People like to obfuscate that race is incredibly complicated and who can say etc etc … But in my experience, having followed public discourse on race fairly carefully since 1972, whatever the government says typically wins out. If the government gives out money and prizes for identifying as X but not for identifying as Y, then over time more people will identify as X even if, deep down, they feel like they are Z.
This suggests that federal guidelines on racial boundaries are extremely important, but nobody seems interested in the subject other than special interests.
Up into the early 1980s, virtually all Muslims in the United States were official categorized by the government as white or Caucasian. But South Asian immigrant businessmen were irate about missing out on special minority preferences on government contracting and low interest loans that East Asian immigrant businessmen were entitled to. So South Asians were moved from the white category to the Oriental or, now, Asian category.
Similarly, in the 1940s and 1950s, the League of United Latin American Citizens had gotten the Census Bureau to drop counting of Latin Americans as in any way different from whites.
By the 1970 Census, however, the Flight from White had begun. The Nixon Administration had begun giving affirmative action preferences to nonwhites, so Hispanics/Latinos were split out and carefully counted.
The Obama Administration is likely to soon announce that another sizable group has been granted the privilege of Nonwhiteness.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:If the Obama Administration goes through with this, virtually every Muslim in the United States (except for that poor guy from Bosnia who got hammered to death in St. Louis by a NAM mob in revenge for Michael Brown) will be officially nonwhite.
The U.S. Census is poised to add a new ethnic category to its 2020 survey. And it’s a big one. It’s for people of Middle Eastern or North African descent. In the past, if your family roots were in Egypt, say, or Iran, it wasn’t clear which box you checked. As Kat Chow of NPR’s Code Switch team reports, the census is heeding the calls of thousands of Americans who want to check a box that describes them.
KAT CHOW, BYLINE: On past census forms, this is how people with roots in the Middle East or North Africa answered.
WASSIM HASSAN: I consider myself an African Arab Muslim. I’ve always checked off African-American.
YASMEEN RAMAHI: I personally identify as a Palestinian-Jordanian-American. On the last – for former census forms, I actually identified as white or Caucasian.
DORNA MOHAGHEGH: I usually have identified as other and then written either Iranian or Iranian-American.
CHOW: That was Wassim Hassan, Yasmeen Ramahi. And that last voice you heard – that’s Dorna Mohaghegh. She lives in New York City.
MOHAGHEGH: It’s frustrating because it feels like my identity isn’t being reflected – that I have to kind of take an extra step to advocate and say, I’m here. And this is you know where I’m from and how I feel about who I am.
CHOW: For Mohaghegh and millions of other Americans, here were the options she saw on the 2010 census. She could’ve checked off boxes for white, black, Hispanic or a variety of Asian ethnicities like Chinese, Samoan, Guamanian. But there was no box for Iranian-Americans. Not surprisingly, the Census Bureau has gotten complaints about this for decades. Nicholas Jones is director of the division of the Census Bureau that’s looking at this category.
NICHOLAS JONES: Groups such as Middle Eastern, Arab, North African populations are saying, I’m not seeing myself on the 2010 census. And I’m interested in finding ways in which I can self-identify.
CHOW: So right now and for the rest of the month, the bureau is gathering public feedback on whether or not people will actually check these boxes.
One side effect will be to make white identity politics more feasible. In the past, white identity politics has been not very practical due to “whites” being defined as a big tent category left over from the past age of white privilege. But if the Obama Administration pares down whiteness to just Europeaness by moving almost all the Muslims into a privileged MENA racial category, suddenly white identity politics looks much doable.
I don’t think anybody has thought about this.