This blog is intended to go along with Population: An Introduction to Concepts and Issues, by John R. Weeks, published by Cengage Learning. The latest edition is the 13th (it will be out in January 2020), but this blog is meant to complement any edition of the book by showing the way in which demographic issues are regularly in the news.

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Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Race in the Census: I Just Want to be Me

Classifying the racial/ethnic background of Americans has been on the minds of people at the US Census Bureau for some time now, and the New York Times resurrected the issue yesterday. Given the number of Iraqi refugees arriving in the US over the past eight years, and the likely increase in that number, it is perhaps significant that one of the first issues raised in the article is about the racial classification of Arabs.
Mustafa Asmar, a Palestinian-American waiter in Paterson, N.J., does not like his options either. Arab-Americans are broadly classified as white in the census. “When you fill out white or other, it doesn’t really represent the Middle Eastern population,” said Mr. Asmar, 25. “I don’t feel like I’m white. I don’t know what else to put.”
Arab-Americans are generally categorized as white in the census, something activist groups and academics have been lobbying to change. A letter to the Census Bureau last July, submitted by the Arab American Institute and co-signed by a number of organizations and academics, asked for an ethnic category box to be added to the census form to cover people from the Middle East and North Africa. The letter said an estimated two-thirds of people from the region do not consider themselves white.
I have commented before that the racial categories are vestiges of long-ago that should be dispensed with. What really matters is your ethnicity. And why does it matter? Because it may be used against you. Indeed, the main reason why these questions exist on the census is to keep tabs on how different groups are doing in terms of health and well-being. The only ethnicity question currently asked on the 100 percent count census short form is about Hispanic/Latino background. The American Community Survey asks about ancestry, and that is really the question people want to be answering. While in graduate school at Berkeley I worked for a while at the California Department of Public Health, which at the time was headquartered in Berkeley, across the street from the UC Berkeley School of Public Health. I noticed that data in California vital statistics records were coded not just in terms of "Asian" but rather for detailed categories of Asian (e.g, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Korean) and when I asked about that the answer provided to me by a person who might have fit into the overall "Asian" category was simple--the concept of Asian has no meaning--you are a product of where you are from. I have never forgotten that lesson and as it applies to the census it means that we should go for ancestry on the short form and be done with the race issue.

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