Elections Have Consequences for the 2020 Census

The Trump administration is overseeing the elimination of the Obama Census Bureau’s recommendations for two new complicated artificial questions for racial categories based on geography – Middle Eastern North African (MENA) and ethnicity – Hispanic-Latino, as well as a complex new sex question for those identifying themselves as LGBT persons.


By Jay O’ Callaghan l April 4, 2018

As former President Obama once told a group of House Republicans after his election, “Elections have consequences… and at the end of the day, I won. So, I think on that one I trump you.” That mainly describes the situation as the Census Bureau prepares the final list of questions for the 2020 census which must be sent to Congress for its approval.

The result has been the elimination of the Obama Census Bureau’s recommendations for two new complicated artificial questions for racial categories based on geography – Middle Eastern North African (MENA) and ethnicity – Hispanic-Latino, as well as a complex new sex question for those identifying themselves as LGBT persons.

The Trump administration, even, without a director at the helm of the Bureau, has proposed so far, a simpler more common sense set of questions similar to previous censuses with a few refinements. The Justice Department has proposed only one new major question for the main 2020 census form asking about citizenship. This question was recently approved by Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross,

Middle Eastern-North African (MENA) Region

The dilemma faced by those who are trying to improve what they believe is an Hispanic undercount (in the questions used for the last forty years) is described by Jomaira Salas Pujols, a sociology Ph.D. student at Rutgers University and a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program fellow recently in the Huffington Post.

Since 1970 “the U.S. Census Bureau has had two questions about race and ethnicity on the main form which is filled out by everyone. The two-question format first asks respondents to identify if they are “Hispanic or Latino,” and then prompts them to select their race: “American Indian and Alaska Native,” “Asian,” “Black or African American,” “Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander,” “White,” or “some other race.”

Pujols points out that “many scholars and other experts had hoped that in the 2020 census, the bureau would change the format to one question by eliminating the ethnicity category and making “Hispanic/Latino” a new racial category. The advantage of this change, experts argued, would be to decrease the number of Latinos who select “some other race,” therefore capturing more accurate data about Latinos as a group.”

Pujols concedes that “there are good reasons to keep the two-part format, especially if Latinos like my father (who is Black and Latino) can be convinced to answer the question in a way that rejects internalized anti-blackness, and reflects their experiences as black Latinos. Latino is not a race, it is an ethnicity. Ethnicity describes a person’s culture, language, heritage and geography. Race, on the other hand, is about how others see us.”

In response to the concerns of scholars like Pujols, the Bureau will ask those who chose the “Black” racial category on their census forms to submit more information about their origins in 2020. They will be asked to add if they are also African-American, Nigerian, Ethiopian, etc. According to NPR, “the Census Bureau has reportedly attempting to respond to calls for more detailed disaggregated data for our diverse American experiences”.

The new suggested format also links specific origins under other race choices. For example, under the “White” choice, they can choose sample ancestries such as German, Irish, English, Italian, Lebanese and Egyptian. This will permit better choices for those from Middle Eastern countries. Respondents will also be allowed to mark one or more choices.

Samer Khalaf, president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, expressed concern that the MENA racial category was not adopted by the Bureau because it might reduce government funding as well as the political power of Arab Americans. The ancestry question will still be asked on the American Community Survey, which will provide similar data on Arab Americans as it has in the past. As indicated above, the “White” category will be changed to provide data on Americans from Middle Eastern countries.

“For example, the social service organisation is providing social care to the Arab-American community and [finds] it hard to find funding. [It has] no way of giving that government entity how many Arab Americans they will be servicing.” He is also pointed out that “every ten years, each state divides up which areas congressmen are going to represent. They look at racial numbers and ethnic numbers. By stating that Arabs are white and not distinct on their own, this causes great disparities in statistics”

Even Khalad admits that there was a split with some Arab Americans considering themselves white while others do not. “There is also the big question of whether we are an ethnicity or a race. I don’t consider myself from the white race even though my skin tone is light,” he said. “There is a consolation prize in that we can identify ourselves as ‘Egyptian’ or ‘Lebanese’ but this is still not going to be very accurate.” Also, some Arab Americans said they were worried about the MENA category because it could help the government surveil their community.

A recent controversy about an Asian Data Disaggregation bill in Massachusetts raises questions about whether Asian-Americans support dividing Americans into ethnic subgroups. The bill requires all state agencies and entities created by the state identify Asian-Americans, and only Asian-Americans, based on their national origin or ancestry.

The Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight voted on Feb. 7 to postpone consideration of the bill and instead “establish a special commission to study the feasibility and impact of directing state agencies to collect disaggregated demographic data for all ethnic and racial groups, as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau. The commission would submit its recommendations by December 31.”

George Shen, a naturalized American citizen from China and an associate partner at IBM in Cambridge, opposes the commission pointing out in an article in The Patriot-Ledger that “the state government’s attempt to divide ethnic groups based on national origin is counterproductive and even detrimental to the fight against deep-rooted racism. Our country has a shameful history of discrimination and xenophobia, from the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 to the Japanese American internment during World War II, and even today, the hidden Asian quota in many top American colleges and universities which reminds us of the Jewish quota in 1920s.”

Shen adds that “it’s not surprising that since the bill was introduced, racial tensions, anxieties, angers and resentments have been running high in many communities. There were half a dozen protests and demonstrations held in the last six months by concerned constituents and an overwhelming number of emails and calls to their representatives. Quite contrary to the original goals … the bill created a deep division and animosities between different ethnic minority groups.”

He quoted President Theodore Roosevelt’s forgotten warning that, “the one absolutely certain way of bringing this nation to ruin, of preventing all possibility of its continuing to be a nation at all, would be to permit it to become a tangle of squabbling nationalities.”

Shen concluded that “we must stop subdividing and segregating people. With a common set of values, principles, beliefs, and ideals, and a culture which sets us apart from the rest of the world, we shall call ourselves Americans and focus on our shared destiny and shared citizenship. The Legislature must say no to the rise of identity politics, tribalism, favoritism based on race and ethnicity, to ‘a tangle of squabbling nationalities’ and to the divisive and harmful ethnic profiling based on national origin once and for all.”


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, of the Conservative-Online-Journalism center at the Washington-based Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research.

Related Articles