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What does ‘white’ mean? How the Census measures race

The official US Census form,  pictured on March 18, 2010 in Washington, DC,
The official US Census form, pictured on March 18, 2010 in Washington, DC,

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Over the last few years, minority groups including the Middle Eastern or North African descent (MENA) communities have lobbied the Census Bureau to create a separate category for them.

For the 2020 survey, several groups who may identify as people of color are listed as examples of “White” in the survey form, including those of Lebanese and Egyptian descent. Latinx individuals and those who belong to several other minority groups will have to fill in their racial identity rather than checking a box, which according to Professor of Sociology, Rebecca Jean Emigh would leave those individuals undercounted.

Today, we discuss how “white” came to be defined by the Bureau and what its implications are for the people and data it could underrepresent.

And we want to hear from you. If you are of Middle Eastern or North African descent, how do you feel about being classified as “white” in the census? If you self-identify as one of the unlisted groups in the upcoming Census Bureau survey, how do you negotiate your personal self-identification with the options on the form? If you are mixed race, which box or boxes do you choose to check?

Call us at 866-893-5722.


Kenneth Prewitt, professor of public affairs at Columbia University; former Census Bureau director who served under the Clinton administration; he is the author of “What Is "Your" Race?: The Census and Our Flawed Efforts to Classify Americans”

Rebecca Jean Emigh, professor of sociology at UCLA whose expertise includes the role of cultural, economic, and demographic factors in social change; she is the co-author of “Antecedents of Censuses from Medieval to Nation States: How Societies and States Count” (2015, Palgrave Macmillan)