Is Obama’s Census Bureau Balkanizing America?

The Israeli category is more controversial with some in the Israeli-American community. In Jewish population studies, most American Jews say they are Jewish by religion. Race and ethnicity have a complicated, terrible history for Jews, and American Jewish organizations were among those opposed to census questions about religion in the past reflecting their concerns related to the Nuremberg laws. Germany’s Nazi government used information from its own census to track down Jews.


By Jay O’Callaghan l July 8, 2015


Photo credit: Haaretz

The U.S. Census Bureau under President Obama’s administration is proposing a new way to count different racial and ethnic groups without calling it a race question, as it has in the past. The new question will be sent to 1.2 million households to be tested in September.

A pilot program, however, is like the proverbial government program – once established, you can never get rid of it.

If the new form passes this test and is approved by the Office of Management and Budget and the Congress, everyone in the 2020 census will have to choose in one question from as many as eight different categories.

For the first time, it includes an Hispanic and “Middle Eastern or North African” (MENA) category.

This is in addition to the traditional racial categories of White, Black or African American, Asian, American Indian or Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, or Other.

No longer will there be two questions about race and Hispanic ethnicity as there has been since 1970. The change is based on focus group research that revealed that many persons are confused by race or ethnicity. A 2013 Bureau report stated that, “race and ethnicity are not quantifiable values” but “a complex mix of … many other immeasurable factors.” This change will prevent someone from being of Hispanic origin and being categorized as white or any other race as in the past. Instead, Hispanic will now be on an equal level with seven other categories.

Pew Research recently reported that there was positive feedback to the new question at a March meeting of the Bureau’s National Advisory Committee. New York University race scholar and committee member Ann Morning said, “the beauty of simply referring to ‘categories’ is that it avoids that problem of people getting hung up on the terminology. So, I would expect this term will allow people to answer the question more quickly, and to feel more free to check more than one box, if they wish, and to lead to a lower non-response rate on that question.”

The new MENA category will allow persons to choose from nineteen options including Israeli and Palestinian, as well as Egyptian, Syrian, Lebanese, Turkish, Iranian, Moroccan and Algerian.

Samer Khalaf, national president of The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee told Haaretz news that “the MENA category was a bit of a compromise for us. In a perfect world, we’d have an Arab category.” Instead, they agreed to the geography-based MENA designation, which describes a geographic area comprising the Middle East and North Africa, whose population is largely Muslim.

The Israeli category is more controversial with some in the Israeli-American community. In Jewish population studies, most American Jews say they are Jewish by religion. Race and ethnicity have a complicated, terrible history for Jews, and American Jewish organizations were among those opposed to census questions about religion in the past.

Arguably, this approach is tantamount to determining a religious category, especially if and when it is tracked by name and/or address, given today’s advanced technology.

“Original Jewish concerns about the census related to the Nuremberg laws,” said Marc Stern, general counsel to the American Jewish Committee. Germany’s Nazi government used information from its own census to track down Jews. “Putting it on the census implies somehow that the government has some interest in knowing the religion of its citizens. I don’t know how it resonates in 2015, but the idea in the 1930s, 40s and 50s was fears that if the government knew what religion people were they might use that against them.”

Census data is used to enforce civil rights and voting rights laws, and to track the size and characteristics of various communities, including education and income. Billions of dollars to state and local governments, as well as various community organizations, are based on these counts. Census data determines the redistricting process and ultimately these new congressional districts impact election outcomes.

The impact of this pilot program cannot be underestimated. Will this then become a significant part of President Barack Hussein Obama’s legacy long after he’s left office and well beyond the 2020 census – or will Congress step up now and do the right thing?


Jay O’Callaghan has worked extensively with issues involving the U.S. Census Bureau including serving as a professional staff member for the House Government Reform Census Subcommittee, as a senior legislative analyst for the Florida House of Representatives Redistricting Committee and for two U.S. House members. He is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.

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