Racial and ethnic categories in the United States


Although the United States did not explicitly incorporate racial concepts into immigration policy until the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882), the practice of slavery in the South until 1865 implicitly recognized racial distinctions. Also, from colonial times, there were perceptions of desirable and undesirable immigrants. In the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act, the foundation of U.S. immigration policy until 1965, the government established permanent quotas based on 2 percent of the foreign-born population in 1890, reflecting the “racial” composition of the country prior to massive immigration from southern and eastern Europe. During the latter half of the 20th century, an understanding of genetics and the dramatic increase of mobility and hybridization led most scholars to accept the inadequacy of traditional racial classifications in explaining human biodiversity. By the start of the 21st century, ethnicity, rather than race, was seen as a more valuable tool for analysis and explanation, as it incorporated language, religion, geography, and custom in establishing group identities.

In addressing the needs of its citizens, however, the U.S. government could not altogether dispense with historical racial classifications. The close association of slavery and race and the lingering effects of racism encouraged in African Americans a strong sense of racial identity according to the older conception. On the other hand, the fastest-growing minority category of Hispanics was culturally, rather than racially, based (see hispanic and related terms). Quantification was especially important in 2000, as the census directly affected legislative redistricting and fair political representation. The 2000 census therefore asked two overlapping questions regarding race and Hispanic origin. Respondents were given a wide range of terms with which to identify themselves, including both traditional racial concepts (for example, “white”; “Black, African Am., or Negro”; “American Indian or Alaska Native”) and specific ethnic groups (for example, “Asian Indian” or “Native Hawaiian”). In addition, respondents could identify themselves as “some other race,” writing in their own self-designation. In 2000, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) established the following definitions regarding racial and ethnic categorization for use in the census:

“White” refers to people having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa. It includes people who indicated their race or races as “White” or wrote in entries such as Irish, German, Italian, Lebanese, Near Easterner, Arab, or Polish.

“Black or African American” refers to people having origins in any of the black racial groups of Africa. It includes people who indicated their race or races as “Black, African Am., or Negro” or wrote in entries such as African American, Afro American, Nigerian, or Haitian.

“American Indian or Alaska Native” refers to people having origins in any of the original peoples of North, Central, and South America and who maintain tribal affiliation or community attachment. It includes people who indicated their race or races by marking this category or writing in their principal or enrolled tribe, such as Rosebud Sioux, Chippewa, or Navajo.

“Asian” refers to people having origins in any of the original peoples of the Far East, Southeast Asia, or the Indian subcontinent. It includes people who indicated their race or races as “Asian Indian,” “Chinese,” “Filipino,” “Korean,” “Japanese,” “Vietnamese,” or “Other Asian,” or wrote in entries such as Burmese, Hmong, Pakistani, or Thai.

“Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander” refers to people having origins in any of the original peoples of Hawaii, Guam, Samoa, or other Pacific Islands. It includes people who indicated their race or races as “Native Hawaiian,” “Guamanian or Chamorro,” “Samoan,” or “Other Pacific Islander” or wrote in entries such as Tahitian, Mariana Islander, or Chuukese.

“Some other race” was included in U.S. Census 2000 for respondents who were unable to identify with the five OMB race categories. Respondents who provided write-in entries such as Moroccan, South African, Belizean, or a Hispanic origin (for example, Mexican, Puerto Rican, or Cuban) are included in the Some Other Race category.

For statistical purposes, the government understood that “Spanish/Hispanic/Latino” could refer to people of any race. The OMB defined “Hispanic or Latino” as “a person of Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, South or Central American, or other Spanish culture or origin regardless of race.” See also United States — Immigration survey and policy review.

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