For The First Time, 2020 Census Will Ask Black Americans About Their Exact Origins

Mar 13, 2018
Originally published on March 14, 2018 2:20 am
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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.