New census categories raise philosophical questions about race and ethnicity

Faculty First Person

Five hands with different skin tones on a wooden table

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A recent OMB decision indicates that the government is taking no firm stance in distinguishing race from ethnicity, Kareem Khalifa writes.

Kareem Khalifa | July 10, 2024

Kareem Khalifa is a UCLA professor of philosophy whose research interests include social-scientific conceptions of race and segregation. In 2025, he will be the senior fellow at the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Philosophy of Science.

On March 29, 2024, the Office of Management and Budget announced that it was revising the race and ethnicity categories used in the U.S. census. The most striking aspect of that decision is that the OMB no longer draws a sharp line between race and ethnicity.

Now, the bureaucratic to-ings and fro-ings of a government agency may seem an unlikely springboard for philosophical reflection, which is often fixated on the heavens of abstraction.

But as a philosopher, I believe this question — the deceptively complex notion of how we define the terms “race” and “ethnicity” — extends the age-old philosophical question about the nature of reality. In this case, the emphasis is on social rather than physical reality.  

Historically, the federal government has shown a strong interest in racial classification. Sometimes, that interest has been insidious: The first U.S. census in 1790 was used to implement the Three-Fifths Compromise, in which only three of every five enslaved people were counted toward states’ population statistics for the purposes of representation in Congress. Fortunately, the categories have been used more recently to enact Civil Rights-era policies.

For much of the 21st century, all federal documents that include questions about race and ethnicity used five racial categories — American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Black or African American, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, and white — and one ethnic category — Hispanic or Latino. You’re probably familiar with these categories from filling out various federal government documents, including applications for colleges, loans and jobs; health provider surveys; and child care registration forms. The OMB sets these categories.

But the OMB’s recent announcement indicates that the government is taking no firm stance in distinguishing race from ethnicity. The five racial categories from the previous taxonomy are now considered racial and/or ethnic categories in the new taxonomy.

Similarly, whereas “Hispanic or Latino” was an ethnic category on the previous OMB classification, it now is a racial and/or ethnic category. Ditto for the new “Middle Eastern or North African” category.

Philosophizing about race and ethnicity has an ethically fraught history. Philosophical titans such as John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Immanuel Kant are often applauded for advancing our thinking about the rights that all of us have as humans and as citizens, but they routinely failed to apply those ideas to non-Europeans.

For example, there are compelling reasons to think that Hispanics are still an ethnic group and not a racial group. Note that the OMB characterizes Hispanics or Latinos as individuals of Central or South American or Spanish culture or origin. Compared to the other six categories, this is an outlier on two fronts.

First, it’s the only category explicitly characterized in terms of culture. The OMB characterizes white people as individuals with origins in any of the original peoples of Europe. There is no reference to culture; all that matters is which landmass your ancestors came from. Parallel points apply to the OMB’s other categories. Given the close associations with culture and ethnicity, this suggests that Hispanics constitute an ethnicity.

Second, the Hispanic category refers to individuals with origins in a rather disjointed geographic region: It includes all of Central and South America except for Brazil. It also includes a European country, Spain, that is separated by at least 5,000 miles of ocean from any other Hispanic country. So, only Spanish-speaking countries are Hispanic. (Curiously, a single Spanish-speaking country, Equatorial Guinea, is not classified as Hispanic.)

By contrast, every other OMB category refers to individuals with origins in geographically contiguous but linguistically diverse regions. Given the close associations with language and ethnicity, “Hispanic” appears, once again, to represent an ethnicity.

This only scratches the surface of the exciting philosophical work that can be done with these categories. With rare exception, our use of geographic regions as the basis for defining races admit of several borderline cases. For instance, Asia’s borders with Europe, the Middle East and the Pacific Islands could be drawn in several ways. Which way of drawing these lines does justice to the racial and ethnic categories that animate U.S. social and political dynamics?

The answer to that question — and to many others related to our racial and ethnic classifications — requires precisely the kind of conceptual acuity that has long been the hallmark of good philosophy.