Census Will Ask White People More About Their Ethnicities

Mar 14, 2020
Originally published on March 17, 2020 11:13 am

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And in other news, the U.S. census is rolling out nationwide this week. Letters with instructions on how to fill out forms have begun arriving. These forms will look a bit different than in past decades for people who have marked the white box for their race. We first reported on this change back in 2018, and we're bringing you an updated story now that the 2020 census is fully underway. Here's NPR's Hansi Lo Wang.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: For more than a half-century, just answering white has been enough to complete the race question on the census. But the 2020 census is going deeper and asking non-Hispanic white people to write in their origins. Here are the instructions from the questionnaire.

CINDY SPECTOR: Print, for example, German, Irish, English, Italian, Lebanese, Egyptian, et cetera. OK, that's interesting.

WANG: That was Cindy Spector of Brooklyn, N.Y. She says she checked off the white box on the last census in 2010. But now that the federal government is essentially asking white people, where are you really from, Spector says she's not sure what to put down.

Where's your family from?

SPECTOR: How far back (laughter)? Milwaukee, Wis.

WANG: And before that?

SPECTOR: Oh, before that? According to my grandparents, we're Russian and Romanian, but I don't know prior - their parents and their grandparents, et cetera, where they're from.

WANG: It's a conundrum that many people marking the census box for black or African American may have to face, too. They'll also be asked to write in their origins. The Census Bureau did not respond to NPR's questions about why these specific changes were made, but the bureau has said previously that it's received requests for, quote, "more detailed disaggregated data for our diverse American experiences."

And asking about origins on a census is not new, but questions about ancestry have been presented separately from the race question, which may seem like a minor technical detail. But for Peter Farnsworth of Brooklyn, this change gets into personal territory.

PETER FARNSWORTH: Don't make me specify what kind of white. If you want to know my race, that's fine. But I don't need to give you details about what kind of white I identify with.

WANG: Farnsworth says he identifies as American, though his family has ties with England, Scotland, Ireland and...

FARNSWORTH: Nobody ever believes me when I say this, but my dad's side of the family has lived in Jamaica for hundreds of years.

WANG: Hundreds of years?

FARNSWORTH: Yeah.

WANG: Elizabeth Grasso, also from Brooklyn, says her ancestors came from Germany and Italy, and being asked to give a more detailed answer about her white identity brings back stories she's heard about her Italian grandparents.

ELIZABETH GRASSO: There was discrimination against them when they were younger that I, you know, I'm very lucky to not experience now. But there was a time when Italians weren't considered white.

WANG: At the New York Irish Center, though, many said they support the 2020 census asking white people about their origins, including Martina Molloy of Queens.

MARTINA MOLLOY: I always consider myself Irish first and American second (laughter), which may not be the right thing to say in this country, but that's how I feel.

WANG: Molloy helped serve slices of pizza to seniors lined up in front of a wall of historical memorabilia, including an old sign that said, help wanted, no Irish need apply. While Molloy is sure about her ancestry, not everyone knows their family history that well. That's why Charles Gallagher, a sociologist at La Salle University in Philadelphia who studies white identity, says any 2020 census numbers about white origins may not be reliable.

CHARLES GALLAGHER: If you have a population that's been in the United States for a very long time and people have been, you know, crossing the ethnic line and dating and marrying, people aren't going to have a real accurate record.

WANG: And Gallagher says if you're thinking about mailing out your DNA for testing, beware. So far, the results are not a reliable guide, Gallagher says, for how to fill out your census form accurately.

Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News, New York.

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