2020 Census Will Ask Black People About Their Exact Origins | WYPR

2020 Census Will Ask Black People About Their Exact Origins

Mar 13, 2018
Originally published on March 16, 2018 7:10 pm

For the 2020 census, the U.S. Census Bureau is changing how it will ask black people to designate their race. Under the check box for "Black or African American," the bureau is adding a new space on the census questionnaire for participants to write in their non-Hispanic origins, according to a recent memo from the head of the 2020 census. "African American," "Jamaican" and "Nigerian" are listed as examples of origins on a questionnaire the bureau is testing for 2020.

The change means many black people in the U.S. may have to take a closer look at their family trees to answer what can be a thorny question: Where are you really from? While many black immigrants can cite ties to a specific country, that question is difficult, if not impossible, for many U.S.-born African-Americans to answer.

The bureau has not responded to NPR's questions about why it is making this change to both the "Black" category and the "White" category," which will also include a new write-in area for origins.

But researchers at the bureau have said they have been trying to respond to requests for "more detailed, disaggregated data for our diverse American experiences as German, Mexican, Korean, Jamaican, and myriad other identities." (The bureau was considering an overhaul to all racial categories that would have added check boxes for the largest ethnic groups and a write-in area for smaller groups. But it would require the Trump administration's approval of an Obama-era proposal to change the federal standards on race and ethnicity data, which census experts say the White House's Office of Management and Budget is not likely to move forward.)

"Black from everywhere"

For Niat Amare, the write-in area will allow her to be more specific about her black identity.

"I'm African. I identify as black. But I don't see myself as an African-American," says Amare, who was born in Ethiopia and now lives in New York City. "We can't just be black as African-Americans. We are black from Africa. We are black from the Caribbean. We're black from everywhere."

You can hear some of that diversity among the African diaspora at African Services Committee, where Amare works as a legal advocate for immigrants in New York City.

Soninke, Mandingo, Wolof, Malenke, Pulaar, Amharic, Tigrinya – they're all spoken by staff members at this Harlem-based, nonprofit organization, where French is "the common language in the office," according to Amanda Lugg, the director of advocacy for people living with HIV.

Lugg says more detailed census data about black people's ancestry could improve the public health work at her organization, which offers free health screenings to immigrants.

"This is a great step forward in terms of being able to get more specific information on who's actually living here," says Lugg, who identifies as black British.

"This keeps me up at night"

Mulusew Bekele, the director of program operations at African Services Commitee, says asking for people's origins on the census is likely to run into a major hurdle: Around the country, there's growing distrust in turning over personal information to the government.

"Are people willing to answer that question given the current anti-immigrant sentiment? That I can't tell," says Bekele, who is Ethiopian-American.

It's a concern shared by Christina Greer, a political science professor at Fordham University, who wrote Black Ethnics: Race, Immigration and the Pursuit of the American Dream.

"This keeps me up at night because it's not just about filling out the census," she says.

Greer warns that if fewer black people participate in the upcoming census, there could be an undercount that would have impacts lasting long after 2020, including on redistributing seats in the House of Representatives and drawing up legislative districts.

"Where are you from from?"

Still, Greer says she's planning to write down "Black American" for her origins.

"I consider myself a 'J.B.,' which is 'just black,' " she says. "When people ask you where you're from, and I say, 'Oh, you know, New York, Philly, Chicago, Baltimore,' it's like, 'No, but where are you from from?' "

Many African-Americans who have roots in the U.S. going back centuries to ancestors forced upon these shores as enslaved people cannot answer that question.

"If we're really honest with what hundreds of years of U.S. chattel slavery really meant," Greer says, "many people had to walk miles and across countries before they were shipped off."

Sticking with "American"

The enslavement of hundreds of thousands of African people in the U.S. cut ties to home countries for their descendants, including Chris Owens, a project engineer for an energy consulting firm based in New York City.

Raised in St. Louis, Owens says for most of his life, questions about his race were straightforward.

"Either you're black or you're white, at least where I'm from," he says.

But after moving to Boston and later New York, he says he has been asked whether he is of Haitian or Jamaican descent.

"That's even caused me to try to figure out which island I was from," Owens says.

He has just over two years to keep digging into family history for an answer before the 2020 census forms come out. For now, though, if you ask him about his origins, he says he's sticking with "American."

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

For the 2020 census, the U.S. Census Bureau has changed some of the questions it asks. Among them, how black people are asked to designate their race. This means many people may have to take a closer look at their family trees to define their ethnic origin. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang has more.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: On the upcoming census form, you'll likely see a new space under the checkbox for black or African-American. That's where you're supposed to write in non-Hispanic origins, such as African-American, Jamaican, Nigerian or if you're Niat Amare, Ethiopian.

NIAT AMARE: I'm African. I identify as black. But I don't see myself as an African-American.

LO WANG: So Amare says with this change for the 2020 census, she can be more specific about her black identity.

AMARE: We can't just be black as African-Americans. We are black from Africa, we are black from the Caribbean, we are black from everywhere.

LO WANG: The Census Bureau has said it's been trying to respond to calls for, quote, "more detailed disaggregated data for our diverse American experiences." You can hear some of that diversity at African Services Committee. This is where Niat Amare works as a legal advocate for immigrants in New York City. And there are so many languages of the African diaspora spoken here.

MULUSEW BEKELE: Soninke, Mandingo, Wolof, what else?

LO WANG: Mulusew Bekele, the director of program operations, who is Ethiopian-American, needs help naming them.

BEKELE: Malinke - come, tell me other languages.

AMANDA LUGG: Pulaar, Amharic, French, the common language in the office.

LO WANG: That was Amanda Lugg with the assist. She considers herself black British. And she's the director of advocacy for people living with HIV at African Services Committee, which offers free health screenings to immigrants. Lugg says more detailed census data about black people's ancestry could improve her organization's public health work.

LUGG: This is a great step forward in terms of being able to get more specific information on who's actually living here, yeah.

LO WANG: But Mulusew Bekele says here's the rub about the census asking for people's origins. Around the country, there's growing distrust in turning over personal information to the government.

BEKELE: Are people willing to answer that question given the current anti-immigrant sentiment? That I can't tell.

CHRISTINA GREER: I mean, literally, this keeps me up at night (laughter) because it's not just about filling out the census.

LO WANG: This is Christina Greer, a political science professor at Fordham University.

GREER: I'm the author of "Black Ethnics: Race, Immigration, And The Pursuit Of The American Dream."

LO WANG: Greer warns that if fewer black people participate in the 2020 census, there could be an undercount. And that could have impacts lasting long after 2020 on redistributing seats in Congress and drawing up legislative districts. Still, Greer says she's planning to write down black American for her origins.

GREER: I consider myself a JB, which is just black. So when people ask you where you're from and I say, oh, you know, New York, Philly, Chicago, Baltimore, it's like, no, but where are you from-from?

LO WANG: It's a question, Greer says, that's hard, if not impossible to answer for many African-Americans who have roots in the U.S. going back centuries to ancestors forced upon these shores as enslaved people.

GREER: If we're really honest with what hundreds of years of U.S. chattel slavery really meant, many people had to walk miles and across countries before they were shipped off.

LO WANG: And that cut ties to home countries for their descendants, including Chris Owens, a project engineer for an energy consulting firm based in New York City.

CHRIS OWENS: I'm from St. Louis, Mo. and either you're black or you're white, at least where I'm from.

LO WANG: Owens says for most of his life, questions about his race were straightforward. But after moving to Boston and later New York...

OWENS: I've been asked if I'm Haitian, Jamaican, any Caribbean just based on how I look. That's even caused me to try to figure out which island I was from.

LO WANG: Owens has just over two years to keep digging into family history for an answer before the 2020 census forms come out. For now though, if you ask him about his origins, he says he's sticking with American. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.