Are There Really Just Five Racial Groups?

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May 17 2012 7:19 PM

Are There Really Just Five Racial Groups?

How the government developed its racial-classification system.

Asian child.
For the first time in America, Asians and other minority babies now outnumber white babies

Tong Ro/Image Stock.

For the first time in history, more than half of American children under the age of 1 are members of a minority group, according to figures released Wednesday by the Census Bureau. Everyone is familiar with the federal government’s classification of race and ethnicity—white, black or African-American, Hispanic, Asian, American Indian or Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander. Why did we settle on these particular groupings?

Because they track discrimination. Officials from the Office of Management and Budget, which is responsible for maintaining the nation’s racial-classification system, have always admitted that the categories have no scientific or anthropological basis. They were designed in the 1970s to help track compliance with civil rights laws, and are meant to identify groups that are vulnerable to discrimination. There are other considerations, as well. The geographic nature of the categories—aside from Hispanic, which has always been the most nebulous because of its linguistic basis—are supposed to make it reasonably easy for Americans to identify their own backgrounds. Individual federal agencies may choose to split up the OMB categories for more detailed data. The Census Bureau, for example, breaks “Asian” into several subgroups, such as Asian Indian, Chinese, and Filipino.

Our modern racial-classification system is far from the first in U.S. history. The federal government asked about race indirectly (are you a slave or a free man?) in the inaugural census from 1790—although more for the purposes of the “Three-Fifths Compromise" than to prevent discrimination. In addition, early American law limited citizenship to whites, so the census had to distinguish between whites and everyone else. (African-Americans became eligible for citizenship in 1868, Native Americans in 1924, and Asian-Americans in 1954.) As people of different backgrounds intermarried and interbred, the government's attempts to delineate people by race became increasingly tortured. For example, the 1890 census categories were white, black, mulatto, quadroon, octoroon, Chinese, Japanese, and Indian. (Census takers carried detailed instructions on how to explain the groupings.) Race categories continued to vary for most of the 20th century. The 1920 census listed the races as “White, Black, Mulatto, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Hindu, Korean, and Other.” The 1960 census used different terminology, listing “White, Negro, American Indian, Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, and Other.”

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When the OMB set up its first governmentwide racial-classification system in 1977, just four major races (American Indian or Alaskan Native, Asian or Pacific Islander, black, and white) and two ethnicities (Hispanic and non-Hispanic) were included. Anthropologists criticized the new plan for its arbitrary distinction between race and ethnicity, and advocated lumping Hispanic in with the rest. Some activists urged OMB to change Hispanic to Latino. Many argued over the proper placement of people of Hawaiian, Alaskan, and Asian Indian origin. And lots of racial and ethnic groups clamored to have their own separate category, including Arabs, German Americans, and Cape Verdeans. (In earlier times, minority groups had fought against separate racial classification on the census.) Despite these complaints, the categories have changed very little in 35 years. The only major adjustment came in 1997, when OMB permitted respondents to choose more than one race, changed “Black” to “Black or African American,” and moved Pacific Islanders from the Asian category to a new one that also included native Hawaiians.

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Explainer thanks Margo Anderson of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, author of Who Counts: The Politics of Census-Taking in Contemporary America.

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