The Messy Race Categories of the U.S. Census

Until 2000, the decennial survey classified South Asians differently almost every decade.

Zoha Qamar

August 31, 2020

The Messy Race Categories of the U.S. Census
2020 Census Town Hall, Milpitas, California (February 22, 2020)

This spring, my mother unearthed her birth certificate from the cardboard fortress sprawling our garage. My eyes dilated in shock upon skimming the file, administered by the University of California-Los Angeles Hospital in 1969, which labeled both her Indian-born parents “Caucasian.” “Hell no, I did not identify as white,” Mom promptly clarified. A pause. “But I tried to fit in,” she added, detailing the categorical ambiguity she navigated alongside her parents, who emigrated from Pakistan to the United States in 1968. A few weeks later, my roommate asked how I identified on the 2020 Census form. “I’m ‘Other’ Asian, lol,” I replied, maneuvering the federal version of “Where are you *from* from?” and wondering how exactly my family had pivoted races in just my mother’s lifetime. 

The 24th U.S. Census — the decennial exercise to count everyone in the United States that dictates electoral college votes, congressional seat allotments, federal budget distribution, neighborhood business opportunities, and emergency response searches — is a 2020 rarity. It’s one of the few expected parts of what has turned out to be an unexpected year. Yet this year has divulged more about race, intrinsically stitched within the national fabric, than a brief survey ever could: from protests challenging persistent anti-Blackness to a pandemic accentuating healthcare failings. Tracing how South Asians have both upheld and endured these structures poses the seemingly basic question of where the diaspora falls within America’s racial composition — but there has been no easy answer, for decades, on how to classify us. Since the first substantial arrival of South Asians in the early 1900s, almost every U.S. Census until 2000 has categorized the demographic differently. Learning why demands a closer look at America’s foundational racial binary.

The official terminology has featured Hindoo (two o’s, regardless of religion), Asian, Caucasian/white, and Other. Until 1980, the Census listed a few Asian nationalities as distinct race boxes; that year included Chinese, Filipino, Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese, and Asian Indian (not to be confused with American Indian or indigenous and Native Americans). Asians beyond these six backgrounds were aggregated broadly under “Other.” The advent of the “Asian” umbrella category in 1990 designated these six as new subcategories and introduced a slightly less general “Asian Other” box; as of 2020, Indian Americans indicate Asian Indian, while those with other South Asian roots — including Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutanese, etc. — are recommended to check “Asian Other.” Multiracial Americans can tick multiple boxes, although only since 2000, 33 years since the Supreme Court illegalized bans on interracial marriage in the landmark Loving v. Virginia. Race categories, as well as subgroups, have remained stagnant over the last two Censuses.