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Feds To Create Yet Another Ethnic Category?

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The Obama administration would like to create a new racial category, presumably for the Census and other federal forms. USA Today reports

The White House is putting forward a proposal to add a new racial category for people from the Middle East and North Africa under what would be the biggest realignment of federal racial definitions in decades.

Under current law, people from the Middle East are considered white, the legacy of century-old court rulings in which Syrian Americans argued that they should not be considered Asian — because that designation would deny them citizenship under the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. But scholars and community leaders say more and more people with their roots in the Middle East find themselves caught between white, black and Asian classifications that don't fully reflect their identities.

It's unclear if the new category would be an ethnic category like "Hispanic," or if it would be a racial category like "white." (Ethnicity does not denote race, and a Hispanic, for example, can be of any race.) 

In either case, it's true that this would be a big realignment. The last time the federal government put through such a large change to demographic tracking was during the 1970s when the federal government invented the concept of "Hispanics" which lumped together every household which claimed a cultural heritage from the Spanish-speaking world. Later, this category was expanded to "Latino" to include households from the Portuguese-speaking world as well. 

The effects of this sort of ethnic and racial categorization can be far-reaching, indeed. It is largely thanks to the federal invention of Hispanics that we now consider many Hispanics to be "non-white" even though a majority of Hispanics self-identify as white. 

Moreover, the idea that the United States is becoming a majority-minority country is purely an artifact of federal policy in this regard. When white Hispanics and Latinos are correctly identified, the United States remains over 70 percent white, with the rest of the population being made up of African-American (12 percent), Asian-American (5 percent), Non-white Hispanic or Latino (8 percent), and "other." (Hispanics and Latinos of all races make up over 16 percent of the total population.)

Nevertheless, by categorizing so many people of European descent (i.e., most Hispanics and Latinos) as "non-white," this allows demographers and government officials to redefine and reshape the population on paper to suit their needs. 

The whole issue of ethnicity them becomes a political football with demographic categories being used by left-wing groups to justify new government programs or hand down new regulations calling for greater "diversity." In other cases, right-wing groups use the same data for their own agenda, as in the case of right-wing complaints over Hispanic perpetrators of crime (including white ones) being labeled "white" in the paperwork. 

Of course, these classifications are based on no meaningful commonalities with the group known as "Hispanic." Hispanics are an immensely diverse group in terms of race, national origin, and socio-economic status. Some are immigrants and some are native-born. Among native-born Hispanics, over 90 percent speak English only or are bilingual. Meanwhile, a majority of foreign-born Hispanics speak Spanish only. 

No matter. The Census Bureau tells us these people are all pretty much the same. 

In order to imagine the consequences of this sort of categorization, however, let's imagine what would happen if federal policymakers took similar steps for other ethnic groups as well. 

In an article called "How the Census Bureau Created "'Hispanics'" I suggested that a similar situation might have been easily created had the Census Bureau classified Eastern Europeans in a manner similar to Hispanics: 

Imagine, for example, that the Census and other agencies had created a special category for "Slavs" who are defined as descendants of people from Eastern Europe. This would group together Russians, Poles, Hungarians, Czechs, and others. The group includes perhaps more than 20 million Americans today, with concentrations in certain cities and states. Would we today be arguing with each other about the "Eastern European vote" and whether or not American welfare policy pays enough attention to the "Slavic minority"? What if, instead of the term "Hispanic" the Census Bureau had created a more inclusive category simply known as "Latin" which would include Americans of Italian and Portuguese descent? Would Italians today still be seen as some kind of distinct minority instead of as ordinary "whites"? Would we demand that the Scalia seat remain the "Italian seat" on the court so as to cater to this persecuted minority? 

Now the Obama administration is suggesting we do exactly this sort of thing with people of Middle Eastern descent. Not satisfied with being "white" or "Asian" it is claimed that some Middle Eastern-Americans need a category of their own. 

So, in 20 years we'll be debating the "Middle-Eastern vote" and wondering if there are enough "Middle-Eastern" members of the US Congress. We'll then realize that Lebanese-Americans like Ralph Nader and Donna Shalala — people who you wrongly and insensitively thought were white — were never white at all, and we'll ask ourselves what the federal government is doing to help pull people like Syrian-American Steve Jobs out of poverty.

Like the Hispanic category, though, a new Middle-Eastern category would take people from a highly diverse set of backgrounds and cram them into a government-defined group. Are Lebanese Christians and Iraqi Kurdish Muslims now to be all considered more or less homogeneous? 

And what is the justification for the change? Are Middle-Easterners subject to discrimination? If so, is the discrimination based on religion or ethnicity or country of origin? Experience might suggest that — to the extent it exists — Christian Middle-Easterners experience a rather different type of discrimination from Muslim Middle Easterners. And, of course, "Muslim" is not at all the same thing as "Middle Eastern" or "Arab." "Muslim" doesn't denote "Arab" any more than the term "Catholic" denotes "Mexican." Nevertheless, is the Obama administration attempting to address a perceived issue of anti-Muslim bias? If so, why create a new ethnic or racial category that's only indirectly related to the religious issue? 

It's all very complicated, but fortunately we have the federal government and its court system to identify and place everyone into neat little categories that will dictate legal decisions and legislation for decades to come. 

Ryan McMaken is the editor of Mises Wire and The Austrian. Contact: email, twitter.


Contact Ryan McMaken

Ryan McMaken (@ryanmcmaken) is a senior editor at the Mises Institute. Send him your article submissions for the Mises Wire and The Austrian, but read article guidelines first. Ryan has degrees in economics and political science from the University of Colorado and was a housing economist for the State of Colorado. He is the author of Commie Cowboys: The Bourgeoisie and the Nation-State in the Western Genre.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
Image source:
Syrian-American Justin Amash / Gage Skidmore www.flickr.com/photos/gageskidmore/
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