 30% European admixture. Japanese and Chinese "Asians" are much more closely related to each other than they are to peoples from other parts of the world. Their similar features do indicate similar lines of decent.

          Applying local notions of "race" to global populations can lead you to error. For example, both the ancestors of Shaquille O'Neal and pygmy tribes are considered "black" by American standards, but there is a vast genetic gulf between them. There is more genetic variation within Africa than there is in the entire rest of the human race due to the founder effects. The most genetic differences in the world between humans are found between Australian aborigines and some Africans, both of whom have dark skin and would probably be considered "black" by Americans.

          You'll find that African-local notions of race are far more scientifically accurate. They recognize the difference between khoisan, xhosa, pygmy, and bantu - often to catastrophic effect (in the Congo, Pygmys are hunted like game and eaten). There are a few recent pop science articles on the evolutionary origin of pygmys:

          It is not hard to construct a human phylogenetic tree based on genetic similarity, here's one I clipped from a paper: This article at Discover magazine dives more into the scientific basis:

          There is a degree of social arbitrariness to race. For example, in America anyone who is 1/2 black is "black", like Obama. A person who is of a family of Spanish DNA that recently lived in Mexico can claim to be "Hispanic" when applying for college admission or government contracts governed by affirmative action, even though everybody in his life considers him "white". And his genetic lineage is very different from a person from a Mexican family of indigenous background - who have been second-class citizens to Mexicans of European background for centuries.

          Social concepts of race aren't logical, but neither are they completely arbitrary.