New plans to categorize Americans leave out one important group

The Biden administration has proposed new ways to classify people for the 2030 census, with more racial groups than ever.

The Biden administration has proposed new ways to classify people for the 2030 census, with more racial groups than ever. But this podcast guest tells Federal Drive with Tom Temin that the changes could still end up misrepresenting Native Americans. Robert Maxim is a senior research associate at Brookings.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin And frame for us what they’re trying to do generally here, because I guess there’s utility. It seems like all Americans will be a different colored bead in a very giant egg crate. Is that what they’re driving at?

Robert Maxim Well, there absolutely is utility and the changes that they’re making to the upcoming census, and it’s really two major ones that are being explored. The first is adding a new category for Middle Eastern and North African people. That’s obviously a really important distinction. Currently, those individuals are classified as white. And I think that there’s a lot of folks of Middle Eastern and North African descent that would not identify as white in the way that most Americans think about it. And then the second is they’re updating the question about race or ethnicity. They’re combining the two. So currently, there’s a little bit of a confusing distinction where some categories are race, and then Hispanic or Latino is an ethnicity. And I think most folks don’t really think about the difference between those on a day-to-day basis. And so they’re combining the two in hopes of making data collection more streamlined.

Tom Temin Got it. And so how does that apply to the people that we would call Native Americans, which is actually more than one group in itself, correct?

Robert Maxim Absolutely. So I’ll say a couple of things. The first is that the way that the federal government currently collects and aggregates racial data means that American Indians and Alaska Natives, who we in our piece collectively refer to as Native Americans, are underreported in government data sets and non-government research. And the reason that is, is because, well, about 87% of White Americans, 88% of Black Americans and 83% of Asian-Americans are classified as one race alone. Just 39% of Native Americans are. And so that makes a huge difference when you think about the way that data is presented. When you see all these columns that say, White, Black, Asian, American Indian, and then there’s a two or more racist bucket. Well, almost six out of ten Native Americans are kicked into that two or more racist bucket. And that really affects how data is presented about Native American people.

Tom Temin Well, that is an interesting phenomenon just from a math standpoint. Because if they are no longer any of those other races and now are Alaska Native or Lower North American native, what we used to call Indians, which was kind of the wrong word, because Christopher Columbus thought he was an India.

Robert Maxim That’s right.

Tom Temin He didn’t know about North America.

Robert Maxim He was a little off.

Tom Temin He was, well, they were still discovering the rest of the globe at that point. Then those people would be withdrawn from where they have been traditionally counted. So all the numbers would change then, right?

Robert Maxim Yeah. And the individuals that are included in data around American Indian, Alaska Native, they are. They are indigenous people and they’re counted in the right place. The challenge is, most people who are American Indian are now kind of kicked into another bucket. And the reason that is, it’s kind of a function of exactly what you were talking about, this 400 years of colonization that has affected the identity of people that are called Native Americans today. And you were exactly right at the start of the show to say, it’s not just one group of people. There are 574 federally recognized tribes. There are hundreds of other state and unrecognized tribes in the U.S. today. And so it’s a really diverse group. And that’s where it gets a little complicated, because of the diversity of Native people ,and because of this really intermarriage that has happened over the course of 400 years. Native identity is a lot more complex than just a single racial category.

Tom Temin We’re speaking with Robert Maxim. He’s senior research associate at Brookings. You could also make the argument, perhaps, that nobody should be counted as anything, but is either a citizen or non-citizen of the United States. Because, like you say, there’s 574 tribes, and before the people from Europe and so on arrived in what is now North America, those tribes weren’t exactly a solidarity group either.

Robert Maxim Well, here’s what I’ll say to point around on kind of the modern measurement of people by race. I think, at this point it’s pretty widely known that race itself is kind of a construct. It’s not really rooted in any sort of biology. But what does happen is there are important social differences across different racial groups. So you see outcomes that are a function of race. And so it’s obviously important, I think, to continue measuring outcomes by race and seeing how different groups in America are faring. What’s important, though, is making sure when we’re actually having these conversations, that the classifications that we’re using are accurate for the groups we’re talking about. And when it comes to native people, it’s quite complex, because of that exact background that you’re talking about.

Tom Temin And sometimes when other people assign a name or an identity to a group, that group doesn’t necessarily accept it. I’m thinking of the so-called Latinx term, is not real popular among people that are of Spanish descent.

Robert Maxim And especially for native people. When we talk about our identity, we identify with our tribe or nation, first and foremost. In the same way that someone from Asia would identify as Chinese or Korean or Indian, rather than Asian on a day to day basis. But because we’re in, what is now one country, the United States, we’re kind of all lumped in as one racial group. I’ll just say one more thing. The other distinction here with Native people, is there’s a long history of treaties between Native people and the U.S. government. And that makes Native Americans a bit unique. We are the only racial group that’s also a political classification. And so that has all sorts of interesting implications.

Tom Temin Yeah, that’s an interesting insight. And if you add all of this up and these changes go through, then what would the Census Bureau have to do differently, other than calculate, put it on the forms and do different numerical calculations? How would that affect the output of the Census Bureau in terms of their decennial product?

Robert Maxim What I’ll say, is the Census Bureau in many ways is just kind of following directions against. The agency that this really matters for is one called the Office of Management and Budget, and it’s in the White House.

Tom Temin We know them well.

Robert Maxim Yeah, you know OMB quite well. And so they set the rules for every federal agency around how racial data can be collected, aggregated and published. And so there are a couple of different things that they can do. They don’t even need to wait till 2030, in my opinion. They could start right now with publishing more inclusive data around American Indians and Alaska Natives. People that aren’t just American Indian, Alaska, native alone, but in combination with another race and make that really standard. When it comes to 2030, the U.S. doesn’t need to necessarily reinvent the wheel. Many other countries think about Canada, think about Australia, ask about indigenous identity in a separate question in the way they handle race or ancestry. And that really decouples this idea, again of native people as a political group, versus just one of many races. And so that’s something that the U.S. government could explore as well.

Tom Temin And just out of curiosity, what is your background that brings you to an interest in this particular area of study? Because it’s something I frankly have not looked at that closely in 9,000 interviews.

Robert Maxim In some ways I’m writing kind of from a personal experience, as well as a professional experience. So I’m a Brookings researcher, but I’m also a mixed race Mashpee Wampanoag person. So my father is Wampanoag. We are the indigenous people of Southeast Massachusetts. Most Americans would think of us as we are indigenous people who first made contact with the Mayflower. So people learn about us every year in school. And then my mom is White. And so for me, my entire life growing up, I found myself never really included in that Native American or American Indian category. I was kind of kicked into this two or more races bucket. And I said, Well, you know what? I am equally a citizen of my tribe as any other person, and it turns out a significant portion, maybe half or more of Native people have had that same lived experience. And so, the way that we approach this, I think, really needs to align better with the lived experience of many native people.

Tom Temin And again, just out of curiosity, does the tribe with which you identify, does it still have corporeal existence in that part of Massachusetts?

Robert Maxim Oh, yeah. We have a reservation in southeast Massachusetts. We have a strong presence throughout the region. Every other street side in southeast Massachusetts is the Wampanoag word. So we absolutely have, both a cultural and governmental and legal presence in the area. And the last thing I’ll say is, I think this goes for a lot of tribes, we have a really diverse citizenship. There are folks in our tribe that you would look at and think are black, are Asian, are Hispanic, are White. And there are some folks that, of course, look like what most people think Native Americans look like. And it’s really not about race. It’s about citizenship and kinship. And I think that there’s more that the federal government can do to reflect that.

Copyright © 2024 Federal News Network. All rights reserved. This website is not intended for users located within the European Economic Area.

Related Stories

    Census Brazilian Identity

    New plans to categorize Americans leave out one important group

    Read more
    Census Brazilian Identity

    New plans to categorize Americans leave out one important group

    Read more
    Census Brazilian Identity

    New plans to categorize Americans leave out one important group

    Read more