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Who The Census Misses

For James Harmoush of Colorado, none of the census boxes quite fit. 

In 2010 and 2020, when the census asked him to select a box regarding his race, he picked “white.” But there’s one major problem there: Harmoush doesn’t — and has never — seen himself that way. 

“Nobody would ever look at me or talk to me and say, ‘You’re white,’” said the 30-year-old Arab American lawyer. The son of Lebanese immigrants, Harmoush sees himself as part of a minority group, but the U.S. Census Bureau legally classifies him as a white man. 

Harmoush is not alone. Many Americans we spoke with felt the census classifications — both “white” specifically as well as the other available categories more generally — do not match the way they identify. In total, we heard from over 200 people with frustrations ranging from the naming of categories (like “Asian Indian” to represent people with ancestry from India) to confusion over why some racial groups, like Japanese or Samoan, were given their own boxes, while Middle Eastern, North African, Southwest Asian and others were lumped together under a catchall “white” racial group. We also heard from some Americans who were now completely rethinking how they personally identified due to the way they saw race and politics intermingle in society today.

The first significant release of the 2020 census data arrived in August, and it paints a picture of America unlike any we have ever seen before. The share of Americans who identify as white fell 11 percentage points, from 72 percent to 62 percent, while the number of Americans who identify as multiracial more than tripled, from nearly 3 percent in 2010 to over 10 percent in 2020.

To be sure, the majority of Americans still identify as white only, but it’s likely that given how the 2020 census classified different racial and ethnic identities, its numbers understate the true diversity of our country.

In fact, according to some of the experts we talked with, it’s very possible that if we could more accurately count everyone in the U.S., the result would show that America is a majority-minority country. But that reality likely scares a lot of people, said Matthew Stiffler, a University of Michigan lecturer on Arab American studies and the program manager for the Center for Arab Narratives at the Arab American National Museum. “I really do think that there are people who don’t want an accurate count of our nation,” he said.


How the census asked about race in 1790

The census has a long history of upholding whiteness

In the first few censuses, taken between 1790 to 1810, just three terms were used to measure one’s racial identity: free white people, enslaved Africans and all other free persons.1 But as the population of free people grew in the mid-1800s, including the population of free Black people, the census imposed a more rigid classification of race concerned foremost with racial purity.

“Mixed-race people were seen as inferior, and [the census] needed another category to alienate them from whites,” said Richard Alba, a sociology professor at the CUNY Graduate Center. In the 1850 census, this meant introducing the racial designation “mulatto” to denote people with some African ancestry and some white ancestry — a designation the census used intermittently until 1930.2


Who the Census misses

But even once Black Americans won their freedom in the mid-1860s, race remained an important factor in the census’s classifications. Well into the 20th century, many legal rights — specifically, citizenship and property rights — were dependent on a person’s skin color, and only immigrants considered white or of African descent were eligible for citizenship.

Even though certain European immigrants, like those from Italy and Ireland, were often vilified and viewed as “inferior” by other white Americans, Alba told us that these immigrants “were always viewed as white as far as the government was concerned.” But for other immigrants, the requirements for citizenship were enforced haphazardly. A Japanese man, for example, was denied citizenship in 1922 because he wasn’t Caucasian, but the following year, a South Asian man — technically “Caucasian,” according to the contemporary pseudoscience — lost his citizenship because his skin wasn’t light enough. Meanwhile, Chinese immigrants were barred from becoming U.S. citizens until 1943, although many Middle Eastern immigrants were classified as white despite also being considered “Asiatic.”

How the census asked about race in 1890 and 1930

When it comes to measuring race, the Census Bureau has repeatedly contorted its definitions and contradicted itself to uphold a specific image of whiteness. For instance, in 1890, “quadroon” and “octoroon” were added to the census to justify the discrimination of Black Americans, only for both to be removed in the following census and never used again. Similarly, in 1930, the census added a “Mexican” racial category, which was then eliminated in the next census, after the Mexican government lobbied to have those immigrants classified as white, therefore reinstating their eligibility for citizenship.

Nowadays, the census has stopped using these categories to track citizenship and has introduced a bevy of new, mostly nationality-oriented categories and race options, including a question on Hispanic ethnicity. But the hodgepodge of classifications we have now still doesn’t fully encapsulate how many Americans identify. Ultimately, the census hasn’t been able to keep up with the rapidly changing demographics of our country.

There’s arguably no better example of this than the current classification of Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) and Southwest Asian and North African (SWANA) people as white. Despite some lawmakers and advocates’ pleas to add separate race categories for these groups, they still legally fall under the white category even if that doesn’t align with their lived experiences.

“I can’t say with any degree of certainty that I’ve received any benefits from being under the white umbrella,” Harmoush told us. “In a lot of ways, it can feel like being white without the privilege.”

But Stiffler, the University of Michigan lecturer, said that the decision not to include more racial categories might be a deliberate one. “Especially since the census count is tied to redistricting, I think it’s a political maneuver to impede the counting of people of color and immigrants,” he said.

Naming and acknowledging minority populations is important for giving various communities power — consider that the census is used to allocate federal funding for many social services and to apportion House seats — but the census has a long history of limiting the political clout of nonwhite populations. It’s also not clear what the census is prioritizing today.


A collage illustration of people being sorted into containers labelled with various races.

Sibba Hartunian

‘It’s like a racial category that isn’t’

One major consequence of the census’s current race categorizations is that a large section of the population now legally falls under “white,” even though they don’t feel like this adequately describes their racial identity.

“I think, in the interest of parsimony, the census has tried to avoid splitting race categories too finely, and that has resulted in an extremely broad ‘white’ category,” Alba said. But one disadvantage to the current system, he added, is that a great deal of diversity within the white racial category is often overlooked when we report data by race. “Our current racial division tends to cast the white group as dominant, and while parts of it are, not all of it is. We’ve lost sight of how much disadvantage can be found among whites.”

This disconnect between government classification and treatment in everyday life is particularly acute among some people with MENA or SWANA ancestry, or those who are culturally Muslim. For example, Kera Abraham, a 42-year-old with Irish and Syrian ancestry, described the Sept. 11 attacks as a watershed moment for her identity. “I find a shared experience with much of America in my feelings of horror and fear. And then, as the media coverage continued, and the government response unfurled, I started to see that Arab Americans were not being included in the ‘we’ and in the concept of ‘Americans,’” she said. “There was this tremendous and appalling, immediate othering.”  

She saw those behaviors and the military response — invading Iraq, even though the orchestrators of the terrorist attack were Saudi — as a sign that the U.S. didn’t think Arab or SWANA Americans were people deserving of dignity. “It just became abundantly clear to me that America doesn’t view Arabs as white,” she explained, tying it back to how people like her are, nevertheless, supposed to identify themselves on the census.   

Other people we spoke to, like Harmoush, who has dark hair and tan skin, don’t believe they fit into the stereotypical physical description of a white person (blonde hair, blue eyes, and European features were some of the common hallmarks of American whiteness that interviewees cited in our conversations), and thus, they don’t feel that their lived experiences align with the label of “white.”

“When people try to guess my ethnicity, I’ve gotten, you know, ‘Oh, you’re Hispanic.’ Some people will guess Arabic. I’ve had one person in my life assume I was Russian, and that was interesting,” he said. “But it’s not common for people to mistake me as white.” 

How the census asked about race in 2020

But changes to racial categories happen slowly, and they can easily be influenced by the administration in power. In 2015, the Census Bureau conducted a study to determine what would happen if Arab Americans were given the option to identify as “Middle Eastern or North African.” And they found that when Arab Americans were given a choice, the percentage who identified as white dropped more than 60 percentage points, from 86 percent to 20 percent. This resulted in the bureau concluding that a MENA category was needed on the 2020 census. However, the Trump administration did not support these efforts, and in 2018, the bureau announced it would not include a MENA category. The Biden administration and the Census Bureau are reportedly looking to produce more accurate race and ethnicity data about Latinos and Americans of MENA descent, although it’s currently unclear when such changes would take effect.

“The MENA community fought to be white in the early parts of the 1900s and they achieved that, but as politics and world affairs developed later that century and into the 2000s, it became clear that Arab and MENA folks were not going to be treated as white,” Stiffler told us. And there are real-world consequences to their current status as legally white, he argued. “We do a lot of health research on the Arab community, but you can’t get funding, because Arabs are not under Office of Minority Health,” he said.

There have been some changes in recent years to how the census classifies race, however. A surge of multiracial activism in the 1990s spurred the Census Bureau to add a way for people to specify that they were from multiple racial backgrounds, beginning with the 2000 census. And last year’s census included lines under the boxes for Black and white, instructing respondents to describe their racial backgrounds in more nuance, if applicable. But several mixed-race Americans we spoke to noted that even these changes don’t truly reflect the increasingly diverse American public. Namely, this is because the changes are so broad and don’t fully address the variation of different mixed-race groups.

“Someone who’s half-Black [and] half-Samoan and someone like me are both in that category,” said Kavi Farr, a 21-year-old living in Washington, D.C., with mixed white and Indian ancestry. “We couldn’t be more different racially, but we’re in the same category because we’re mixed. It’s like a racial category that isn’t.”

How America’s white population breaks down by race and ethnicity, according to the 2020 census

Hispanic or Latino
Race No Yes Both
White only 57.8% 3.8% 61.6%
White + other(s) 3.7 5.7 9.4
Total white 61.5 9.5 71.0

Excludes Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

According to the 2020 census results, there has been a significant jump in the number of people who identify as multiracial. But with that comes challenges about how to talk about the racial makeup of the nation when a tenth of the population is lumped into a catchall mixed-race group. In fact, if we include in the totals for each racial category the people who identify as both white and something else — as over 90 percent of mixed-race people do — the percentage of people with white ancestry in the U.S. has a less dramatic shift.

“We can’t be sure, but it appears to me that the white group didn’t shrink in number but is shrinking as a proportion of the population,” Alba said. “However, if you want to include mixed-race whites in the white category, then the white category is more than 70 percent of the population.”


Rethinking race

Because of both the uptick in mixed-race people and the large group that falls under the umbrella of “white,” it’s very possible that we’ll need to rethink how we classify race in America going forward. This is especially important considering that racial blending is becoming more prevalent and that Americans of MENA or SWANA descent are advocating to be counted separately on the census. 

We’re already seeing evidence of the former: In 1980, just 5 percent of U.S. children had mixed parentage, compared with 16 percent in 2017. Estimates also predict that over the next decade the share of the population who identifies as white alone will continue to decline, while racial diversity within family units will increase

It’s also possible that more multiracial and multiethnic kids will start to critically examine their race and how they fit into American society. This was the case already for a handful of people we interviewed for this story, many of whom are either shedding the term “white” from their lexicon or identifying as something not currently present on the census form.

G.B., a 47-year-old in Idaho who preferred to use her initials out of privacy concerns, is one of those people. She’s half Japanese and half white, though she prefers the term “European American” because she doesn’t feel that “white” describes her racial identity. That’s because, to her, whiteness has become politicized and weaponized over the years to the point where she’s uncomfortable using that label to describe herself. “I started getting really upset that people would call me white or white-passing or white-adjacent. That’s not what I identify as, and that’s certainly not my experience based on people’s assumptions about Asians,” she said. “What’s more representative of me and my culture is European American because I have a very eclectic side of my family that has many different religions and cultures which differ from ‘mainstream’ white culture.”

We also spoke to Stewart, a 62-year-old with Scottish and Polish ancestry from Washington state who said he could speak more freely with us if we used only his first name due to the delicate nature of the topic. He checked the “white” census boxes in both 2010 and 2020 because he “takes responsibility for his privilege.” But his decades of experience working with multiracial advocacy groups, as well as his time spent volunteering overseas, have informed his current view that “white” is an offensive designation “created to privilege some and disempower others.”

“There’s some kind of implication if I buy into that word, and using that word, I’m somehow agreeing that there are races and that my race is better in some way, or that some people think it is,” he explained to us. “From my understanding of genetics and other things, there’s no such thing as a ‘white’ race. Any race is human.” He is proud of his European heritage but said that when he thinks of his ancestry, he thinks of himself as coming from Africa — like everyone else. “We’re all humans and very, very closely related.”

Demonstrators in Washington, DC hold up signs that read “Black Voters Matter.”

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Ezra Sassaman, a 28-year-old from Maine with German and Eastern European Jewish ancestry, is also against the use of race as a category of classification. He previously identified as white, but now he doesn’t identify as having a race. He didn’t fill out the 2020 census, but on similar forms that ask for race, he marks himself as “other.”

“I see race as like the ultimate tool for maintaining hierarchies of power,” he told us in an interview, citing how these categories were weaponized in Nazi Germany and apartheid-era South Africa in both our conversation and his response to our callout. “We need to reject the lie of humans ‘belonging’ to different races,” he wrote. “Unfortunately, the census reinforces this falsehood instead of progressing American society forward beyond race, where I believe it needs to go.”

Yet, in our follow-up interview, he struggled to come up with an alternative system that allowed the government to adequately address issues of inequality or racism without perpetuating racial divisions. He suggested categories based on ethnic backgrounds or more specific backgrounds — such as Western European or Middle Eastern instead of something broad like “white.”

We might still be a long way away from the type of overhaul that several of our interviewees proposed, but it’s certainly the case that what it means to be white or nonwhite is already changing. It’s entirely possible, too, that we’ll see changes to how the census asks about race as soon as the next census. But 2030 is a while away, and in the meantime, many Americans are in the same situation as Harmoush. Toward the end of our interview, he summarized his feelings toward race, categorization and ancestry plainly: “The way I see myself is the way nobody sees me. Whether it’s official documents, the government, jobs or people day to day who don’t know me personally,” he said. “It frustrates me more every year as I go through adulthood.”


Illustrations by Sibba Hartunian. Art direction by Emily Scherer. Copy editing by Andrew Mangan. Story editing by Sarah Frostenson.


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Footnotes

  1. The early censuses additionally measured white people by age and gender.

  2. The census definition of “mulatto” changed through the years, at times referring to light-skinned Black people or a specific blood quantum. At other times, it has referred more generally to someone with mixed white and nonwhite ancestry.

Jasmine Mithani was a visual journalist for FiveThirtyEight.

Alex Samuels is a politics reporter at FiveThirtyEight.

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