‘Asians’ and the 2020 U.S. Census

Census technicians clean and maintain key-punches used to produce punch cards for tabulation, 1950 Photo Credit: U.S. Census Bureau, Public Information Office (PIO)

Census technicians clean and maintain key-punches used to produce punch cards for tabulation, 1950
Photo Credit: U.S. Census Bureau, Public Information Office (PIO)

The next U.S. Census will be conducted in 2020, and those who reside in the United States would be asked to define their ethnic and racial identities. Recently, I have been asked by the  U.S. Census Bureau (CB) to review its current proposal for the ‘Asian’ classification in the Census.

The 2020 census has been attracting much attention of late (examples can be found here, here, and here), particularly from two constituencies – Latinos and Arabs – whose representatives (or rather, active representatives of some of them) demand different sets of categorizations for their respective groups. The Asian categorization is yet to invoke similar emotional responses (and it’s doubtful that it will).

Census outcomes are important as they may shape the distribution of resources, population estimates, data about racial discrimination and bias, as well as individual, group and national perceptions about the Untied States. Always a tricky business, a census proves particularly challenging to devise when it comes to classification, identification, and what may amount to a somewhat artificial, potentially forced demarcation of boundaries (ethnic, racial, national, etc.) among individuals and groups. Those interested in Central Asian history are familiar with the momentous 1897 Russian census and the reorientation or disappearance of distinct groups (Sarts, Tajiks, etc.) in the region as a result. Of course, many other examples abound. Among the numerous scholarly treatments of the idea and implementation of the census, I recommend especially Bernard Cohn’s essay on the census in South Asia in his book An Anthropologist among the Historians and other Essays.

distribution-of-u-s-population-by-raceethnicity-2010-and-2050-disparitiesThe 2020 census proposal is still being revised, studied and reviewed, so hopefully the following notes are a description of the process as it stands now and not its final version. It is also important to remember that what guides the Census Bureau in its decisions are, first and foremost, the U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB) 1997 race and ethnic standards. In addition, the CB analysts also take under consideration the United Nations’ and the U.S. State Department’s classification of nations and regions of the world, as well as CIA’s World Factbook ethnic data (and these agencies and organization do not always agree with each other). To their credit, CB analysts also seek advice from scholars, experts, community leaders, etc.

As the proposal stands now:

  • All Central Asian peoples (incl. Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Kyrgyz, Turkmens, and Tajiks) are classified as ‘White’;
  • Tibetans and Uyghurs will have separate codes for tabulation, but will be classified as sub-categories of ‘Chinese’, not as separate entities;
  • at the same time, Uyghurs are also classified (racially) as ‘White’;
  • Uyghurs are also not classified with other Central Asian peoples;
  • neither are Afghans, who are also classified as ‘White’;
  • other, more minor issues.

As I wrote to the CB, the main challenges to this system of classification, as I perceive them, are:

  1. The Question of “Origins”. At the moment, the Census identifies ‘Asians’ as people who have “origins in any of the original peoples of the Far East, Southeast Asia or the Indian Subcontinent…” [OMB, 1997 Race and Ethnic Standards]. However, because of substantial population movements (voluntary and/or coerced) throughout history, demographic fluctuations (mixed ancestry, for example), and difficulty to assess a starting point – what does the OMB count as the starting point of said “original peoples”? 10,000 years ago? 2,000? 500? – it is sometimes impossible to establish with certainty the origins of many of these peoples.
  • Example: ‘Turks’, as far as we can tell, originated in north-east Asia (in areas associated with present-day Mongolia), yet no one seems to suggest that Turkey’s residents should be classified as Asians in the Census (and see also 2).
  1. Citizenship = Ethnicity. The tendency in the Census has been to equate official state boundaries and citizenship as they are exhibited at present (after all, such boundaries can change rapidly following conflicts, treaties, etc.) with ethnic and national identities. This may be misleading or simply erroneous, and may conflict with people’s own notion of their identity.
  • Example: Uyghurs and Tibetans are considered in the Census proposal as sub-categories of Chinese. In reality, many – if not most – Uyghurs and Tibetans would probably espouse a self-identification that is fundamentally different from Chinese (ethnically / linguistically / culturally). Chinese authorities have been attempting, for over a decade now, and for their own political reasons, to redefine their usage of minzu (the term used for China’s 55 ‘nationalities’, in addition to the prevailing Han). Accordingly, some claim, China’s official usage of the term gradually has been distanced from its denotation of ‘nationalities’ and steered toward a more simple meaning of ‘ethnic minorities’ or simply, ‘minorities.’ I recommend that Chinese domestic political agendas should not affect U.S. policy regarding its own Census. Incidentally, Uyghurs and Tibetans are the only minzu recognized in the Census (Han, by the way, is not recognized separately).
  • A somewhat different example: Would you consider ‘Palestinian’ to be a sub-category of Israeli or a separate category or both? One imagines that the response to the former may not be enthusiastic on the Palestinian side.
  1. The Conundrum of what is “White”? or, the growing meaninglessness of the category ‘White.’ The OMB guidelines suggest that “White” applies to any person who has “origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa” [see also item no. 1 above regarding the question of “origins”]. At the moment, all Central Asian peoples (Afghans, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Turkmens, Uyghurs, etc.) are classified as ‘White’ even if none of these peoples (as groups) fit the official OMB guidelines. To be sure, historically, “Middle Eastern” peoples had contributed to the creation and continuous re-shaping of many of the aforementioned peoples, but not to the point of considering them as “Middle Eastern” (and therefore, paradoxically perhaps, as ‘White’). As the classification stands now, none of the Central Asian peoples should be defined as ‘White’ unless they themselves decided, for whatever reason, that such a definition characterizes them best.
  1. Group and Individual Self-identification. Naturally, this is a complex issue. How does one recognize group self-identification and how does one resolve the tension between group self-identification and individual self-identification? For example, the Hui (so called “Chinese Muslims”, numbering, according to some estimates, over ten million people, and constituting one of the minzu) seem to belong, generally speaking, with the Han majority in most respects, and may or may not be considered a separate ‘ethnic’ group or a nationality. I tend to view them more in the sense of a community, similar (to an extent) with much of India’s very large Muslim minority. It thus stands to reason that neither group – Hui or India’s Muslims in general – would be included in the Census as a category or sub-category (and they are not included, at the moment).
  2. Over-Simplification and Generalization.  One realizes that such a census classification may be a necessary evil, but ultimately individuals should have the prerogative to express their self-identification and not resort to prescribed classifications.

In light of the above, and in addition to it, and following the guidelines that I received, I also recommended that:

  1. ‘Tibetan’ should be classified as a separate category, and not as a sub-category of Chinese.
  2. ‘Uyghur’ should be classified as a separate category, and not as a sub-category of Chinese.
  3. ‘Uyghur’ should not be classified as ‘White’, but rather as Asian, and also under the Regional heading of Central Asian.
  4. Central Asian peoples (Afghans, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Turkmens, etc.) should not be classified as ‘White’ but as ‘Asian.’
  5. ‘Afghan’ should be grouped together with ‘Central Asian’ peoples in the regional      grouping.

Finally, I should add that, (1.) in the Census every individual would be able to mark whatever category (or categories) of identity that s/he wishes to mark; (2.) certain guidelines compel the CB to list only ethnic groups that had “a minimum of 1,000 or more people reporting that term in the 2010 Census.” This is, of course, quite problematic, because such a requirement does not take into account many criteria (availability of certain terms, knowledge that certain terms can or cannot be used, group awareness, political developments, immigration, etc.).


3 thoughts on “‘Asians’ and the 2020 U.S. Census

  1. This is very good. As an Afghan, I wish there was a Central Asian category on these census forms. I feel like our region is often overlooked and ignored.

  2. Fascinating. You’re right this will be very controversial, and invoking the Russian treatment of its minorities is very timely and appropriate.

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